Për Një Hov të Ri: The Proceedings of the 1965 Plenum of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. More posts with critical content are in the works, but for the time being I’m too busy to do anything except scan more documents…

Nendori 1_1966

Today’s post is the January 1966 issue of Nëndori, which contains the proceedings of the 1965 Plenum of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists. The opening speech for the plenum, which took place on December 3-4, 1965, was delivered by Shevqet Musaraj, author of the satirical poem “Epopeja e Ballit Kombëtar” [1944]. The writer and poet Dhimitër Shuteriqi, director of the Union of Writers and Artists at the time, also delivered a lengthy speech related to the proceedings of the 15th plenum of the Central Committee, which called for “an increase in the role played by literature and the arts in the communist education of the masses.”

The issue also contains summaries and excerpts of the talks and discussions held by other members of the Union in attendance, including Andon Kuqali, Foto Stamo, Odhise Paskali, Kristaq Rama, and Pandi Mele.

Three of Pandi Mele’s graphic works are reproduced in the issue, including the dynamic (and undeniably Modernist) linocut Thatësira po mposhtet [The Drought is Being Defeated]. There is also a review of Mele’s October 1965 solo exhibition written by Vangjush Tushi, which gives a partial picture of the early reception of Mele’s painting and graphic works.

Perhaps most interesting (and most frustrating in the lack of information given) is a short note in the back matter of the issue describing an exhibition of works by the Korean painter Lju Hien Suk (in the Albanian transliteration), held in November of 1965 at the Puppet Theater. Liu Hien Suk was, the note informs us, vice-director of the central state Gallery of the Fgurative Arts in the Korean Democratic Republic, and his month-long stay in Albania (part of the still woefully understudied cultural exchange between socialist nations in the mid-20th-century) had included time spent in the Albanian Riviera—the landscapes of which inspired his painting. The exhibition opening was attended by officers of the Union of Writers and Artists such as Foto Stamo and the note in Nëndori contains excerpts from Rama’s speech. Although much of the study of Albanian socialist-era art has focused on the specificity of the conditions in Albania during its increasing isolation, and although much of the commentary produced within the country during the socialist years does not readily acknowledge the role of international cultural exchange in shaping Albanian art, it is precisely events like Lju Hien Suk’s exhibition that deserve our close attention and our greatest efforts in attempting to recover documentary evidence. These events, if we could trace their genesis and impact more fully, would give us a more fully rounded picture of how Albania related to international networks of socialist culture, and how artists from other nations participated in the formation of the narratives socialist Albania told about itself.

Happy reading!

Some Notes on the Apparently Mutually Exclusive Status of (M/m)odern (A/a)rt and Socialist Realism

I have recently—and finally—had the time to read Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (London: Reaktion, 2012), by the great (and unfortunately now deceased) art historian Piotr Piotrowski. For many, like myself, in the field of Eastern European art history, Piotrowski’s attempt to model and facilitate what he calls a “horizontal art history” remains a continued source of methodological and theoretical inspiration. Piotrowski’s scholarship always seems—to me, at least—to admirably walk the line between overarching regional and even global syntheses and, at least in those geographical areas where he had expertise, engagement with the specificity of local conditions and traditions. Of course, Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe is, like Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (London: Reaktion, 2009), a survey, and as such it is engaged in the methodological project of understanding broad narratives and trends as opposed to delving deeply into particular, concrete situations.

One of Piotrowski’s key goals in mapping out these narratives and trends is to come to terms as fully as possible with the geographical (and geopolitical) implications of art history—both its limitations and its possibilities. With this geographical sophistication, however, comes a certain theoretical bluntness. Piotrowski embraces this—he declares at the outset that he is “not a political theorist” (even as he explains his use of Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic democracy as a frame for the book). Additionally, he declares the book to be far more concerned with contemporaneity and its disjunctures than with providing a history (as In the Shadow of Yalta aimed to do). Nonetheless, as all historians are ultimately constrained to do, Piotrowski must start somewhere, and his starting point is a swift yet nuanced reiteration of the map sketched out in In the Shadow of Yalta.

In a way, what I want to do next is completely unfair to Piotrowski, but I will proceed regardless precisely because I believe that—in selecting a very specific moment in Piotrowski’s text, indeed a single sentence—we can grasp a vast and complicated problem that evidences the power of Piotrowski’s methodology. It also presents us with precisely the kind of problem that any “horizontal art history” should—indeed, must—be able to confront, if never resolve. Discussing the dubious merits of treating Eastern/Central European art history according to the model of “colonization,” Piotrowski suggests that the obvious angle would be to treat Soviet culture as the occupier, but points out that this dissolves in concrete cases, since Socialist Realism was only “an official ideological façade” in many countries in the region. He then declares, “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe [a term Piotrowski uses to encompass areas often described as either ‘Eastern’ or ‘Central’ Europe] between 1945 and 1989” (46).

Above all else, I think this sentence is a fair summation of Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta, which charted many of the Modernist movements in postwar Eastern Europe against the foil of a (/n always unfortunately un-illustrated and therefore amorphous and spectral) Socialist Realism. (One chapter, on the significance of figuration, is even titled “Un-Socialist Realism”.) It also raises the difficult problem that I alluded to above, namely: What is the relationship between “Socialist Realism” (let us note the capitalization) and “modern art” (let us note the absence of capitalization)?

Having raised this question, and moving in the spirit of Piotrowski’s desire to decenter hierarchical art history, we can almost immediately imagine a number of related, yet deeply different questions: What is the relationship between socialist realism and modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern Art? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and modernism? What is the relationship between socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and modernism? Etc., etc. This list of potential questions is not a fanciful play with the ambiguities presented by the un-codified (or, differently-codified) norms of capitalization. It is, instead, a very serious interrogation of the relationship between style, periodization, and ideology. It suggests the truly exhausting number of potential topologies that can be developed by really considering the question of Socialist Realism in Eastern/Central Europe (and remember, we have not even moved—as Piotrowski demands that we do—beyond a crude and generalized global-regional frame of investigation).

Allow me to elaborate what I think is deeply problematic about Piotrowski’s statement, and to attempt to present some of the ways we might both be more careful about our use of the language of style and periodization, and gain a more comprehensive picture of what “the cultural identity of Central[/Eastern] Europe” was in the years between 1945 and 1989. Juxtaposing “Socialist Realism” to “modern art” posits three related conceptual moves, both—in my opinion—fundamentally flawed. First, it assumes the monolithic (and therefore capitalized) quality of Socialist Realism, which we are invited to assume is clearly defined as the Soviet variety (which we are in turn invited to assume was a clearly codified and unified phenomenon, without meaningful ambiguity or internal, chronological strife). Second, it invites us to treat Socialist Realism as a movement or style that is straightforwardly and exclusively distinguished from the already vastly general term “modern art.” Third, instead of aligning “Socialist Realism” against a clearly (or at least what I would interpret as a clearly) stylistic alternative—namely, Modernism—it aligns it against a term that seems (again, at least to me) more clearly chronological—namely, “modern art.” The lack of capitalization in “modern art” implies the absence of an emphatic ideology (it is not even “Modern art,” or “Modern Art”); that is, it is the art that comes after pre- and early-modern art, and yet before post-modern art. This implies that Socialist Realism, a stylistically unified category belongs to a different chronological period, presumably an earlier one, yet this is never elaborated. The fact that both Modernism and “modern art” are generally considered to begin in the late 19th century (at least in the Francophile model Piotrowski implicitly critiques) means that the conventional way to read Piotrowski’s statement would be to say that Socialist Realism is a retrograde return to some pre-modern form of art-making, and thus—by implication—that it offers little of art historical significance.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of interpretation that Piotrowski’s “horizontal” art history would want to reject. Therefore, even if Piotrowski himself continues to use “Socialist Realism” as a convenient historical foil (and to use both “modern art” and, as is more frequently the case in In the Shadow of Yalta, “Modernism”), this should not prevent us from thinking critically about the ideologies at play here, and from rejecting the apparent premises and implications of a sentence like “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe between 1945 and 1989.”

I would like to offer, as it were, a series of both theoretical and polemical guidelines for thinking the relationship between Socialist Realism (I will retain the capitalization, but—as I note below—reject any implications of unified ideology or style) and both “modern art” and “Modernism.” These are, of course, methodological directives steeped in ideology, and not meant to be universalizing; they are intended quite explicitly to move away from the “hierarchical” art history Piotrowski critiques but does not fully escape. They are also the result of my own engagement with 20th-century Albanian art, much of which relates fundamentally to (a decidedly, I would argue, diverse and stylistically conflicted) Socialist Realism even if it cannot be subsumed under that label. As such, the applicability of these guidelines will vary geographically, just as do theories of psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, and postmodernism.

Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
So, then, a kind of incomplete methodological manifesto, and a challenge:

1) We must resist the urge to treat “Socialist Realism” as an a priori factor in our analyses of “modern” or “Modernist” art (to say nothing of our analyses of Socialist Realism itself). In other words, it is never enough to simply assert that such-and-such an artist, or a movement, rejected “the official doctrine of Socialist Realism.” As tempting as this summation may be, it tells us little, and even less when we have left the demarcated sphere of Soviet cultural policy. (Even there, especially in the absence of close visual analysis and illustrations supporting the point, the assertion that a work of stands opposed to Socialist Realism has little obvious meaning. We must think about what a particular group of artists understood by “Socialist Realism,” and about how that understanding might have played out in discourse, in material manifestations, at the time of the creation of a particular work. If we lack the resources to make these distinctions, then we are just as well off to avoid the statement that a work or an artist stands opposed to Socialist Realism.)

This is not a matter of ignoring what official documents and discourses claimed Socialist Realism to be, in particular locations. Nor is it a matter of ignoring stylistic, functional, and philosophical similarities between works typically described as “Socialist Realist.” It is simply a call to do what the best scholarship of Modernism does: enact a marked suspicion towards generalizations and a priori assumptions about the well-formed character of particular styles. (In a discussion of Antimodernism, for example, we would never take the term “Modernism” to be a self-evident (and stably codified) factor. )

2) As a continuation of this first point: We must resist the urge to straightforwardly oppose Socialist Realism and either “modern art” or “Modernism.” Whatever might be gained by such a general opposition, too much is lost. In short, what is lost is the status of Socialist Realism as a form of Modernism. The “modern,” and “Modernist” aspects of Socialist Realism—in nearly all of its manifestations—range from a stylistic indebtedness to schools of Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism on to philosophical affinities with Futurism, Surrealism, and Conceptualism. Just as it would be strange to starkly oppose Expressionism (as a particular strand of modern art) to “modern art” in general, so do we accomplish little of worth when we oppose Socialist Realism to modern art.

This is not a matter of obscuring the ideological, aesthetic, and historical clash between many manifestations of Modernism and many manifestations of Socialist Realism. The perceived conflict between the two was, of course, fundamental to the official rhetoric that grew up in many countries around Socialist Realism; it often represented itself as the enemy of “bourgeois revisionist” Modernism, and set out to distinguish itself from much that Modernism stood for. But this differentiation was not only a temporal process that changed over time (as the character of both Socialist Realisms and Modernisms changed) and an exercise in the unstable process of identity production. Taking the word of Socialist Realism’s theorists that the style was not Modernist would be as pointless as proclaiming that it really is the true style of the future simply because they asserted it was so.

3) We must recognize that, insofar as it was a Modernist style, Socialist Realism was not a single “ism” but rather a constellation of the “isms” mentioned above, combined in new ways and in many cases incorporating new elements.

This is not a matter of throwing as many “isms” at a particular work of art or set of works of art as possible, but rather a matter of getting at the complex assemblages hiding behind the monolithic terms “modern art,” “modernism,” and “Modernism.”

4) We must pay close attention to how we periodize Socialist Realism, and avoid treating it as a simple (and naïve) throwback to pre-modern or early-modern ideologies, styles, and practices of artistic creation. (This is precisely what is risked by Piotrowski’s juxtaposing it to “modern art.”) Elsewhere, I have discussed the potential significance (narrowly speaking, in the context of Albanian 20th-century painting) of Boris Groys’ assertion that Socialist Realism was “a style and a half,” falling somewhere between Modernism and Postmodernism. This is one approach, but there are of course elements of Socialist Realism in particular cases and geographies that escape this chronology.

This is not a matter of returning to a kind of Wölfflinian art history that is concerned with the careful delineation of different periodic styles and eras of thought. (Though in actuality a truly Wölfflinian history of, say, Socialist Realism in Eastern Europe, would be much more subtle and stylistically and psychologically sophisticated than Wölfflin’s detractors would insist.) However, it does mean being more honest about what kinds of factors we are truly focusing on when we periodize artistic movements and styles, and thus about what we are claiming is innovative as opposed to that which we claim is conservative, traditional, or retrograde.

5) When we consider Socialist Realism, we must also grapple honestly with the heritage of Romanticism, Realism (more on this below), and (Neo-)Classicism in the 20th-century. Again, the problem often arises in the case of a double standard: we would seldom deny the influence of Romanticism on many Modernisms (if indeed we would even set the two apart so sharply), but are often far more willing to set, say, the “revolutionary romanticism” of Chinese Socialist Realism over against the development of “Modernism.”

This is not a matter of historicist devotion to the continuity of discrete concepts or movements through time, nor is it methodological devotion to the elaboration of a particular venerated “tradition”; it will suffice to point out that in many cases (and this is undoubtedly the case in Albania), the presence of a strong ‘tradition’ in the visual arts was absent in many fields. In other words, we are not speaking of the continuation of Romanticism, of Greek or Italian ‘schools,’ of Classicism or Neo-Classicism, of some primitivism archaism—we are speaking instead of the emergence of these styles, ideologies, and tendencies in the context of modernization and Modernism. Of course, Socialist Realism did look to particular elements of past art history, such as 19th-century Realism and Classicism, for inspiration, and it did so because they preceded the “decadence” of Modernism. However, the lesson that this teaches us is not so much as lesson about a backwards-looking ideology, but about the continued (re)invention of certain styles and philosophies in the 20th century. Modernism participated in this (re)invention, and—as a Modernism—so did Socialist Realism, in a number of temporally and geopolitically specific ways that bear further investigation.

6) Finally, we must take the engagement with Socialist Realism as an opportunity to re-evaluate the status of Realism(s) in both 20th– and 21st-century art and culture. “Realism” (and its sometime partner, “materialism”) have recently enjoyed a resurgence in cultural theory, and this has—to some degree—triggered a re-evaluation of R/realism in art historical narratives. However, some of the recent efforts at this, such as Alex Potts’ survey Experiments in Modern Realism (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2013) do not fully address the problem, since they often simply embrace already canonical figures (like Pollock) as ‘realism’ and continue to dismiss styles that have already been too often dismissed, such as Socialist Realism. We owe it to ourselves to write a history of the relationship between Real/ism and the 20th-century (neo-)avant-garde that does not simply reiterate the geographical and artistic foci of, say, Hal Foster. Part of this history must be the histories of various Socialist Realisms, and these Realisms must be acknowledged to be as diverse as the Realities they denied, reflected, distorted, emerged from, and constructed.

Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative

Today’s post is a special one: a complete scan of the 1969 publication Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative [The People’s Army in the Figurative Arts], a massive publication featuring paintings, sculptures, prints, and posters chronicling the glories of the Albanian People’s Army. The book should be invaluable to anyone studying Albanian art and culture in particular, or socialist realism in general.

Ushtria cover

The album features a number of works I’ve never seen published elsewhere (including works by Edison Gjergjo, Danish Jukniu, and Isuf Sulovari) and, with over 100 illustrations, represents on of the largest collections of visual art published during socialism in Albania. Some of the images are in color, others in black and white, and their quality varies drastically, but some of the reproductions are quite clear and details are visible.

Happy reading!

Mësimet Konsekuente Revolucionare: Nëntori 9, 1977

This is the twelfth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. More posts with critical content are in the works, but for the time being I’m too busy to do anything except scan more documents…

 Nentori Shtator 1977_cover

Today’s post contains selections from the September 1977 issue of Nëntori. The first selection is Dalan Shapllo’s fascinating “Mësimet Konsekuente Revolucionare të Partisë dhe të Shokut Enver: Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin,” a review and ‘study guide’ for Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin, a collection of Hoxha’s writings and speeches on the subject of literature and the fine arts, produced between 1944 and 1976. (The full text of that book is available here.) Shapllo concludes his review of the collection by drawing the reader’s attention to two sections of the book in which Hoxha made concrete statements and suggestions regarding the realization of works of art. The first is, of course, the well-known letter written (in 1969) by Hoxha to the trio of monumental sculptors Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri, and Muntaz Dhrami in connection with the realization of the Independence Monument in Vlora. The second is the 1962 statement made by Hoxha to the Shkodran creators of the drama Plaku i maleve [Old Man of the Mountains], devoted to Bajram Curri. Shapllo points out that in both cases, one of the key ideas expressed by Hoxha was that the ‘great figures’ of Albanian history (Ismail Qemali and Bajram Curri, respectively) should be depicted as acting in close concert with the masses. Shapllo notes that Hoxha’s aesthetic interventions can be summarized as expressing the following two key principles: “1) Historical works [of art] must be characterized by revolutionary ideas, thus preserving their historical truth; and 2) the relationship of the masses and of the hero must be conceived as a dialectical and materialist one, in order to show that the masses create history and heroes can emerge from the masses and play a positive role only when they embody and reflect the interests of the people” (19). As formulaic and ambiguous as these principles might be, one can’t help but think that they might prove instructive for current politicians and artists in Albania.

Also of interest is the second part (I regret that I don’t have the previous issue of Nëntori, so I can’t offer you the first half) of an essay by aesthetician Alfred Uçi entitled “Arkitektura dhe Estetika.” Uçi, the author of the monumental Labirintet e Modernizmit, was one of the most prolific and distinguished aestheticians of socialist Albania, and his analysis of the relationship between architecture and the other arts—including the factors that distinguish socialist architecture from Modernist formalism—is enlightening for anyone interested in considering the precise character of the relationship between representational art and abstract arrangements of space and form in socialist Albanian culture.

Finally, the issue contains several great prints and drawings highlighting the activity of the Albanian youth in aksion in agricultural development.

Happy reading!

Beyond (The Grid)

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.

Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana
Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana
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.

Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana (detail)
Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana (detail)
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.”

Image // Anti-Image

Preliminary Expectoration

The grand manner consists of four things: subject matter or theme, thought, structure, and style. The first thing that, as the foundation of all others, is required, is that the subject matter shall be grand, as are battles, heroic actions, and divine things. But assuming that the subject on which the painter is laboring is grand, his next consideration is to keep away from minutiae to the best of his abilities lest he offend against the dignity of historical painting by passing over with a hasty brush things magnificent and grand, and linger amid vulgar and slight ones. The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible. This preparation consists of three things: arrangement, measure, and aspect or form.—Nicolas Poussin

Attunement

On Thursday, July 17, I finally had the chance to enter the Center for Openness and Dialogue (COD), the new multipurpose exhibition space, archive, and library that now occupies the first floor of the Prime Minister’s building [Kryeministria] in Tirana. The opening of this center represents the latest in a veritable whirlwind of moves made by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government, to open spaces that have previously been—for various reasons—inaccessible to the Albanian public. These spaces include Bunk’Art and the Shtëpia e Gjetheve [House of Leaves; the former center of surveillance and torture under socialism], both of which were turned into short-lived (since neither is now open to the public) and heavily-promoted (especially to international diplomatic audiences) multi-purpose museum spaces. (The “multi-purpose” aspect was only true of Bunk’Art, which—as its name suggests—was also some type of art installation space.) While the opening of these two spaces was part of a larger touristization (and consequent monetization) of socialist-era history, it seems to me that Rama’s claims about opening the Prime Minister’s building to the public are aimed more directly at his predecessor, Democratic Party (now laughable) leader Sali Berisha, than at earlier occupiers of the building. As such, it presents a different (though by no means unrelated) version of the recuperation of Albania’s architectural spaces from their past uses, and it also allows the Prime Minister’s continued insistence on blending art and politics to be fully realized—presumably in precisely the way Rama wants them to be, since the space is literally his front doorstep.

According to the COD’s website, its primary goals are to “offer an open and transparent encounter between various forms of public dialogue, aiming to demystify an institution which up until now has been closed to Albanians, despite the fact that it has a tremendous effect on their lives.” [“Duke ofruar një qasje të hapur dhe transparente përmes formave të ndryshme të dialogut publik, COD ka për qëllim të demistifikojë një institucion, i cili deri më sot ka qenë i mbyllur për qytetarët, edhe pse ka ndikim shumë të madh në jetën e tyre.]. The COD (an acronym derived from a name that exists only in English, which already makes claims to “public dialogue” seem completely unbelievable) contains several different “installations.” (I use this catch-all term, since I do not know how else to simultaneously describe a small library, books laid out in various aesthetic arrangements on tables, groupings of laptops with videos of the space being renovated, slideshows of archival photos, a “minilab of souvenirs,” an art exhibition space, a space devoted to videos and books describing the three contemporary artists whose works are installed, respectively, in that exhibition hall, over the entrance to the building, and in a small patch of grass next to the building’s main entrance ramp.)

Despite the overt eclecticism of the space, much of the commentary has focused primarily on the installation of art in, on, and around the building, and this is no doubt the most spectacular aspect of the COD. It is also telling, since it indicates the degree to which the primary thrust of Rama’s (or whatever team he worked with to design and fill the space(s)) curatorial impact has been felt through the presence of the specific artworks in the space (as opposed, say, to the documents now made available, or the display of archival photographs, or even to the idea that—in theory—this will now be a changing exhibition space that will later be occupied by other works. The works in question are Triple Giant Mushroom by Carsten Höller (installed in a patch of grass to the right of the main stairs leading up to the building’s entrance); the flashing, glowing Marquee Tirana created by Philippe Parreno hanging over the building’s entrance; and three photos by Thomas Demand (Tribute, Attraction, and Sign) mounted in the entrance hall to the building on its three respective walls.

SAM_0123 SAM_0055

A number of astute and interesting commentaries (here and here and here and here; I’m sure I have missed others) have already been written about this space, and I doubt that mine will say anything substantively new. I refer readers to these pieces first, both because they nicely lay out (in three languages) the main issues. Nonetheless, I think it is certainly a space worth dwelling on, as it nicely encapsulates both the possibilities and the failures of the relationship between art and politics in contemporary Albania.

I begin this post with Nicolas Poussin’s words on the “grand manner” because the artist Anri Sala—the Prime Minister’s longtime friend and collaborator—begins his own curatorial statement on Edi Rama (available here) with a discussion of Poussin’s Landscape With a Man Killed By a Snake of 1648, a painting that has long presented interpreters with a quandary. If Sala begins his discussion of Rama with the painting precisely because of the kind of mystery the work presents, in its play of layers of meaning and attention, I begin with Poussin’s words on the grand manner because, in a sense, I think they de-mystify precisely what Rama is about in the creation of the COD space. There is, I think, no better summary of Rama’s artistic-political strategy than “The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible.” The Prime Minister’s building, and indeed all of Albanian politics is the matter, and the idea of beauty will not descend until preparations have been made. This messianic descent of beauty into the reality, with its classicizing overtones, is, I think, finally the promise of Rama’s Rilindja.

In a series of (often disjointed—perhaps necessarily so) problemata, I would like to consider the dangers and possibilities of this strategy, as they are embodied in the COD. Most of all, I would like to truly suggest a multiplicity of points of potential engagement, precisely as the COD claims (however disingenuously) that it wishes to facilitate encounters, and I wish to do so in part precisely by comparing the installations of the COD to existing works of art that occupy or depict the Albanian space.

Problema 1

The most straightforward criticism that can and should be made of COD is that it really has nothing to do with openness and dialogue and everything to do with the expressions personal aesthetic taste on the part of the Prime Minister and the elaboration of an authoritarian example that may guide discourse in particular directions even as it occludes other avenues of articulation. In a sense, the primary goal of the COD should be posing the question: what should be said next? And who will say it? These are both, in their own right, very difficult questions to raise, but I do not think that the COD effectively raises them. Precisely because of its completeness, its neatness, its cleanliness, its security guards and polite young women dogging the visitor’s every step, its ban on photographs—all of these things (to say nothing of the fact that it is in the Prime Ministerial building) conspire to make its statements seem definitive rather than open-ended. (Although this does not exclude a definitive open-endedness from characterizing the space as well.)

However, the very goal of “dialogue” is itself questionable. Dialogue presupposes the presence of well-formed, even essentially constituted subjects; it often presumes the presence of a shared object between those subjects, giving shape to their world. Dialogue may perhaps be defined by some as antagonistic, but it is not the condition of a plurality of antagonistic viewpoints defining and redefining their positions vis-à-vis an always-emergent field of objects. If we acknowledge this, then dialogue is in fact a condition quite apart from politics. It is even, if we view politics as ground of the possibility of subject-formations, a subordinate condition that is no longer directly political. Thus, if the COD presumes to fuse art and politics in the realm of dialogue, it adopts a view of politics that is already quite narrow, a view in which meaning-giving subjects have been ontologically united by shared reference to objects (in this case, the Kryeministria and the works displayed within and upon it.

Furthermore, the goal of “openness” is likewise open to suspicion. I once argued (in a talk on the relationship between the new placement of Odhise Paskali’s statue, the now-crumbling Monument to the Anniversary of Independence, and Postbllok) that the primary thrust of Rama’s Rilindja, as it manifested in the monuments erected around the anniversary of Albanian nationhood, was characterized by a paradoxical movement from closedness to openness that nonetheless retained the claustrophobic interiority of the former enclosed space. Thus, the Rilindja in politics was part of a constellation that also included the imaginary celebration of “opening” of the Albanian nation after it became independent from the Ottomans, and with the “opening” of the country in the wake of socialism’s end. This “openness” is suspicious because—as the publicity surrounding the COD’s opening and German chancellor Andrea Merkel’s visit to Albania as a “short break from the tortuous eurozone negotiations over the resolution of Greece’s financial woes” made abundantly clear—it creates a situation of disparity between Albania and its “outside” (namely, Europe). While this is certainly not the only, or even the primary, meaning of “openness” that the COD allegedly aims for, it seems clear that “openness” is—as it appears in the Monument to the Anniversary of Independence and Postblloku, an exterior condition, while closedness belongs to Albania itself at an essential level.

A political institution declared that it served particular goals, but did not. Instead, it contradicted these goals in nearly every instantiation of its policy. But the goals themselves were uncertain in their own right, and eminently corruptible. Lucky the public whose institutions do not pursue their stated goals!

Problema 2

The COD clearly wears its relational aesthetics on its sleeve, not just in the inclusion of particular artists often associated with the movement, but in its overarching conceptualization. This, however, seems to suggest that Rama’s fusion of art and politics is fundamentally a relational one. On this account, the continuum between art and politics is framed in terms of relations. It is worth considering, however, precisely to what degree the COD is a space not primarily of relationships but of objects. This in turn prompts us to ask: to what degree is Rama’s politics a politics of relationships, and to what degree a politics of objects?

An artist’s goal was to create relationships among his viewers, but his works stubbornly retained the qualities of objects. Lucky the audience that could still behold an object!

Problema 3

Part of thinking beyond the Kryeministria as a site of enclosure and thus paradoxically as (according to the logic of the COD) a primary possible site for “openness” must involve reconceptualizing the Kryeministria and its new installations in a broader spatial network. This network might extend across the entire globe, through economic flows, or through the intertwining careers of the artists, curators, and politicians involved. It might extend across the country, shifting through levels of citizenship, history, and access (since, as the COD points out, the Kryeministria has long played a key role in the lives of the Albanian people).

I think, however, that one of the most productive approaches to contextualizing the COD in space is to consider it in relation to the Postbllok memorial (installed in 2013) located diagonally across from the Kryeministria on Tirana’s main boulevard. This memorial, erected to commemorate those who died during Albania’s socialist period, was designed by Fatos Lubonja and Ardian Isufi, and consists of three elements: a concrete bunker that once guarded the corner of Blloku, the area of Tirana where the nation’s elite resided during socialism; concrete beams from the gallery of the Spaç forced-labor mining camp; and a graffitied section of the Berlin wall.

It has been suggested that Carsten Höller’s Giant Mushroom bears a resemblance to the “concrete mushroom” of Postbllok, a resemblance that is certainly weighted with meaning. I do not think, however, that this is the only visual—to say nothing of conceptual—connection between the two installations (COD and Postbllok). If Höller’s Triple Giant Mushroom connects the COD to the bunker of Postbllok, this irrevocably transforms both works. The mushroom becomes not merely a conglomeration of fungal types that “can be seen as a commentary on Albanian politics”; it is also part of a spatio-temporal dispersion (the “spore” of the dictatorship) that grows up in a new guise, echoing in turn the tripartite division of the socialist realist relief on the façade of the Kryeministria (created in 1974 by Kristaq Rama, Mumtas Dhrami, Shaban Hadëri, and Hektor Dule). At the same time, the bunker of Postbllok might also take on the multiplicity of Höller’s mushroom, its claustrophobic space now internally divided against itelf and its apparent direct relation to the traumatic memory of the socialist period brought into question.

The skeletal, crooked concrete pillars of the Spaç structure, in which tourists often stand to have their photographs taken, likewise present a logical juxtaposition with Parreno’s Marquee. Both frame an emptiness that is linked inextricably with the past. Indeed, the aesthetic(ization) of ruins that defines the logic behind the installation of pillars is inverted by the sterilized brilliance of Parreno’s Marquee, which would seem to threaten to empty out the emotional and material resonance of Postbllok. However, these ruins also function as a metaphorical gesture at the ruins of the Kryeministria’s first floor. In doing so, the building itself takes on some of the characteristics of the “prison of memory”—it joins even more closely with Postbllok’s rhetoric of “opening”, not longer simply on a rhetorical level but also on a visual/structural one.

SAM_0050

Standing tall and isolated, the thin section of the Berlin Wall that forms part of Postbllok is adorned on one side by scrawls of colorful graffiti, while its inverse is a blank expanse of grey concrete. In other words, on one side, signs proliferate—but they are fragmentary, illegible, exaggerated, split apart from their original context. On the other side, one looks in vain for the sign, and the materiality of the object asserts itself: it is a pseudo-presence that obscures, suggesting a role something like what Tony Smith suggested when he explained that his Die was neither a monument nor an object. This same blankness, juxtaposed onto the three walls of the entrance hall of the Kryeministria, also resonates through Thomas Demand’s works, particularly Sign, which takes on something of the Berlin Wall fragment’s dualistic semiotics when the space is viewed in relation to Postbllok.

It is worth noting that, looking out from one of the rifle slits of the bunker in Postbllok, positioning oneself precisely in alignment with metal rifle cradle, one looks out directly at the entrance to the Kryeministria. The gaze of the past is inescapable, and it echoes through the structures of the COD.

Designing an exhibition, an artist struggled to decide whether it was more important to enforce a tripartite reading of the works presented, or a dualistic one. Lucky the audience that need not choose between the logic of threes and the logic of twos!

Problema 4

The most satisfying aspect of the installation of Thomas Demand’s Sign—a photo depicting a vast white expanse that—upon closer observation—the viewer realizes is actually the silhouette of a model of a giant handshake. The incomplete handshake, which Demand identifies as a piece under construction for the 1939 World’s Fair, a piece commenting on “partnership of the people of the world by consumerism,” mounted behind glass, is not simply a vast expanse of white that gestures at the fundamental openness and instability of all signs. It is also a sensitive reflective surface that functions in the way that is similar to the way John Cage interpreted and used Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of the early 1950s. Standing before Demand’s photograph, one sees both the photo and, inescapably, one’s own reflection against the bright light flooding in from the doors of the Kryeministria. Thus, Sign is both empty and ironic and full of situational meaning. Indeed, it seems to contain the entire situation of the viewer’s encounter with COD within it. One moves from one side of the image to the other, trying—in vain, at least as far as my experience went—to really see Demand’s image without the superimposition of reflected light and shadow clouding what is ultimately, in the end, just a photograph of a painted white field.

An image suggested a deep, almost pessimistic emptiness that threatened to escape the understanding of those who confronted it. But in this image, viewers could always see—at least—themselves reflected, however distorted and incomplete that reflection was. Lucky the audience that can see itself reflected in an empty image!

Problema 5

If there is, in my mind, a single aspect about the COD that is most problematic from the standpoint of practical engagement with the space, it is the ban on photography (of which both the security guard and the polite young woman who shadowed me through the space reminded me). Of course, I understand the practical considerations that plague any installation of art in terms of copyright and so forth. The ban on “non-professional” photography, however—and by this I mean, the ability of the public to snap a few photos of the exhibition with their smartphones or cameras—seems most philosophically contradictory to the interior space of the COD itself. The entire interior space, especially the installation of Thomas Demand’s photos, is concerned precisely with the possibilities of the image, as both object and sign. In the video accompanying the exhibition, in which Demand and the other artists explain their work, Demand insists on his inspiration by the kind of superficial and generalized media images that are ubiquitous in the capitalist era (and certainly in Albania). This is further reinforced Demand’s production of the photos of his models as the finished works (in most cases); the image, not the object created, is what matters. The fact that most members of the public first encounter the COD through media images confirms the relevance of Demand’s ideas to the space, and—in a sense—contributes precisely to its “closed openendedness.” According to the logic of Demand’s works, the whole COD itself could be encapsulated in an image; if it disappears tomorrow (as Bunk’Art and House of Leaves have done), the COD will still retain its ontologically primary existence, as image (rather than as space, or object, or relation).

Given this thought-provoking but circular and somewhat pessimistic reading of the space, it seems to me that exactly what the COD should allow is photography—and photography of the most superficial variety. Although many lament the rise of selfies, and the gradual waning of interest in surroundings themselves, in this case precisely what is needed is an engagement with the space that acknowledges and repeats—ad nauseam—the image of power presented by COD, wearing it out through prolonged (re)exposure and (re)transformation into an abundance of images. This would be a far more appropriate form of “dialogue” for the space to promote—and one in keeping with the title of Zef Paci’s archival installation Fotografitë Rishkruan Historinë [Photographs Rewrite History]. It seems unlikely to me that the COD will open itself up to any truly democratic political condition if it does not open itself to the dangers and possibilities of the proliferation of images. This proliferation holds within itself an ambiguity that is—in an important sense—anathema to the meticulous curation of the space, its perceived teleological completion.

A government declared itself to be merely an image of power, and power to be a function of images. Lucky the population that has recourse to images in the face of such a government!

Problema 6

As it is, the COD occupies a curious conceptual space that I would like to try to elaborate further. One of the strongest—and I think, quite legitimate—criticisms of Rama’s curation of the space (and the establishment of the COD as an art space within the Kryeministria) is that it drifts quite close to a totalitarian model of the aestheticization of politics. While I think this is true, I also think there is more to be said, and that this can most effectively be said by comparing Rama’s work to that of Albanian socialist realism. There was a time when I would have shied away from such a comparison, considering it entirely too sensationalist (given both that Rama is the son of Kristaq Rama, one of the great sculptors of Albania’s socialist years and that the mention of socialist realism generally often provokes negative responses and declamations of kitsch). Now however, the comparison is unavoidable. I wish to consider just one work of Albanian socialist realism, and from it to extrapolate—metaphorically—the interstitial space of the COD installations.

One of the greatest paintings from Albania’s socialist period is Vilson Kilica’s portrait Shoku Enver Hoxha [Comrade Enver Hoxha](1976). The work, which is a three-quarter portrait of Albania’s dictator, places Hoxha against a vast and utterly flat red background. The Leader himself stands looking out, a kind and strong benefactor, one fist raised in salute. The assertive flatness of the background is undeniably modernist; it creates a non-space of color that seems, quite explicitly, to turn to the tradition of Byzantine icon painting for many of the same reasons that Modernist painters did.

Kilica_Shoku Enver Hoxha_1976

However, the lower edge of this red expanse is broken; it in fact resolves into the lower edge of a waving flag—although it is clear that this is not a real, material flag, but merely its abstract and perfect foundational Form. Its two-dimensionality is complete and utter, and in this way it draws our attention to the surface of the canvas as a field where two coeval zones of color meet, framing the figure of the Leader. It is in this thin, tan strip of ambiguous space that—at lower left—Kilica has signed painting. One could say that, placing his name outside the zone of red that serves as the ideological ground prepared to receive the Leader’s image, the painter has removed himself from politics, has attempted to sidestep his role as a shaper of ideology. On could likewise say that, placing himself outside the zone of the red flag, Kilica precisely draws attention to himself as articulator of the ideological and conceptual round that levels the image to prepare for the clarity of the dictator’s presence. Rather than including himself within the zone of ideological construction, Kilica reveals himself to be in the elevated position of creator, imposing form and order to heighten the effects of ideas. In this reading, the space in which Kilica signs the work is behind the flag, and thus also behind the Leader—and in this space behind it is also before.

The ambiguity of this position is heightened, however, by the way that the flatness of the painting’s backdrop removes the hierarchical conditions normally asserted between creator and creation (just as the flatness brings into question even the robust ontological character of the Leader by suggesting that he too exists on a plain with the composition’s other formal elements, that his power is abstract like the symbolic charge of the flag’s brilliant red). This space, at once removed from ideology but continuous with it, creating and controlling it through partition and metonymy rather than imposing form from above, is also—in a way—the space of the COD. It is a space that wishes to escape certain ideologies, but at the same time articulates itself as their point of origin. Finally, it is in interstitial space in which hierarchy is both preserved (since the image of power is celebrated to its utmost) and undercut, since the insistent blankness of that image places it alongside—rather than above—its perceived effects. The COD operates in the space where surfaces sometimes appear to be behind others, while at other times that are continuous with them, unable to escape their dispersion in a space that may be multiple or may only seem that way. Far from creating a space where there appears to be none, the COD seeks to create an image in a space where there appears to be only image.

A politician sought to create space, but in doing so looked to art to tell him what space was. In the place of space, he found only image. Lucky the politician who finds only images, and no space!

Epilogue on Beauty

‘The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible. This preparation consists of three things: arrangement, measure, and aspect or form.”

 

 

 

 

Krijimi i Organizatës së përbashkët “Lidhja e Shkrimtarëve dhe Artistëve të Shqipërisë”—Nëndori 11, 1956

This is the eleventh in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. I am still in the process of planning several posts with actual content—that is, analysis, rather than simply more scanned texts—but they are still some ways off, so I’m going ahead and posting more scans for the time being.

cover_Nendori 11 1956

Today’s (again, rather short) post contains selections from the November 1956 issue of Nëndori. The selections discuss the creation of the collective organization “The Union of Albanian Writers and Artists” [Lidhja e Shkrimtarëve dhe Artistëve të Shqipërisë] Formerly, the two organizations—the Union of Writers and the Union of Artists—had been separate, and the issue contains the text the text of the decision announced by the Council of Ministers to unite them under one roof.

Also of interest is the “Kronikë Kulturale” section from the back pages of Nëndori, which briefly details, among other events, the opening of the first exhibition of Soviet art in Albania (and also the first exhibition of foreign figurative art in the country, according to the editors). The show opened in Tirana in October 1956, in the premises of the “Society for the Friendship of Albania and the USSR” [Shoqëria e Miqësisë ‘Shqipëri—BRSS’].

Happy reading!

“Aktiviteti i Lidhjes deri më sot…”: 1955 Plenum of the Union of Albanian Artists

This is the tenth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. I am still in the process of planning several posts with actual content—that is, analysis, rather than simply more scanned texts—but they are still some ways off, so I’m going ahead and posting more scans for the time being.

Nendori 3 1955 cover

Today’s (rather short) text is some selections from the March 1955 issue of Nëndori, the monthly journal of the Albanian Union of Artists. The issue contains the texts of some of the talks given at the annual plenum of the Union, as well as a summary of the events and discussions that took place. Given that the Union had been in existence for only about two and a half years at this point, it is particularly interesting to read painter Foto Stamo’s assessment of “The Development in the Figurative Arts” at this early stage in socialist Albania’s cultural project.

Of equal interest is Baki Kongoli’s “Activity of the Union of Artists from its Beginning till Now,” which summarizes the Union’s work in the preceding two years. In part this overview is notable because it specifically makes note of the help given by outside artists and cultural producers (such as composers, painters, and sculptors from the Soviet Union) to Albanian artists. Even more interesting, however,  is the fact that Kongoli’s assessment of the Union’s efficacy largely takes the form of a collective self-critique. In contrast to later plenary speeches, which would assert the endless successes of the Union and of Albanian culture in general, the middle section of Kongoli’s speech is grim. For example, he writes: “Ne mund të themi me keqardhje se konferencat dhe leksionet me karakter ideoprofesional nuk janë ndjekur jo vetëm nga anëtarët e Lidhjes por shpesh herë edhe nga anëtarët e komitetit drejtonjës.” No one has been doing their job. No one has shown up to the meetings. None of the annual goals have been met. In fact, not only were the goals not met, but the following year no one even tried to address what hadn’t been done the year before. No one has made contact with artists in communities outside of Tirana. …and so on and so forth.

In perhaps the most damning sentence, Kongoli writes “Nuk është përfituar sa duhet nga eksperienca e artit sovjetik.” Reading these early assessments of Albanian culture reminds us that the assertions of complete cultural independence—of a kind of socialist cultural apex ex nihilo—that would characterize later socialist discourse in Albania in publications like Nëndori were not always the norm.

Happy reading!

Labirintet e Modernizmit

This is the ninth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. I am still in the process of planning several posts with actual content—that is, analysis, rather than simply more scanned texts—but they are still some ways off, and I wanted to go ahead and post today’s rather imposing volume. Nonetheless, the book’s visuality demands at least some analysis—and no doubt much more than I offer here.

L e M_cover

Today’s text is Labirintet e Modernizmit: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste by aesthetician Alfred Uçi. The copy of the book I own is the 1987 2nd edition of the book; I have flipped through the earlier edition of the book, which I believe is from 1978, but I’ve never had a chance to sit down and see exactly what was added to the subsequent version. First off, I don’t recall the original edition having much in the way of color illustrations (and the 1987 version certainly has several of those), but I could be wrong about that. Certainly some or all of the final chapter on “Postmodernizmi” must have been written for the second edition, but it is unclear to me precisely what other changes and additions were made.

Uçi (who continues to publish on aesthetics today) was one of the most prolific writers on art and literature in socialist Albania, and—together with writers like Tefik Çaushi and Andon Kuqali—he was one of the most sophisticated aestheticians and art critics of the period. His work, of course, carries a high ideological charge, and nowhere is this charge felt more directly than in this truly mammoth (over 400 pages) volume on The Critique of Modernist Aesthetics. (It was, nonetheless, to be dwarfed two years later by the 1989 publication of his three-volume Estetika; I understand that, in the postsocialist period, he has published another such multi-volume work on aesthetics in general.) I was first introduced to this book by the philosophy and literature teacher at the high school I taught at in Albania—at the time he showed it to me, I could barely read any Albanian, otherwise I might have been a bit horrified that he was using it as a reference for teaching a high school art history course—and I have always been fascinated by Uçi’s compendious (if decidedly one-sided) knowledge and presentation of the history of aesthetic modernism. Indeed, I would venture to say the book is more thorough (in its elaboration of different persons and movements), at least with respect to Modernism, than many texts now used in America to teach Modern Art.

While I think the content of Uçi’s book is certainly interesting and useful for understanding the context of Albanian socialist aesthetics, I think its form is much more interesting (and it is here that I would very much like to be able to compare the earlier edition to this post-Hoxha, late-80s one). As Alban Hajdinaj has written, “Alfred Uçi’s theoretical writings, from the 1970s, could very well have been called postmodernist in the context of our country.”[1] Indeed, it seems to me that Uçi’s book occupies precisely a time of “the deepening of crisis” (which is the title of the first section of the last chapter, on Postmodernism)—and this is particularly the case in the insistent presentation of the apparent (but always defeated) correspondence between text and image. Indeed, the book is perhaps one of the best illustrations (forgive the pun) I have seen of the overwhelming failure of images to precisely convey what the author wants them to, and both in relation to other images and to the text of the book.

The cover of the book is already a fascinating example of this: Standing tall next above the title Labirintet e Modernizmit is Sali Shijaku’s Vojo Kushi (1969), and placed precisely below him—as if it will receive the explosion of the grenade he is about to hurl downwards—is one of Malevich’s Suprematist Paintings, alongside of which appears the book’s subtitle: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste. However, Malevich’s painting has already been truncated, cut off perhaps to ensure that it remains subordinate to Vojo Kushi‘s violence both in its position and in its proportion.  Already on the cover, then, the book pathologically turns a kind of violence back on Modernism —pathologically, because throughout the text the book (like almost all moral condemnations of Modernism) accuses Modernism of precisely this kind of corporeal violence.

In one particularly telling comparison, Uçi places the Venus de Milo alongside an egg by Brancusi and declares “Before the works of antiquity, which celebrate the beauty and purity of mankind, Modernism puts forth, with cynicism, works that scoff at human dignity.” A few pages later, he blithely dismisses the Futurists by setting the Nike of Samothrace opposite Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space (1913) and simply asking “A human being in flight, or a bottle on a pedestal?” The problem with this strategy should be almost immediately obvious— Uçi wants these juxtapositions to be completely self-evident and self-transparent, to the point that sometimes he provides no aesthetic judgment whatsoever, simply placing (in another of my favorite examples) a seascape by Vangjush Mio above a work labeled simply “Op-Art.” The clustered color illustrations in the book seem to relate only vaguely (at least as far as I have been able to discern) to what Uçi specifically says in the text, and sometimes the black-and-white illustrations interspersed directly throughout the printed text perform—in their seemingly complete dissociation—precisely the function of high Surrealism (or else the best practices of postmodernism). An image of Kristaq Rama’s Shote Galica dropped right into the section detailing Kafka is brilliant precisely in the way it causes one to question precisely what kind of aesthetic response the book is aiming for in its use of image-paired-with-text.

To return to the examples of the Venus de Milo  and Bracusi, and the Nike of Samothrace alongside Boccioni: what is most striking about these comparisons of classical and Modern sculpture is the corporeal woundedness of the works Uçi chooses. Indeed, the comparison is decidedly morbid—in spite of Uçi’s caption, the reader is almost forcefully directed to think instead “The works of antiquity celebrated the beauty of humanity, but now they are broken, and Modernism reminds us of these wounds.”… Or even more straightforwardly in the case of the Nike: “A human being without a head, or a bottle on a pedestal.” Thus, even as Modernism is accused of abusing the human figure and destroying its body and its dignity in the move towards formalism, the evidence as presented is somehow unable to convincingly argue that there is any true wholeness to human being—in art or elsewhere. Above all else, Uçi’s text (and his use of images) seems to be profoundly unable to put forward an alternative. Of course, the text is in the form of a critique, rather than a celebration of—obviously—socialist realist aesthetics…but the fact that it does haphazardly throw in a few illustrations of (Albanian) socialist realist works only makes the relationship between these works and Modernism more confusing.  Even the cover image reads both as the undisputed triumph of socialist realism over Modernism and simultaneously as an assertion of the profound similarities between the compositional strategies of both.

It is perhaps simplest to say that I have rarely seen a book in which the image (here, the photographically reproduced work of art) fluctuates so aggressively between two positions somewhat analogous to studium and punctum. Uçi’s book constantly has something quite clear to say, but at the same time both the text and more assertively the images in their discontinuity with the text wound us, suggesting disorder, fallibility, misunderstanding, the slow and gradual accumulation of crisis beneath the veneer of ideological and epistemological certainty. Viewed in this way, it is unsurprising that the book (both in its first, 1978 edition and in this subsequent edition) struggles to chronicle the degeneration of modernism in precisely the years (the late 70s and 80s) when the situation in socialist Albania began to slip towards its own constellation of unravelings.

Happy reading!

[1] Alban Hajdinaj, “Piktura e Jetës Moderne,” in Onufri XVIII (Tirana: Galeria Kombetare e Arteve, 2012), 10.

Lirizmi që Merr Jetë…: Llambi Blido’s Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën

This is the eighth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

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Today’s text is the complete volume Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën, published in 1987 by Albanian artist and critic Llambi Blido. Blido is quite an interesting figure in his own right; as a painter and as an illustrator of children’s publications, his works often experimented explicitly with stylistic strains of Modernism that—by the mid-1970s in Albania—came under harsh institutional criticism as ideologically dangerous. (See, for example, his Vajza në Pultin e Komandimit [Young Woman at the Controls](oil on canvas, 1971), hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Tirana and visible here. Toni Milaqi’s text “Emancipimi i Gruas dhe Ndikimet e Huaja” provides an insightful overview of Blido’s career and significance. An interview with Blido from 2009 is available here.)

Blido’s Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën is a collection of essays written, it seems, throughout the artist’s career up to that point, thought since the original sources and dates of the essays are not given, it is a bit difficult to determine their chronology. Some (particularly the exhibition reviews) are clearly from Drita, the weekly publication of the Albania Union of Writers and Artists, while others may have appeared in Nëntori (the aforementioned Union’s monthly journal) or elsewhere. Despite the lack of information about original publication (and indeed some may not have been previously published), the breadth of the sort essays is impressive and insightful. Blido’s writings span both analyses and interviews, and he engages with many of the greatest figures from Albanian twentieth-century art, including Abdurrahim Buza, Kristaq Rama, Mumtas Dhrami, and Vilson Kilica. While the book is not illustrated, images of several of the major works discussed can now be found floating around the internet. Blido’s observations are particularly enlightening given the specificity of many of his aesthetic discussions (a specificity sometimes—often intentionally—lacking in official discourses on art from the socialist period); he discusses the details of color and composition, and asks important aesthetic and ideological questions based upon these formal observations.

Happy reading!