Today’s post is the first in a series of posts that will present scans of the historically and critically indispensable publication PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. PamorART began publication in 1997, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. The first issue takes up a theme that has seen heated discussion in recent months as well: the Onufri competition and its role in the Albanian arts scene. (Somehow the title of Edi Muka’s article on the subject, ‘Onufri ’97: Impas apo Shpresë?’ [‘Onufri ’97: Impasse or Hope?’] seems to describe the current state of Onufri as well as it might have described Onufri ’97.
The scans of the PamorART magazines are made possible by the tireless efforts of philologist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, who scanned the issues, and art critic Gëzim Qëndro, who made the issues available to us from his private collection. My deepest thanks go to both of them for making these texts available to us.
Sead Kazanxhiu (b. 1987) is an Albanian Roma artist working in Tirana, Albania. Born in the village of Baltëz, near the city of Fier in central Albania, Kazanxhiu’s work deals with the personal and political aspects of both Albanian and Romani identities. Kazanxhiu works primarily in painting, performance, and installation, and his art explores both his own personal search for cultural identity and the unique sociopolitical situation facing Roma communities in contemporary Albania. He has created installations dealing with Romani struggles for housing stability in Albania, as well as addressing the challenges related to Romani inclusion in political decision-making in the country. Kazanxhiu’s efforts and explorations highlight the diversity of identity in Albania—the artist uses his investigations of his own individual identity as a way to suggest the myriad linguistic, visual, cultural, and historical heritages that characterize modern Albania. I spoke with him in the summer of 2016 about his recent works and his thoughts on the relation between politics and the Albanian art scene in recent years.
Sead Kazanxhiu: This project relates to the idea of the Roma resistance. The idea of the work is to create a discussion, to provoke those people who are working with these projects today, with this ‘resistance,’ if we can call it resistance. We can’t call it resistance because it doesn’t come from the bottom up, but it’s pushed from this middle, from the NGOs. I call them the ‘middle’ because the top is the government and the politicians. That’s why I don’t see a resistance that has the old meaning of the word ‘resistance,’ because today it’s pushed by the NGOs and the politicians.
Raino Isto: It’s still working within the system. You still have to apply for grants, and do projects, and hold activities, and give certificates, and so forth.
S.K.: Even when protests are planned, it doesn’t somehow come directly from the community; it comes from NGOs and donors and so on. Which is not bad, but still, there has to be some way to have continuity. When you resist, when you do something to resist, you have to take it to the end, you can’t stop halfway. That’s why I have a lot of confusion, after doing my research. Sometimes when you read too much, you know, you confuse yourself. That’s what has happened with me now, doing research for this project.
R.I.: When you said before that your were trying to provoke, are you trying to provoke the people in the middle, the NGOs? Or to provoke in general?
S.K.: That’s a good question, because if you say you want to provoke, you have to find a target. But, I think that provocation doesn’t always have to have a single target. For example, I also want to raise the subconscious of the Roma itself, like the grassroots. I mean maybe its difficult to try to do that with this kind of conceptual art, with the symbolic, but we have to try to educate people to understand this kind of communication. So, when I speak about raising the self-confidence or the consciousness of the community, that also means raising the consciousness of those NGOs, because they are part of the community too. So, the society I live in will see what I do, maybe not every day, but they will see, and this is a kind of provoking and challenging, making people see things in a different way, which can also create continuity. Because if I said that the government is my target, I won’t get anywhere…I will just be doing things for them. I will end up in the role of an NGO, trying to get the government’s attention, and then when an NGO gets the government’s attention, it shuts them up with some funds, and that’s it. I don’t know, I’m just trying to understand things first myself, reading and doing research, and then afterwards perhaps spreading them to other people.
R.I.: What do people in the Roma community here in Albania think of your work? Have they had a reaction to it?
S.K.: It is not like there is a constructive reaction. Of course, if they see something, they like it. But the idea is that it has to be beyond liking something, agreeing with something.
If this doesn’t happen with the people who are active for the Roma cause, I’m afraid that it wont happen in the community more broadly either. But, again, I don’t want to repeat myself, but if my work achieves a kind of continuity and a kind of standard—and it doesn’t have to be just me as an artist, there have to also be other artists, musicians, actors, painters, and moviemakers—then this will stimulate peoples’ imagination, seeing different perspectives. And that’s why it’s not only about an individual, because that individual can do his job, but there has to be a kind of ensemble that makes it stronger.
R.I.: So, these are the same paintings I saw when I came before, but before the chairs were empty?
S.K.: Yeah. Sometimes, you, know, when you miss particular things, you have this kind of emptiness. So then you want to put those things in your work. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But in this case I think it was a good idea [to put the clothes in the paintings] because now viewers wonder about what the owners of the clothes are doing, they might be having sex or whatever, but you think about them. So, in the background, you have the house where they live, and then you have the clothes. It’s the contemporary moment of Adam and Eve. They are in front of the apple, in the central work, and it seems as if they have escaped from this life and they are in the Garden of Eden.
R.I.: We have talked before about colors your use of color. I’m curious what you think about color, given that it is such a popular topic in Albanian art today, in part because of Edi Rama’s promotion of his painted buildings. Before, you mentioned that people tend to think of the Roma as a ‘colorful’ people, in terms of their dress, but that that isn’t really true.
S.K.: There is this traditional saying: don’t respond in the same way that they speak to you. But in this case, I am answering in the same way that they are expecting, giving people the colors they are expecting from a Roma artist. But, being a Roma myself, and having years of experience studying textiles—and my diploma was actually on the traditional Roma way of dressing—I found out from interviews with my family and research that this idea of the exotic and colorful Roma dress is a myth. The reality is simply that each Roma mother or grandmother became a kind of ‘fashion designer’ for their children or grandchildren, making clothes and finding whatever materials they could. In fact, when you see old Roma clothes, they are very simple. In fact, they often just dressed the way people did in that society at that time; it wasn’t as if there was a sharp distinction in the manner of dress. Of course there were particular groups of Roma, like the Gabo Roma, or the Ola in Hungary, that had specific ways of dressing. But it wasn’t really to distinguish themselves as Roma. Of course there were particular groups of Roma, like the Gabor Roma, or the Ola in Hungary, that had specific ways of dressing. But it wasn’t really to distinguish themselves as Roma. For example, the Gabor Roma in Romania dress like the northern Albanians, with the big dress, and the shamia, the scarf. And you can see this in Hungary too. But in Roma villages, there isn’t really a specific way of dressing, like some people imagine in this exoticizing way. So that’s why I decided, ok, if you want colors, I’ll give you colors!
But also, there’s something else. Maybe I’m being too philosophical. It’s also this: we are not victims. The Roma are not victims, but we are seen as victims. And we are brainwashed to think of ourselves as victims. So when I paint something from history, I don’t want to emphasize victimhood, I want to give it life.
R.I.: So that it doesn’t just appear mournful.
R.I.: Do you choose the colors just based on what you have, or what paints you can find? Or do you plan out the colors and then look for specific paints to create them?
S.K.: That’s a good question. I can’t say that I plan much. I usually just look at what I have. Sometimes I plan that, for example, I want to work with a particular color, like brown, and I will start with that. But usually it’s just: I find it, I like it, I use it.
R.I.: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your piece 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April]. I know we talked about it before, but I think it is an important piece.
S.K.: The installation 8 for the 8th of April was done in 2013, and it was a project that I did as part of a fellowship that I had that year. The project was to block the entrance of the Albanian Parliament with these big tractor wheels painted with the colors of the Roma flag [red, green, and blue]. There was this funny coincidence, because the tires had ‘Goodyear’ written on them, so it was like the culmination of a ‘good year’. It was a good experience, because the installation gave me the opportunity to understand how things were working with the involvement of Roma in public institutions, because it was the year of the ‘Roma Decade.’ I wanted to do something in relation to this, and it turned out that the best way to do it was with an installation—because the protests here only work if you are a political party. You have to be a political party to have enough people to make a protest matter, but then it still doesn’t work because then the party is protesting, not the people. And that’s why I chose to go and install these eight big tractor wheels at the entrance of the Albanian Parliament. It was a way of symbolically blocking them—not really making their lives difficult, because you could just pass around them without any problem. I wanted to kind of exaggerate the issue, to show them that, okay, we Roma may be relatively small in number, but the issue of Roma involvement isn’t a small one. It can’t be ignored. There was this sign, that the government put up, for the Roma Decade, and they were supposed to actually do something, but they didn’t. I’ll tell you about it: there were all these activities and so forth, since it was the official International Romani Day, which is why I called it 8 for the 8th of April, because of the importance of that day. The installation was supposed to stay there for the whole day, but the police came—just the way they normally do, just to show up and make you feel pressure.
R.I.: How many police came?
S.K.: It was a minibus with four or five police, something like that. One of them, he was kind of the head of the group, and I was trying to complain to him. He was smart, trying to figure out how to negotiate with me. One of the other ones was like, ‘Come on! We left a very important operation just because of this garbage you put here in front of the Parliament! You have to move them.’ I told him, ‘I can’t move them.’ Then I called someone else who was in charge of organizing activities related to the International Romani Day, and they came, but the police still wanted us to move the installation, so I told them: ‘I won’t move them until I get an interview. This is the only way I’ll move them.’ The police said, ‘Okay, but can you just move them to the footpath that runs perpendicular to the entrance to Parliament?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t move them,’ so they said okay. I got an interview, which was good because it opened up the work to a bigger audience. Then, this other policeman, who had been standing there very straight and stern, he helped me move the wheels over to the footpath. So that’s the story of the 8 for the 8th of April installation. But I mean, you can do anything here with art, but the only feedback you’ll get is from a few artists or professors. For example, one of my professors, Vladimir Myrtezaj, he’s a friend of Edi Rama’s, he told me ‘Bravo!’ because it was the first installation done in the entrance of the Albanian Parliament. That was really the only feedback I got, and somehow for me it didn’t feel like I really accomplished something. But it was good because I’ve been able to continue this way of exhibiting. After that, I made another exhibition, with 2,500 small houses installed in front of the Prime Minister’s building (one of the iterations of Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014).
R.I.: Yes, I’ve seen the photographs of this installation.
S.K.: Because I believe we don’t have to just try once and then give up, you have to create a kind of continuity. I mean, at the moment, I’m alone in this—because there’s another Roma artist from Albania who lives in the UK, but he isn’t very involved here in Albania—but I think in the future, there will be other artists who will continue in this way. Maybe not exactly like I do, but in other ways.
R.I.: When you do these installations, do you have friends help you? For example, to move the tires, or to install the small houses?
S.K.: I mean, for 8 for the 8th of April, there were some friends and artists, but mostly I was alone, and I had to call some people to help me. But people came, some friends and some people who were just passing by, sometimes ignoring it, like always happens. But at the protest that I did about housing, the installation in front of the Prime Minister’s building, there were some activists and some members of the community who had problems with housing. But not many people. Because they don’t really believe that as a single person, using art, you can change something.
R.I.: One of the things that I liked about the installation of Shtepizeza was that, in the photographs, it looked visually interesting and compelling. I
think this is one of the possibilities of these kinds of works, because of course as you said, sometimes people don’t come, or they just ignore it in the moment, but also afterwards the event is preserved. I think this is important especially with the houses, because they were so small, but in photographs the smallness of the houses against the massiveness of the Prime Minister’s building makes a strong statement after the fact, in the photos.
S.K.: Yeah. You know what was interesting about the installation about housing: the same policeman came, the guy who came to 8 for the 8th of April, and we became like friends. My idea, originally, was to put them not on the sidewalk but on the stairs of the Prime Ministerial building, but it wasn’t possible. I was trying to resist a little bit, but they said it wasn’t an option, so we decided to put them on the sidewalk instead. We just kind of put them in a pile.
R.I.: That is funny that it was the same police officer.
S.K.: Yeah. And my cousin, who is always organizing protests, now he knows her and when he sees her, he’s like, ‘Oh, you came again!’
R.I.: Do you thinks that’s a good thing, even though it might not completely change his mind, that at an individual level there is this one person who is comes from the side of authority but now he is personally involved because he knows the people who are protesting?
S.K.: Yes, I think this is good, because when people see that you ask for something, and you don’t retreat from that position, they see that you are sure what you are asking for. And I think that that can influence—maybe not too much—but it can influence an individual person. Because they see that these people are taking it seriously, that it’s not just about making a show or whatever. That these people are seriously suffering, and that’s why they are doing it. And then you can build a kind of trust, with the authorities or whoever. Then, if the authorities understand that, they can see that maybe something really has to be done. That’s why I believe in trying to establish continuity.
R.I.: I would also like to talk about your performance A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid . I think you did it once at Tulla Cultural Center in Tirana and once somewhere else. You’ve done it at least twice?
S.K.: The performance was only done once publicly, at Tulla. It tried to record the performance here in my studio, to document it, but the space wasn’t good, so I asked the guys from Miza Gallery if I could film it there. But at Tulla was the first time it was performed for the public. The idea of this ‘Romani phuv’ [‘Romani land’] performance also came from thinking about housing, but also from living in a place where even though you are an Albanian citizen, the other side might not see you as being Albanian. Because people will ask about your story, and it will come out that you aren’t denbabaden Albanian [having a long Albanian heritage]. Even if you are a person whose family has been here for centuries, still they won’t see you as Albanian. And the Romani phuv as an idea came from reading some books by Nicolae Gheorghe, he’s a sociologist from Romania. I was inspired by what he says when he talks about the politics surrounding Roma issues: he says ‘there’s a choice to be made and a price to be paid.’ When you make a choice, of course there’s something you have to agree to. So that’s why I took this as the title of the performance. And I also wanted to provoke discussion about the issue of a territory. I believe, from my own experience as a Roma activist, that Roma never fight for their own land. That concept doesn’t exist for us. Of course, we Roma fight in other countries, like in Albania—our great grandfathers and grandfathers contributed to the fight for Albania, but they weren’t fighting on behalf of the Roma issue or anything. They were fighting because they were in this country and saw themselves as part of this country. So bringing the ‘Romani land’ into the discussion—if you bring this up in the European parliament, there will be a big mess, of course, because there are people who are afraid to speak about this, even if they think about it. For example, if we go further back to 1971, to the first World Romani Congress, people like Faik Abdi, Slobodan Berberski, and many other Roma activists wanted to speak about a Romani land. One of the proposals was Šutka [Šuto Orizari], which is a municipality in Macedonia populated by Roma, the mayor there now is a Roma. Faik Abdi was the first Roma MP in the Macedonian Parliament. This kind of discussion happened back at that time; now, Grattan Puxon and a few others write about this, but it is less discussed. So I wanted to raise this issue to show that we don’t have to be afraid to speak about things—it’s not that I want some kind of ‘Roma territory,’ but I want to provoke people in the Roma community as well to talk about this. The idea of moving around all the time, this is something that people do for economical, or social, or maybe even political reasons. If you read about how Roma first came to Europe, they were pushed from one place to another; for example in the Netherlands, at one time there was a practice that if you could kill a Roma, you would get a free beer. So the movement of the Roma is something driven as much by historical conditions as anything else; it’s not just some exotic practice. But this issue of a ‘Romani land’ is something that many Roma activists are afraid to talk about, but me—I’m not part of an NGO, so I can use my ‘freedom of speech and express my thoughts and ideas about it. I want to raise this issue of what it feels like to have your own land. For example in Baltëz, my village, the Roma have their own land.
There’s another thing I wanted to say about the performance. The kind of mud that I used in the performance, it’s a special kind of mud, it has a story, especially in the Roma communities. Nowadays it’s used for medicinal purposes, but before these shops for that kind of stuff existed, and it was difficult to find this mud. The Roma call it shishik, in Albanian they call it baltë krëri. People used it to wash their hair, and to wash their bodies. But when I did an interview with some old Roma women, they told me that there were some rules about going and taking this kind of mud. You couldn’t live near the mud, because if you lived near it, it would get polluted. So the people lived far away from it, and only the old women knew how to go and get the mud. When the women would go to gather the mud, they would take food with them because it was a long way, but you couldn’t eat immediately before taking the mud, because this would contaminate you. And you had to wash yourself before gathering the mud, in case you had lice or something. This was the paradox that was funny and interesting to me: you also had to wash your hands before taking the mud. So: they would go early in the morning to gather the mud, they wouldn’t eat before gathering it, and they would wash their hands before touching it. Which is funny because now in Albania we have this word baltosje [making muddy or dirty], but in this tradition, mud is actually cleaner than people think! So that’s why, in this performance, I used this shishik, because it’s a very intimate material, and I believe it’s cleaner than what politicians mean when they talk about baltosje. In fact, baltosje can clean you!
R.I.: So, this mud comes from a swamp, or near a river?
S.K.: You can find this kind of mud in the hills, I think, and near rivers, I don’t know exactly how they find it. But it’s not clay like you would use for terracotta or something. It’s different. Also, in older times, women would eat this mud when they were pregnant; this was crazy to me! And they would also use it to put on children, like a cream.
R.I.: When they go to find the clay, it’s soft? I ask because the clay you used in the performance is hard, and you were breaking it up.
S.K.: Yeah, the clay has a kind of gray color, but it’s also hard and you need to soften it with warm water; this is what they did to prepare it.
R.I.: Like you did.
S.K.: Yes, that’s why I did it.
R.I.: Is this practice something that is regionally unique, or is it a practice that exists outside of Albania too?
S.K.: All the Roma who lived in the villages were using this mud. They all knew about it, if you go to Roskovec, if you go to Levan, or to Baltëz—my village—or to Morava in Berat and Grabian in Lushnja…I really regret it because my father’s uncle’s wife was the expert on this mud, and I wanted to do an interview with her. It would have made her very happy—because my father also told me, when the women would put shishik in their hair, it made the hair very beautiful because the clay made it healthy. I wanted to do an interview with her because she was very old, and had cooked her whole life using fire, because the family was very poor, and I wanted to go with her when she went to collect the shishik. Because I thought it would remind her of that time. But when I went to the village, my family told me that she had died, and I thought ‘what a loss!’ However, there are still other women who know how to gather this mud. It’s also interesting because the name of our village is ‘Baltëz.’ I don’t know how it got that name.
R.I.: How old is it as a village?
S.K.: I don’t know exactly how old it is. Baltëz was like forestland before, but somehow they made it flat. The Roma, the Vlah, the xoraxaja or horahaja (muslim Albanians) and Dasa (the christian Albanians) were the first to live there. Later, people of Bosnian origin and Kosovars came too. In Baltëz, the Roma were in a place called Matkëz, it’s known for this manë [mulberry] tree, with those small fruit; it’s the tree of the Roma.
R.I.: As an artist, do you feel like you have something like a duty towards a community, either broadly or narrowly construed, or do you just feel like it’s something you’ve chosen, but you don’t feel compelled by a community?
S.K.: Of course, I feel a kind of duty because I am a part of this community. This is my artist’s statement: I am an Albanian Romani artist, and I have to dig through my identity and contribute to where I belong, through promoting my culture, through raising my voice about things that are happening in my own way, in a visual way. For example, I’m not a musician, so I can’t speak as a musician, but for example African American musicians made a great contribution to the culture in America. I cannot trust someone—a painter, a moviemaker, or an artist—who doesn’t also live what he does. So I stand by what I believe in. It doesn’t matter, even if people don’t think I’m an artist it doesn’t matter to me. I can call myself just a worker or a politician, because I believe that art is also politics. I think that we can use art to influence politics. I’m not talking about the art that is used by politicians.
R.I.: Since we’ve come to this issue of art and politics, what do you think about the relationship of art and politics in Albania today? Because some people say that there is a big problem now because art is being used so much to promote politics, that it’s more difficult to be an artist working in relation to politics. Because any art that you do might come to be related to or used by politicians for their own purposes. So I’m curious what you think about this.
S.K.: I don’t know if you saw this, but at CEU [Central European University] recently there was this discussion about politics and art, called something like ‘Why Politicians Hate Artists.’ They were saying that it’s not that politicians hate art, it’s that they only promote that kind of art that they think is part of ‘their vision’. So automatically, the other artists won’t be included. Here in Albania, it’s like that: politicians don’t hate artists; they promote that kind of art that promotes their view. Of course, the government can pretend to give you a stage to speak about whatever you want, but still you won’t actually have that possibility, because you will face a compromise. As we spoke about before, if I were to do a show at the COD [Center for Openness and Dialogue], the only condition for me would be that I wouldn’t tell them beforehand what I would exhibit. I would just say, ‘I agree to make an exhibition here.’ But this couldn’t happen, because there is a curator there, and this necessarily introduces the influence of politics in the space. So, that means that as an artist, you have to make a compromise, because you will have to choose which works to exhibit there with the curator. They control this through talking about the necessity of ‘respecting the quality of the space’ and so forth, but it’s also a way of letting them prevent you from exhibiting anything they don’t want you to exhibit. And politicians hide behind this notion that ‘there has to be quality art, and we must respect standards.’ This creates this idea that there is competition for quality, but that’s not really true. Here in Albania, in the art scene, there isn’t really competition; there are friendships and connections between people, but not competition. I mean, this viewpoint is questionable, but I don’t believe there is competition. They create the idea that there is, saying, ‘oh yes, you must apply for this and that, and it will be reviewed carefully,’ but it doesn’t really come down to a competition.
R.I.: Now that we are talking about exhibiting works, I wonder if you think that in Albania there is something more effective about works that occupy public space, like the small houses or the tires in front of the Parliament. Do you think that there’s something more effective about artworks in public space than artworks shown in a kind of ‘white-box’ gallery?
S. K.: I’m for both sides. But, in the case of Albania—and I came back to Albania because I wanted to contribute something here, because I’m still young, because I still believe that things can be changed—if we talk about wanting to change the Albania art scene, we have to go outside the gallery. When we do things in a gallery, there is only a small circle of people who come. I don’t want to just do exhibitions like that; we have to go to the public, and the public is on the street, or in institutional buildings, outside them. Until now, we artists have kind of created a space between the public and artworks, putting them in a gallery. But, the gallery can only stay in one place; it can only be this one thing in one place, and many people won’t come to galleries. If you do works in public space, you can catch both the government and the public, speak to both of these audiences. It’s also a way of protesting. I think you can’t just make art for the people who are educated, who read a lot. You also have to make it for the majority. In Albania, it’s the right moment to use more public art. In many countries, it has become a normal thing, but here not so much. Many Albanian artists still like this idea of the gallery. Why? Because it seems difficult to exhibit in galleries here, because there are so few, so artists want to push to do this. When something is difficult, you want to challenge yourself to do it. But you forget that you could challenge yourself just as much exhibiting in an outside space. Even paintings—there are ways to exhibit paintings in public space. I mean, I’m not a street artist; it’s not just about street art. It’s about showing your thoughts not only to a small group, but to a larger group as well. Even if they just pass by, and ignore it, at least you are trying.
We have this kind of thinking that galleries are good, that they are good for the culture of the city, but I think that art needs more than galleries. When I have exhibited in galleries, people came who knew about art and the exhibitions. No one came who didn’t already know about these things. But when I exhibited in public spaces, like the Parliament entrance or the street in front of the Prime Ministerial building, there were also people who were totally ignorant about art that came up, and asked questions, and touched the sculptures. These weren’t the people that you think ‘oh, I want this person to come to my exhibition’—because if you exhibit in a gallery, that’s how you think, like ‘ah, the ambassador or whoever came to my exhibition!’ And I’m not interested in that kind of thinking anymore.
R.I.: Have you ever done anything with public spaces besides those in Tirana?
S.K.: Yes, before I went to Budapest, I was in Fier and I did this project with recycling, and installation about recycling. I did it in three different cities: in Korça, in Fier, and in Durrës. I got together with two other artists who finished the academy with me, and we gathered people from the communities and using recycled materials we made installations. In Korça it was good because it coincided with the Korça Beer Festival, so lots of people saw it. In Fier we did the same thing; we did this workshop with young kids and then did these installations. The theme was about the Roma community contributing to the environment in Albania. It was this way of showing that we contribute something to the culture and the environment in this country. In Durrës when we did it, we exhibited them in this open are where the partisan monument is. It was very interesting because we were just trying to give the community a way to think about their space, and they made this installation using newspapers, they made a table and a chair from the papers. It was a kind of symbolic recycling, like the way the news comes in from places, and gets processed by people, and then produces something new. It was the same with the newspapers: they got processed into something new.
 This interview was conducted in the artist’s studio in Tirana, on 20 June 2016. The interview was conducted in English; the present transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
 The COD is a multipurpose center opened last year in the first floor of Albania’s prime ministerial building. It includes an exhibition space, as well as a library and a space for video projection. See the Center’s website, http://cod.al (accessed 25 July 2016). The space has generated controversy in discussions of contemporary Albanian culture. The government claims that it represents a space for artistic ‘dialogue,’ including critique of the current political leaders in the country (such as Prime Minister Edi Rama, himself an artist). However, others note that the space is essentially used as ‘artwashing’ by politicians, and does not actually present a space for substantive critique.
Today’s post is yet another scan of a classic of socialist Albanian aesthetic theory, Alfred Uçi’s Estetika Jeta Arti [Aesthetics, Life, Art] , published in 1970. The book presents an admirable overview of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist aesthetic theory. As an introductory statement in the volume states, the book was published in response to the simultaneous intensification in Albania’s ‘class war’ coupled with the development of socialist art in the country, producing a lamentable situation in which artists, critics, and others lacked a solid theoretical foundation from which to assess the new art in its contemporary context. Uçi’s text aims to correct this, giving a historical introduction to the genealogy and categories of aesthetics, including the sublime and the beautiful, the tragic and the comic. Uçi also deals with issues such as art’s connection to reality and the relation between form and content. Obviously, these issues were familiar to artists active in Albania at the time (thanks to their education, frequently completed in foreign academies elsewhere in the Soviet Bloc), but Uçi’s book represents the initial effort to summarize them in the Albanian language, under one cover.
Although Uçi essentially never says anything specific about Albanian art, the theoretical framework is historically useful (and historically useful when one considers the fact that it comes after the intense cultural production of the late 1960s in Albania—essentially, Uçi’s text serves as a kind of belated attempt to grasp what was happening in socialist Albania during one of its most prolific periods. In this sense it is both woefully disappointing (in its generality) and fascinating (one again, because f its willful generality, which has little to say about what was actually going on in Albania’s relatively unique case… The final chapter is particularly interesting: it focuses on various ‘revisionist’ theories, from those of Lefebvre in France to Lukács in Hungary to Vidmar in Yugoslavia, laying the groundwork for parts of Uçi’s subsequent Labirintet e Modernizmit: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste [Critique of Modernist Aesthetics].
Today’s post is a brief interlude between the two rambling sections of my extended consideration of realism and contemporaneity in Albanian art. This post is also a ‘double feature’; it includes partial scans of the very first issue of journal Nëndori [later Nëntori], the monthly publication of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists, and of the 30th anniversary issue of the journal.
At the time Nëndori first began publication, it replaced Letërsia Jonë [Our Literature], the monthly journal-length publication primarily produced by the Albanian Union of Writers (although it occasionally featured content related to the visual arts). At the time, the Unions of Writers and Artists were separate entities, and Nëndori, like Letërsia Jonë, primarily focused on literature, poetry, and translation. By the 1960s, however (at which point the Unions had joined into one), the journal began to feature illustrations more regularly and to deal with issues related to the visual arts more frequently. From the beginning, however, Nëndori dealt with the broad spectrum of Albanian cultural production, including theater, music, and film, as well as literature and the visual arts.
As the introductory section of the journal makes clear, the year 1954 (as the tenth anniversary of liberation from fascism and as the fourth year of Albania’s first ‘5-year plan’ period) represented a particularly important year in the young socialist nation’s progress towards joining the transnational network of socialist modernity.
Thirty years later, in the January, 1984, volume of Nëntori, several of socialist Albania’s noted cultural figures (including Dritëro Agolli, Kujtim Buza, and Aleks Buda) published short reflections on the journal’s importance for the development of the discourse on Albanian arts and letters. The volume also contains the announcement for the 3rd Congress of the Union of Writers and Artists, as well as the notes from the Directory Council’s plenary session laying out points for discussion at the upcoming Congress.
I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To know in order to be able to create, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art—this is my goal.—Gustave Courbet, preface to the pamphlet Exhibition and sale of forty paintings and four drawings by Gustave Courbet, Paris, 1855
The following post is the first of two posts that address the question of ‘realism’ and ‘contemporaneity’ in contemporary Albanian art. These posts—perhaps more than what I usually write—are explicitly presented from the point of view of an outsider, because that is essentially what I am. I am neither an Albanian artist, nor an Albanian critic, nor an Albanian curator. I am a historian of modern and contemporary art in Eastern Europe, and I have focused a great deal on Albania, though primarily on its socialist period. The goal of these posts is not to offer some kind of objective critique, but to offer a few suggestions and provocations. Some of them, no doubt, would and will be roundly rejected by those who are critics, and artists, and curators, of Albanian art—and that is perfectly fine. I heartily welcome disagreement, or agreement if that is the case. The goal is simply to present a point of view. I hope to make it clear as I proceed the ways in which the point of view is narrow. However, I also hope that—at least in a few cases— these observations might present fruitful considerations for those who practice as artists, critics, historians, and/or curators in Albania and of Albania.
The posts are framed in terms of ‘realism’ and ‘contemporaneity’ for two reasons. The first is that, as a scholar of socialist realism, the question of ‘realist’ modernism(s) (or modernist realism(s)) is inescapable for me. It might also be a question that is of interest to artists and others working in Albania. The second is that my thinking about the issue of realism in contemporary art was further deepened by a recent post by Ardian Vehbiu on the blog Peizazhe të fjalës. The postdealt with the question of ‘contemporary art (arti bashkëkohor) and how it might remain relevant or regain relevance in the context of Albania today. A subsequent post by sound artist and electronic musician Ilir Lluka responded to the same issues. In both cases, it struck me that part of what seems to be at issue is the precise definition of ‘contemporary’ art—and while I by no means mean to answer this question, I’d like to raise at least a few propositions about what it might be. A further framing term is that of ‘kitsch’, which is raised in the first of the two posts and which seems to me to be crucial for nearly all debates on modern realisms and many debates on contemporary art. Finally, needless to say, I welcome responses—in English ose në shqip—and if any readers have lengthy responses in either language, I’m also happy to post them as individual guest posts.
Beauty, Kitsch, Realism
I was recently back in Tirana for a short time—a few weeks at New Year’s. Several mornings I had coffee at the same café, near the house I was staying in. The café’s interior was decorated with several pieces of digital art, printed in large format on unframed canvases hung as centerpieces on some of the café’s white walls. Calling these works ‘digital art’ is perhaps deceptive: these images were of the pseudo-Photoshopped variety so often found gracing the covers of cheap fantasy and romance novels published in the past decade: one showed a woman in a luxurious black dress weeping in a dark and misty forest, clutching a rose as her black makeup ran down her cheek, pining for a lost lover. Another featured a sorceress with an exotic headdress breathing life and fire into an orb of twisting metal tendrils held in the palm of her hand. Another—my particular favorite—showed a woman striding boldly and sexily along a dirt road towards the viewer while holding a tiger on a long silver chain at her side. A massive yellow sun set behind her and the landscape around the figures glowed in the vague, softly out-of-focus way that only digital manipulation can satisfactorily produce.
The pictures struck me for a number of reasons. First of all, they presented precisely the kind of apparently neutral visual content that attempts to reach as wide an audience as possible, and yet does not appear to say very much. Their colors were bold; their lighting was dramatic. The women were sexy. The images projected mystery, tragedy, sorrow, the slightest taste of danger, pleasure. Perhaps most significantly, the images simultaneously occupied two distinct space. One the one hand, they seemed quite typical of recent Albanian urban visual culture (I have seen many similar images in cafes around Albania); they seemed very much to reflect a set of ideas about desire and image that, in my own experience, seem to be prevalent in Albania. On the other hand, the images were completely disconnected from the Albanian context—they were the kind of pictures one can and does see anywhere (I see them whenever I open Facebook, whenever I watch a movie in America, whenever I go to the mall). Absolutely nothing about them suggested that they were created in Albania, and even if they were, they would have instantly transcended the specificity of that space. This was the beauty and the power of their undeniable kitschiness—the way they both seemed to reflect a very specific aspect of current visual culture and values in a particular place, and at the same time seemed so completely unmoored from that place, so general, so correspondingly vacuous.
I was glad that I saw these images early on in my short stay in Tirana, because they reminded me of a few things that I tend to forget when thinking about art in Albania. The first is the degree to which beauty very much continues to exert an amorphous yet undeniably ubiquitous influence over debates on both art and mass (visual) culture. The images were affecting—despite, or perhaps because of, their emptiness—not so much because they asserted a strong definition of the beautiful but because the part of them that belonged to their context asserted the relevance of the debate over beauty, over the aesthetic. No less thoughtful a critic than Hal Foster famously questioned—in the late 80s—whether one of the defining elements of the postmodern condition was its anti-aesthetic character, the way it seemed to place the question of aesthetic experience firmly in the past, in the project of modernity. Nowadays, it seems quite clear that if the postmodern was indeed a period or a style defined by a rejection or transcendence of the aesthetic, then we have now left behind the postmodern and entered something else (the contemporary?). A more reasonable explanation is that the postmodern never really overcame the aesthetic—it never left, and its categories are every bit as relevant now as they have ever been, even if we remain uncertain about how they affect us. Of course, from a critical point of view we might agree with how Foster once framed it: the aesthetic can no longer be assumed as something ‘outside history,’ as a purposeless and ideal form of experience. However, the aesthetic would seem to continue to make precisely that claim for itself—at the very least, we must admit that it is every bit as necessary to struggle to historicize the aesthetic now as it was 30 years ago.
The struggle to historicize the aesthetic is, I think, something other than the attempt to overcome the aesthetic, and this is why I think it is unfortunate that Foster called his (now definitive) edited collection of essays the ‘Anti-Aesthetic’. The aesthetic is something that I think we should all be content to work within, whether we are historians or artists or both. Furthermore, I do not imagine that—in the context of Albania today—we can say very much without acknowledging the degree to which aesthetic experience—and that of the beautiful in particular—is marshaled as a political and social discursive framework. Furthermore, it is a framework that transcends political divides—as often as Edi Rama or Erion Veliaj assert that beautiful art will make a better and more civil population, their opponents (myself included) assert—on the basis of taste, that most modern/ist of all standards—that their interventions are not beautiful but rather, ugly.
So, then, my first provocation for a contemporary Albanian art could very well be this: historicize the aesthetic. Tell the history, show the history, consider the history of the beautiful as a mode of judgment in Albanian society. The question of the beautiful is, in the Albanian case, a decidedly concrete question. It is a matter that is rooted in discourse, certainly, but also in the phenomenological encounter with both urban and rural Albania. Put simply, the question of beauty is a serious one that everyone encounters when discussing Albania, and it need not be avoided simply because questions of beauty seem too closely linked to an apparently outdated modernism, or to a conceptually and emotionally empty mass culture. Far from it.
Because there is something about the notion of beauty—its mass appeal, no doubt—that suggests a decisive element of kitsch, let us consider kitsch for a moment, and move through it to the idea of realism. One of the passages that particularly struck me while reading Ardian Vehbiu’s post on the state of contemporary culture in Albania was the following assessment: “Thus, each work of art presented for mass public consumption simultaneously metabolizes two traditions: that of its own genre, or the tradition inherent to the sphere in which it is created and exists; and that of contemporary art, sophisticated, and elite(/ist). A sculpture placed in a public space cannot reproduce the language of sculpture as it existed during the 18th and 19th centuries, rejecting the stylistic transformations of subsequent periods up till today. Likewise, such a work cannot loyally imitate the template of modern or postmodern art while completely rejecting the expectations of its public. Unfortunately, both of these mistakes have been made in Albania: either the public is given works that are completely kitsch, works that look as if they were conceived and carved in the time of Louis XVI; or the public is given works that are kitsch in yet another sense, works that use modern art’s language of abstraction, a language the public does not know—and thus the public eventually uses them as urinals.”
This passage contains several points related to the issue of contemporaneity, but for the moment I want to pay closer attention to the issues raised about kitsch. The problem, as I see it, is that this passage suggests that kitsch is something to be avoided in contemporary Albanian art, that the kitschiness of works of art condemns them not only to art historical irrelevance but also, depending on what kind of kitsch they are, to popular irrelevance. For me, this is problematic. Of course, my viewpoint is quite different: as a historian (and particularly as a historian of a region that remains ‘peripheral’ in most histories), I am not particularly concerned about whether the art I study is ‘kitsch’ or not—which is another way of saying I am not interested in whether it is ‘good’ or not. For Vehbiu, part of the issue is to return attention to the importance of ‘genuine’ or ‘proper’ art (arti i mirëfilltë), an art that suffers from public indifference in Albania. For me, the division between such a ‘genuine’ art (associated with the avant-garde, in this case) and mass-cultural kitsch risks implying that one is more valuable than the other from the point of view of historical understanding. It is my conviction that kitsch teaches us very important things about who we are and what we are, and the ubiquity of kitsch demands that we understand it better.
Now, I am certainly not attributing to Vehbiu the assertion that we should stop trying to appreciate or understand kitsch works of art; that is not at he point of his post at all. However, there is a way in which relying on the division between kitsch mass culture and a more authentic (avant-garde or otherwise) kind of art parallels an analogous division within the historical and critical assessment of art, a division that I think obscures more than it reveals. The division, as James Elkins puts it nicely in Art and Globalization, is that between art that tries to act primarily as an aesthetic phenomenon and art that is anti-aesthetic and thus perceived to be more radical. Obviously, this distinction is different than that between kitsch and avant-garde, but in both cases there is a line drawn between art that conforms to a certain set of expectations (aesthetic ones, ‘popular’ ones) and art that challenges the norms, an avant-garde or radical art. Elkins, following Benjamin Buchloh, points out that this division is both too easy and a bit of a dead end: it presumes that when we study art (or critique art, or make art) we are primarily just looking for the means to resist X (capitalism, globalization, mass culture, etc.) As Elkins says, “We could spend an equal time with contemporary international art that is unreconstructed, celebratory, nostalgic, ‘amnesiac,’ as Buchloh puts it, aestheticizing, retrospective. For me, this is the function of an economic or sociological analysis: otherwise we are mining the phenomena of globalization in order to create the strongest possible resistance, rather than trying to understand the generative conditions, the current states and processes of globalization” (2-3).
To me, it is not just a matter of performing a more thorough economic or sociological analysis, although that is certainly necessary. It is also a matter of recognizing that the lines between mass culture and various types of art practices (‘unreconstructed’ and otherwise) are mutually (re)constructing. From a historical point of view, this means that it is fairly unhelpful to focus on artists who are perceived as pushing the boundaries at the expense of artists who continue to practice within relatively stable conventional categories. Likewise, it means it is fairly unhelpful to focus on avant-garde practices as if they could exist solely in opposition to kitsch, when in fact they at least as often function alongside it, with it, and through it. I suppose that the second provocation to Albanian contemporary art, art history, and criticism would be: one shouldn’t allow the search for a means of resistance to prevent one from engaging with the concrete realities of the situation.
And so we come to the question of realism. I recently read Sabine Eckmann’s admirably succinct essay in the catalogue for New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, and was reminded that no less a luminary of early debates on postmodernism than Jean-François Lyotard wrote, in 1982, that “Realism, whose only definition is that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art, always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch” (75). Now of course, the realism I am about to try to make a case for is not the kind Lyotard is dismissing—but it is first necessary to point out that Lyotard’s dismissal of both kitsch and academicism is already problematic, in that it assumes that practices falling into these categories have nothing to tell us about the world we live in. Perhaps—perhaps—a case could be made that academicism has relatively little to say about the present conditions of cultural production, but it has become one of the defining features of kitsch that it comments endlessly on itself and its appeal. Furthermore, Lyotard’s definition of realism is clearly drawn from socialist realism and National Socialist neoclassicism, and he believes that because these art constellations attacked the avant-garde, they were not critically engaged with the conditions of reality.
There is a long argument to be made here; I frankly think Lyotard is simply wrong about certain historical kinds of realism. The argument can be partially bracketed, however, because Lyotard is ultimately speaking about the present, and I want to speak about the present as well. But: we will not have a very robust view of art in the present if we insist that the art of the past was naïve and disengaged from the world. Perhaps a better question would be: why would we ever assume that realism (or Realism(s)) were incompatible with the avant-garde? What kinds of realism in history have actually “intend[ed] to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art”? No doubt there are some, but we may say: relatively few. Socialist realism was certainly not among them—it was very deeply concerned about the question of reality implicated in that of art; indeed, that was one of its primary foci. So, contrary to Lyotard, isn’t realism in fact one of the first approaches to art to question both the nature of reality and the relationship art could have to it? And isn’t that project something that seems vitally necessary in the current moment?
As Eckmann points out in her essay, Realism as it was first practiced in 19th-century France (by Courbet) was precisely not about the uncritical use of established aesthetic conventions; it was instead “devoted to a new and unfamiliar form of depicting the world” (33). This involved both creating new iconographies and subject matter as well as mobilizing new aesthetic categories and formal devices. And yet, the consensus was for some time—and in many cases still is—that after the end of the 19th century, r/Realism never again held these functions. (Of course, even by seeking for these ‘radical’ or ‘avant-garde’ functions, we are falling back into the kind of trap I outlined above, whereby we first divide art into ‘radical’ or ‘not-radical’ and pursue a deep historical or critical investigation only of the former.) However, as Eckmann also points out, recent critical approaches and revisionist histories of various 20th-century and contemporary art have identified new genres, movements, and styles with the idea of ‘realism.’ One of her key examples is Okwui Enwezor’s discussion of political realism, the documentary, and vérité.
Another example, one Eckmann does not mention, would be Alex Potts’ recent (and perhaps overly ambitious) attempt to re-survey much of the canon of postwar Western art—including not only Art Brut and Nouveau réalisme but also Pollock’s abstraction—under the rubric of ‘modern realism.’ For Potts, realism and abstraction “should not be seen as opposing and mutually exclusive polarities but, rather, as existing in a dialectical relationship with each other” (1). His goal is essentially to reclaim (a bit late, it would seem to me) the idea that much of the work produced in the postwar period is importantly “not just of the world, as the pure modernists would have it, but it is also about the world” (1). In other words, a realist work has “world-referencing” elements—and it is certainly undeniable that much postwar art has such elements (46). However, what Potts means by modern realism is an art that does not simply mirror the world (naturalistically, let us say), but one that is “committed to achieving a defamiliarizing of the phenomena it reference[s] or invoke[s]” (27). For this reason, Potts does not consider—to take one example—socialist realism (or even, really, social realism) in his survey; he does not believe that it complicates our relation to reality enough. In other words, he shares Lyotard’s assessment of socialist realism, “that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art.”
Now, there are certain things I would like to take from Potts’ definition of modern realism, and certain things I would like to jettison. On the one hand, I think his definition of realism as—essentially—any art that is about the world, is too broad. However, I want to retain Potts’ willingness to treat even ‘abstract’ art as ‘realist’ in certain historical circumstances. Abstraction can be a quality of the world as much as it can be a quality of transcendental realms and forms.
On the other hand, however, I think Potts is too reductive in treating certain kinds of figurative realism as too naïve in their ‘mirroring’ of the world. Why should we assume that extremely ‘mimetic’ forms of art have an uncomplicated relationship to reality? And, why should we assume that the only critical process available to realism art is that of radical defamiliarization of phenomena? I prefer a definition of realism closer to that adopted by Eckmann in her discussion of the New Objectivity: “Realism signifies an artistic focus on the visible world that is articulated through mimetic methods. Yet realism, in contrast to naturalism, does not imply an exact replication of reality, nor is it measured in terms of the degree to which it resembles the real. It doesn’t necessarily accommodate truth to nature. Rather, realism entails questioning and inquiring in to the nature of the real to reveal truth, or vérité” (30). Now, there is no claim on my part (or Eckmann’s) that the ‘truth’ needs to be singular, only that it is tied to an actual experience of the world.
Here, I hope, I have tied up at least one dangling thread from the discussion of beauty above. My claim is this: no matter how much we wish to claim that, in postmodernity, we no longer believe in ‘experience,’ I think this claim is demonstrably false. It is demonstrably false because at least one kind of experience, aesthetic experience, has remained an important element of both modernity and postmodernity (or contemporaneity—I don’t feel like I am yet in the position to debate this distinction). Our understanding of our selves and our environment is still strongly influenced by our understanding of sensory perceptions, our desires related to them, and our attempts to restructure them—this is true as much in art as in other fields of life. Thus, at the very least, a realist art would be one that undertook an investigation of the actual conditions of our aesthetic categories, either in the realm of kitsch mass culture or high/avant-garde culture. In the specific case of Albania, as I’ve noted, the investigation of the category of beauty would be one quite ‘realist’ object of artistic investigation.
There is another element to r/Realism that I would like to introduce before I undergo what will no doubt be an unsuccessful attempt to satisfactorily bring together all the strands of my thought on the possibilities a contemporary artistic realism might offer in the Albanian context. Realism—at its inception, in the 19th century—did not simply turn to its present surroundings as a subject matter by chance. As Linda Nochlin argues in her seminal study of the movement, the rise of Realism coincided with a new vision of history (23-33). History was no longer exclusively the realm of history painters, who dealt with the great deeds of antiquity; it became the realm of genre painters. In turn, these genre painters were no longer attempting to depict a timeless kind of ‘everyday life,’ but began to seek for the traces of historical understanding and historical structures in that everyday life.
In a recent post, I discussed Gëzim Qëndro’s book Heronjtë Janë të Uritur, and the possibilities it offered for using the search for ‘realism’ in art as a critical method. One of the most interesting facets of Qëndro’s study, from my perspective, is the way it explicitly understands realism not so much as a style but as a kind of historical consciousness. True, I think Qëndro in fact pays too little attention to the visual aspects of the (realist?) painting he discusses, but I do think he convincingly draws attention to the way that realism is tied to an explicitly historical mode of understanding the world in 20th-century Albanian history. That is, Qëndro’s quest for realism draws our attention to the role art can play in relation to history. This would be perhaps my most assertive provocation for Albanian contemporary art: How can Albanian art help us achieve a more nuanced historical understanding of the world (or ‘reality’)? This is not to insist that art try to turn itself into history, nor to imply that all contemporary art must be, first of all, about history. However, it is to insist that one of the most important projects of a contemporary Albanian art should be the attempt to reveal, to understand, to clarify, and to challenge the present moment as the outcome of historical processes. This kind of confrontation with the present is something that r/Realist art—broadly construed—has always attempted, and for this reason it seems to me that realism is one approach that would serve artists in Albania today well.
Before I conclude by saying a bit more about the challenges that face any historically conscious model of realist contemporary art, let me say how the earlier discussion of kitsch fits into this model. Of course, in some ways, the discussion of kitsch was simply a way to move from Vehbiu’s insightful thoughts on the challenges facing contemporary art and culture in Albania. My attempt to assert the need for a more nuanced understanding of the relation between avant-garde and kitsch in contemporary culture was in part meant to introduce the notion that realist art is an art that many have dismissed and some continue to dismiss as kitsch (because it is figurative, because it is mimetic, because it sometimes has broad popular appeal, and so on); and yet realism turns out to much more critically relevant than the term ‘kitsch’ implies. But that isn’t everything. I also think it is important for contemporary art to conceive of itself as kitsch as much as it conceives of itself as avant-garde, and this is—I think—particularly the case for a realist art. All art, no matter how radical, ultimately performs (in certain contexts and for certain audiences) the project of familiarization and repetitive conformity that kitsh (broadly speaking) performs. The key—and this is where a self-consciously realist sentiment is beneficial—is to for art to investigate where and why and to whom it produces the effect of familiarization, or conformity, or comfort. Ultimately, this is neither a very radical, nor in any way an original. To me, the realist approach to art and aesthetics asserts the following: the point is not to try to produce ‘art’ as opposed to ‘kitsch,’ but to produce art that is more aware about when and where it might become kitsch, and when and where it might remain ‘art.’
Of course, this brings us back again to Vehbiu’s observation that artworks can be considered kitsch in different ways, and that every work of art operates in (at least) two contexts: its own artistic tradition or historical genre, and the expectations of its public. These two contexts have different histories, and understanding how these two histories come together in the work of art is a duty that artists, historians, and critics must collectively shoulder. It is not, I think, a burden that is frequently shouldered in discussions of Albanian art, in exhibitions staged in Albania, in Albanian artist’s writings on their works, in the writings of foreign scholars and curators on Albanian works.
During my recent visit to Albania, I only visited two exhibitions. One of them was the Onufri XXIshow at the National Gallery of Arts. I did not spend as much time as I should have with the show, and so if I seem to condemn it in what follows, that is no doubt partially my own fault. This year’s Onufri was curated by the duo VestAndPage (artist Verena Stenke and artist/writer Andrea Pagnes), and it was devoted to the idea and medium of glass (hence the show’s rather lengthy subtitle “SiO2 – The Reason of Fragility, How Do We Spell The Word C-A-R-E When Staring At Glass?”). To be frank, I did not understand the exhibition. It seemed, to put it bluntly, eclectic in the pejorative sense of the term—it contained a number of works that related to each other (in terms of their shared engagement with or use of a particular material, glass) that at first seemed related but ultimately revealed themselves to have little to do with one another. There are, no doubt, a number of reasons the exhibition as a whole escaped my understanding. However, the reason that is most salient for my current discussion is this: the show did not know how to bring together works that spoke primarily about the history of art as a broad (Western) phenomenon, and works that seemed to speak more directly about the historical (contemporary) Albanian context.
This failure is significant because—according to the organizers—they were seeking precisely to avoid aestheticism and produce “a vision of the essence of reality”: “In fact, the artistic image of the world cannot be adapted or compared to purely cognitive rational paths, because it represents a way of appropriation of the world that, in its specific and unique form, is possible only in the artwork. It is after bearing these considerations in mind that we can understand how a material such as glass – for its linguistic, symbolic and metaphoric potential and the intrinsic properties of fragility, transparency and resistance – is the most appropriate to indicate that an intuitive knowledge of art escapes any ‘correctness’ criterion, as its difficulties – its beauty – must be conquered by intuitive thought, and therefore must be realized as a result of a “vision of the essence.” It is exactly this concept that the exhibition aims to communicate, since in any way it may be judged, the experience of a vision of the essence of reality leads to a thought that art is not limited to the unsullied pleasure of pure aesthetic contemplation, but it is capable of generating a powerful reflection and consequent awareness on the multiple dimensions of meaning that are behind the human thought itself.”
In fact, the exhibition seemed to be organized very much in line with the vision of material(ist) modern realism that Alex Potts describes—the curators believes that by framing the exhibition around a material, the works included would somehow automatically constitute a critical engagement with reality (or ‘the world’). And to ensure that this was framed historically, they included works that belong to a broader history of Western and global postwar art—works that read as belonging to art history (Abramovic, Kosuth, Yoko Ono, and so forth). In this sense, it was helpful that Armando Lulaj’s The Large Glass framed the entrance to the exhibition, since it framed the show in reference to a work that belongs to the canon of Western art history. Yet, within the exhibition itself, the link between two (clusters of) histories—one a global history of artistic practice, the other a relatively localized history of Albanian ‘reality’—felt conspicuous by its absence. It was not only the weakness of the curatorial text, or the way that even the most ‘conceptual’ works were expected to hold their own as aesthetic phenomena. It was primarily the way that the show did not seem to take seriously the need to understand how these histories might or might not relate.
The two works that I felt most drawn to in the show both dealt with the same subject matter—and it was slightly strange that two works dealt with the same theme. Ermela Teli’s video and multimedia installation Glass, a weapon! (2015) and Sead Kazanxhiu’s mixed media installation On the Wall (2015) both dealt with a common feature of home architecture in Albania: the practice of cementing pieces of broken glass to the top of garden walls in order to prevent intruders from climbing over them. Facing each other across one of the gallery’s rooms, these two works seemed to be the most directly tied to everyday life in Albania. And yet, at the same time, the gap between these works and works belonging more directly to a general history of art (say, Lawrence Weiner’s Impacted to the Point of Fusing Sand into Glass) seemed absolute.
Perhaps I like my art a bit too literal, but what appealed to me about both of the works in question (Teli’s and Kazanxhiu’s) was the fact that the looked like something I had seen during my time in Albania, they referenced a structure of the environment that I encountered several times. Furthermore, they were the works that made me think most about my encounter with Tirana afterwards. I found myself looking at the way people had installed glass on the walls around their gardens, observing the density of the glass fragments, their color, wondering what kinds of vessels they had broken to produce the glass, wondering who was really deterred by the glass in the first place, wondering how long it would be before each of the walls I had seen with such glass on it would be leveled along with its house in order to construct some new apartment building that needed no such defense against incursion. And at the end of the day, this thinking seemed much more productive to me than a lengthy consideration of Weiner’s Impacted to the Point of Fusing Sand into Glass.
What I craved most as I was wandering through Onufri XXI was a work of art, a text, anything that would tell me something about “the essence of reality” in Albania today, and about what the essence of that reality might have to do with local histories, with individual histories, with global histories. That, I imagine, is the task that a Realist artistic practice would set for itself. Of course, there are many kinds of art-making, and most of them do not need to have anything to do with this task. However, I find it hard to imagine how an art that called itself ‘contemporary’ could dispense with such a project.
Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983.
Eckmann, Sabine. “A Lack of Empathy: On the Realisms of the New Objectivity.” In New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933. Exh Cat. LACMA, 2015. pp. 27-39.
Elkins, James, Zhivka Valiavicharska, and Alice Kim, eds. Art and Globalization. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2010.
Enwezor, Okwui. “Documentary/Verite: Bio-Politics, Human Rights and the Figure of “Truth” in Contemporary Art.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 5:1 (2004). pp.11-42.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism? ” In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. Pp. 71-84.
Nochlin, Linda. Realism. New York: Penguin, 1971.
Potts, Alex. Experiments in Modern Realism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013.
 I’ve only done this once before, and it strikes me it would be fun to do it again. So please feel free to write long responses and contact me if you’d like to post them as entries in this blog, instead of just comments. Comments are of course also encouraged.
 “Kësisoj, çdo produkt artistik që ofrohet për konsum masiv metabolizon njëkohësisht dy tradita: të zhanrit të vet, ose të traditës brenda sferës ku vepron; dhe të artit bashkëkohor, të sofistikuar, elitar. Një skulpturë që vendoset në një vend publik nuk mund të riprodhojë gjuhën e këtyre veprave të përpunuar gjatë shekujve XVIII-XIX, duke shpërfillur gjuhën e re skulpturore të përpunuar më vonë e deri në bashkëkohësi; sikurse nuk mund të ndjekë besnikërisht shabllone të artit modernist a post-modernist, duke shpërfillur pritjet e publikut.
Për fat të keq, të dyja këto shmangie kanë ndodhur në Shqipëri – ku publikut i janë dhënë ose vepra totalisht kitsch, që duket sikur janë konceptuar dhe gdhendur në kohën e Luigjit XVI; ose vepra sërish kitsch, por që përdorin gjuhën abstrakte të artit modernist, të cilën publiku nuk e njeh dhe as e vlerëson; prandaj edhe qëllon pastaj ta përdorë si urinore.”
 When I say the division is analogous, I mean that the two forms of kitsch Vehbiu identifies are, essentially, forms of culture that rely heavily on aestheticization—whether it is a nostalgic aesthetic that longs for the ‘high’ art of the past or a (post)modern(ist) aestheticism that ignores the public taste in its claims to universality. It seems to me that Vehbiu is calling for an art that would counteract these two forms of aestheticization, and in this sense the dichotomy he outlines is similar to that between uncritical aestheticism and radical or critical anti-aestheticism.
 It’s always refreshing when famous thinkers say things that, in retrospect, turn out to be so completely misguided.
 Elsewhere in this essay, I sometimes write “r/Realism” to indicate that artists and critics may take realism to be a general term for a particular approach or as the proper name of a style/movement. For me, it is not particularly important that it be one or the other—more often, I believe, it should be thought of as both.
 As Enwezor puts it, “Vérité has been defined as: truth. But also it refers to lifelikeness, a trueness to life. In the latter definition it is predisposed towards mimeticism. For example, in French, vérité also means to strive to be true to life in art: s’efforcer a la vérité en art. Similarly vérité refers to realism to real life, naturalism, authenticity, pragmatism, verisimilitude” (34).
 For Potts, this definition allows a more materially-focused re-assessment of certain forms of abstraction, since materials are by definition part of the world, but I don’t think this helps us much in the present context.
 Of course, Potts is not speaking about the immediate present. However, I would argue that—given the pervasively ‘defamiliarizing’ effects of late capitalism in much of the world today—it is just as easy for art to be both ‘uncritical’ and radically ‘defamiliarizing.’ In some cases, making the world familiar again is a first step that art can undertake in order to provide us with means to deeper engagement with our surroundings.
 I myself do not think the focus needs to be necessarily only on the visible world alone, but I would not equate the ‘invisible’ would with the spiritual realm, as some earlier forms of abstract modernism did. Rather, I think it is entirely ‘realistic’ to assume that there are material realities that we cannot see, and that realist art can attempt to mimic those material realities in a number of ways.
 Potts, on the other hand, dismisses certain kinds of realism as retrograde because he does judge them on how much they resemble reality. He believes they resemble it too closely.
 However, for reasons I’ll discuss in a subsequent post, I think it is difficult to conceive of an art that is truly contemporary and yet sets aside historical investigations. After all, as Nochlin writes, it was the Realists who first demanded that art concern itself with contemporaneity.
 Calling something kitsch, or referring to it as mass culture, is not primarily asserting that the object in question is different in kind from an art object. It is asserting that it produces particular kinds of effects among certain (‘popular’) audiences/consumers more often than it produces those effects among others.
 Of course, this is the case in many places, but here I am speaking primarily about Albania. It is of course also unfair to suggest that this kind of thoughtful evaluation never happens—I am happy to say that sometimes it does. But not as often as I would like. Hence this post.
 The English translation is that of the National Gallery or the organizers, not mine. The Albanian, from the Gallery’s website, is as follows: “Në të vërtetë, imazhi artistik nuk mund të adaptohet apo të krahasohet me shtigje të thjeshta logjike e racionale, sepse përfaqëson një mënyrë të përvetësimit të botës që, në formën e saj të veçantë dhe unike, është e mundur vetëm brenda veprës së artit. Përsiatjet e mësipërme janë të domosdoshme për të kuptuar se një material si qelqi – për potencialin e tij gjuhësor, simbolik dhe metaforik, krahas vetive të tij kompozicionale të brishtësisë, transparencës dhe rezistencës – është mëse i përshtatshëm për të treguar se njohja intuitive e artit i shmanget kritereve të korrektësisë, dhe se vështirësia e tij – bukuria e tij – duhet të kapet nga një mendim intuitiv, e si rezultat të realizohet si një “vizion i thelbit të realitetit”. Është pikërisht ky koncept që ekspozita ka për qëllim të komunikojë, sepse në çdo lloj mënyre që gjykojmë, përjetimi i një vizioni të thelbit të realitetit të çon në mendimin se arti nuk është i kufizuar vetëm tek kënaqësia sublime e mendimit të pastër estetik, por është i aftë të gjenerojë një reflektim të fuqishëm dhe ndërgjegjësim të mëtejshëm për dimensionet e shumfishta të kuptimit që janë përtej edhe vetë mendimit njerzor.”
 Of course, I’m speaking here of my life while there…but I was drawn to these works precisely because, every day as I walked home during my two weeks in Tirana, I passed homes with just such conglomerations of jagged glass installed atop their garden walls.
 They weren’t, of course, the only works in the show to do this. But they did seem to me to be the two that made this reference most explicit.
Today’s post contains selections from the November 1965 issue of Nëndori, which features Ramiz Alia’s report delivered at the 15th general Plenum of the Central Committee of the Albanian Workers Party. Given on the eve of the most intense period of Hoxha’s cultural ‘revolutionization,’ which extended from 1966 till 1969 or so, Alia’s report clearly lays out guidelines (though of course the instructions for their actual realization are left vague) for the coming transformation of the arts and letters in relation to the masses.
Among other issues, he stresses the importance of the cultivation of aesthetic taste, since the everyday totalized experience of the socialist state is fundamentally an aesthetic one. As Alia explains,
The problem of conceptual-aesthetic [ideoestetik] education is not merely a problem for a few specific organizations, but rather for our entire society. In fact, people, throughout their entire lives, constantly encounter problems that relate to their education in understanding the beautiful—from their families and work environments to art institutions, from the construction of villages and cities to the creation of handicrafts in wood and knitting. […] Wherever we go, we encounter buildings, parks, flower gardens, monuments, and even the arrangements in store windows—all of these have no choice but to influence the aesthetic education of our fellow citizens. (42)
The issue also contains some reproductions of artworks and brief notes about cultural events, including a short report on an exhibition of graphic art, caricature, and poster design that travelled to socialist Albania from the People’s Republic of China.
There are two ways in which the grid functions to declare the modernity of modern art. One is spatial; the other is temporal. In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.—Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (Summer, 1979), 50.
I admit that I had never looked closely at Shaban Hysa’s Më Tej [Further], 1969, hanging in the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, Albania. The work—which I have elsewhere seen reproduced under the title Elektrifikimi, and referred to a one panel of a triptych, though I have never seen the other panels that supposedly accompanied it—always seemed a rather straightforward image: a man and a woman, standing just to the left of center, consult a large piece of paper, either a map or a set of engineering plans. The man gestures with one arm out towards the space over the viewer’s right shoulder, indicating the expansive work to come. He is speaking. The woman listens attentively, her eyes following his gaze, her hands holding the expanse of paper that contains the plans, the designs, or the outline of the territory that will soon be included (indeed, is already included, but only conceptually) within the painting’s purview. In a truncated space to the left of the figures, a welder completes the skeletal structure of a tower for electrical cables, while to the right, this time in a space that seems to descend too quickly into the abyss of the valley behind them, another figure directs a crane that moves another such electrical tower towards its final position. At far left, more workers ascend scaffolding, and behind all the figures in the painting stretches first a bare valley crisscrossed by large trucks and finally a mountainous wilderness devoid of greenery: grey stone against a yellowish sky.
I remember having noticed, before, the way Hysa’s painting looks unfinished; particularly in the figure at right, the work gloves are left as a mass of brushstrokes that lack a clear delineation, and even the folds of the back of the worker’s shirt. The same is also true is areas such as the woman’s hand at center, as it grasps the map or engineering plans. (For the purposes of brevity, I am going to refer to it throughout as map. As we will see below, I do not think there is a tremendous difference between a map of territory and a set of plans for the construction and placement of electrical towers, especially not given what is actually shown in the space of the piece of paper.) These areas of loose brushwork also stand out, and particularly as unfinished, precisely because of the thinness of the paint in these parts of the painting. Elsewhere, for example in the stone upon which the figures stand, the brushwork is just as free and—at close range—abstract, but it is thick with layers and layers of paint that suggest the materiality of the rocks they also depict.
Likewise, in certain areas, Hysa has utilized a meticulously linear technique, for example in the rendering of the steel beams of the towers under construction. However, in some cases, he has left the pencil lines used to plan the layout of the lines, their points of intersection and extension. Indeed, in some cases (again, particularly in the figure at left and the tower he gestures the crane to position) it looks as if these pencil lines have actually been applied on top of flat areas of thin color, as if Hysa had laid down a ground, then planned out his lines, then decided to leave both thin ground of paint and lines visible without covering it over in a more meticulous fashion. This gives the painting the look of being incomplete, but as far as I know it was regarded as completed and the version reproduced in several publications during socialism was the same version that now hangs in the National Gallery. Thus, I can only assume that Hysa quite intentionally allowed many areas of the painting to retain an unfinished look, to show the thin layers of paint and even the canvas beneath, to emphasize in places the pencil lines that index the artist’s arrangement and re-arrangement of forms and their contact. In a way, this aesthetic fits perfectly with Socialist Realism, as perfectly as it did with the other Modernists (too numerous to name) who allowed the image to appear in its ‘finished’ state still bearing the marks of its conception and creation. What better way to articulate the labor of creating a work of art?
As I examined Hysa’s painting more closely (I admit, I had started to look at it because I wanted the cleaning lady to stop following me so I could covertly snap a photo of another image; I never got the photo of the other image, but I did get a detail of Hysa’s painting), I saw something I never had before. Almost directly in the center of the canvas lies the zone occupied by the map the woman is holding. We can see nothing of the images or words that may appear on it, and indeed much of what we see is the inverse of the paper, a sickly green expanse of loose brushstrokes thinly painted…and there, showing so clearly through this thin stretch of paint, so centrally placed that—in person—I could not understand how I had ever missed it before: the grid. A neat crisscrossing of lines that correspond in no way whatsoever to the forms that are painted over them, left not even as a trace of the specific preparation of the surface to receive the map, but indeed solely to reference the preparation of the surface to receive an artistic image, no particular one.
Obviously, the presence of these lines suggests graph paper, suggests the cartographic, geometric division of the map (and indeed, this is why I assume the piece of paper to be a map, rather than a set of engineering drawings), but at the same time the abstract of the grid from the three-dimensional form of the map indicates the ontological priority of the grid itself in relation to the finished painting. The grid in Më Tej indexes not only the process of artistic creation, the preparation of the canvas with a set of lines to facilitate the copying of a drawing that will later be filled out with paint, but also the absolute anti-naturalism of socialist realism’s vision. It is left, I think, so blatant in its pseudo-presence, to show precisely the ambiguous metaphysical gap that exists between the work of socialist realist art and the perceived object of naturalistic painting (‘the world’).
As Rosalind Krauss famously puts it in her obsessive study of the grid, “the grid does not map the space of a room or a landscape or a group of figures onto the surface of a painting. Indeed, if it maps anything, it maps the surface of the painting itself” (Krauss, op. cit., 52). However, this ‘surface of the painting’ as it is emphasized by the grid is not any straightforward entity; the grid possesses, as Krauss asserts, a decided ambivalence: it seems to be both rooted in materiality (pointing to the existence of the painting itself as surface upon which paint is dispersed) and spiritual (pointing to the abstract realm of absolute ideas cherished by painters like Mondrian or Malevich).
This same ambivalence exists, I think, quite clearly in other forms of socialist realist art in Albania, where art is called upon (and the artist is tempted) both to reflect a kind of purified, simple, and universally accessible materiality and to index the schema of the sacred, to partake in the spiritual elevation of the religious icon. (See, for example, Gëzim Qëndro’s reading of Odhise Paskali’s sculpture Shokët, in “The Thanatology of Hope,” in Lapidari, ed. Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei (New York: Punctum Books, 2015), 61-66.) And it is, it seems, one of the central issues raised by Hysa’s Më Tej. Even the title, Më Tej, suggests the gesture towards another level of understanding and being, an index of a beyond that bears either a merely horizontal relation (as the grid of the map suggests) or else (also?) a hierarchical relation (as the grid beneath the painting suggests).
However, the grid here is not merely a self-referential or circular encapsulation of a (tautological kind of) statement art makes about itself. The grid in this instance, showing through the layers of the image in its center, has a quite specific relationship to reality (which I want to distinguish from ‘the world’ as a phenomenological setting that only sometimes coincides with ‘reality’). The grid unfolds in a space that is situated immediately prior to the figures’ current attention: they have looked at the map, and now they look out at where the unfolding grid of electrification (another grid that is both tangible and material, yet also somehow ineffable) will lay over the country. This grid will leave its trace on the unyielding stone of the mountains, much as the words etched on the stone at far right (“25 Vjet Çlirimit” [25 Years of Liberation”]) mark the passage of time and the expansion of man’s influence over the landscape.
The grid suggests not just that the expansion of the electrification is in some sense already present in some nascent (or ontologically superior) form long before the territory itself that will be the subject of the material grid of power lines. It also suggests that the progressive expansion of the grid is in some way not a narrative one. The grid at the center of Më Tej in fact simultaneously effects a certain undermining of chronological progression, suggesting an eternity or timelessness that is the other of socialist realism’s assertion on dynamic transformation and progress. Hysa’s painting, as an image of the Albanian socialist reality (which is not to say, an image of the Albanian socialist ‘world’), emphasizes the irreducible schism between the grid as an element of the expansion (to infinity) of the socialist space and the static pre-existence of that space at an ontologically privileged level. The construction of the electrical field is both necessary and redundant—it makes material and explicit a dispersion that on the one hand must always be physically instantiating and thereby multiplying itself, and on the other hand has no need of instantiation precisely because it remains in the realm of foundational myth, without beginning or end.
Ultimately, the thinness of the paint in the region of the map seems to allow the grid to emerge at the conceptual heart of Hysa’s painting, and so its appearance as the logical (as opposed to the compositional) underlying force of the composition, and in this way the grid as eternal paradigm seems somehow the stronger reading in Më Tej. However, as I have tried to suggest, the ambivalence remains unresolved; the role of and emphasis on the grid is ambiguous. This is perhaps one of the reasons behind the intentional incompleteness of Hysa’s painting: it allows the polysemy of the grid to fuse with the polysemy of the ‘reality’ presented, with maximum effect. This effect, of course, is missed if we merely look at the image in reproduction where these details are lost and the material circumstances of the painting are covered over.
A question posed by all Realist art, at some level, is: “What is reality? Where can it be found? What is our access to it? What is its relationship to our lives, to our art, to our politics, to our ethics?” The success of Realist artworks—whether they are Socialist Realist, or Photorealist, or New Realist, or Capitalist Realist—depends to a large degree, I would argue, on how successfully the work poses these questions, how deeply it pushes them, not necessarily in the direction of resolution, but in the direction of their own proliferation and epistemological sophistication. Shaban Hysa’s Më Tej raises precisely these kind of questions in the context of Albanian socialist realism. It asks, what is art’s access to reality, and does that access place it before the unfolding project of socialism, or after? Does art possess a narrative power that depicts—in a robust and accurate way—the dynamism of “building socialism,” or does it precisely precede and even undermine all narrative forces, in favor of an eternal instantiation of a fundamental principle? Does the grid, with its metaphysical priority, intervene before our experience of the socialist reality—the point at which is becomes, for us, a ‘world’—or after, emergent in the unfolding of territorial and material-ideological expansion?
Above all, Hysa’s painting reminds us of the importance of looking closely at socialist realism. To quote an omnipresent phrase from the American system of transport, one of which I was recently reminded by a book I sat down to read on the same day that I visited the National Gallery and saw Më Tej: “if you see something, say something.”