The Unofficial View of Tirana (82)


Man pissing on Enver Hoxha’s grave, on his birthday (screenshot).

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

As the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Albania from the German and Italian fascist forces by the communist-led National Liberation Army is less than a month away, it seems that, except for a man pissing on Enver Hoxha’s grave, no one is really concerned with what this liberation means, who performed it, and at what cost. That is, no one except for the tiny tiny group of people that is the Albanian cultural scene (if one can speak of a scene, and if it is properly Albanian). The irony of the entire situation is, that although to a large extent those in the cultural professions feel the urge, if not explicitly entitled, to deal with Albania’s communist past (including denying it was communist), it seems by and large unable, unwilling, or unequipped to so. At the same time, the Ministry of Culture, which seems to have turned into the national waste bin for an ever growing pile of toxic tenders, or the national government for that matter, seems to be intent on “restoring order” to facilitate anything close to a broad debate on Albanian history, and even when it tries to, as I will discuss below, it seems that entire idea that the state could support or suggest such a debate, is met with nothing but fearful derision from cultural actors, which is as much a sign of the latter’s impotence, as of the former’s lack of a clear program or position on anything even remotely “political.” This is somewhat ironic, as the Ministry of Culture is at the same time insistently perceived as too political.

I would like to discuss a recent case that reflects this current, utterly sterile, situation. Namely, the recent selection of artist Armando Lulaj as Albania’s representative to the 56th Venice Biennial. For the first time in recent history, the Albanian representation to the Venice Biennial was chosen by an international jury, to the surprise of many comprising internationally respected cultural actors such as Boris Groys and Kathrin Rhomberg, Kosovar curator Albert Heta, and Albanian representative to the recent Venice Architecture Biennial Adrian Paci, as well as a representative from the Ministry of Culture. Once the selection procedure had been announced a few months ago, a quick look at the social media revealed a general sentiment of: “let’s get this over with we all know that Anri Sala [friend and collaborator of PM Edi Rama] is going to win.” Art critic Romeo Kodra, to whom I’ll return below, talked frightfully of opening “Pandora’s Box.” Nevertheless, a fine representation of the Albanian cultural scene, including well-known names from among both the metropolitans and settlers, Eriola Pira, Irgin Sena, Genti Korini, Ëndri Dani, Helidon Gjergji, and Armando Lulaj, among others, overcame any initial cynicism, and applied.

NEVER, Armando Lulaj, 2012

The response to Lulaj’s selection followed the same destructive and paradoxical logic as Freud’s broken kettle argument: 1) The Biennale selection had been intransparent (i.e. Anri Sala had been predetermined), which was contradicted by the fact Sala never even applied, nor was chosen; 2) The Biennale selection committee had been intransparent, which was contradicted by the fact that it the large majority of it was composed of independent international experts who will produce a full argued jury report; and then 3) The Biennale selection committee has been manipulated by an intransparent ministry (because clearly artist XYZ – that is, I – should have won). Personally, I think that Lulaj won the competition to a large extent because his work – as far as I can judge, and I have worked with him in the past – was the only oeuvre that actually responded openly and clearly to the overarching thematics set out by Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor, dealing inter alia with questions of memory and the destructive forces of history, as well as a revisitation of some fundamentals of leftwing politics and their influence and relevance in today’s world.

Banner of the Facebook page “Enver Hoxha – Albanian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale

On social media platforms, however, several people openly claimed, without giving any substance to their accusations, that the representative of the Ministry of Culture in the selection committee had manipulated the entire process. But the question is, to what purpose? Why would anyone want to manipulate art-theory grandfather Groys into selecting the right artist to serve the supposed evil cultural-political agenda of the corrupt Albanian leadership? The answer to this question is as baffling as it is revealing (I’m not making this up): to facilitate the return of Enver Hoxha, or should we say his specter, in national politics. Briefly after Lulaj was announced winner, a Facebook page showed up entitled “Enver Hoxha – Albanian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale,” featuring a header image with all the jury members wearing partisan scarves and hats, and a profile picture showing a cheering Enver Hoxha superimposed on the Venice Biennial logo. The reference here is possibly to Lulaj’s work “NEVER,” in which the large “ENVER” sign on Mount Shpirag near Berat was restored and anagrammatized into “NEVER.” I would say that it is at least an intentional misreading, if not a sign of bad taste, to claim that one of the few artists who has in recent years consistently produced meticulously researched work on Albania’s past and present, who has posited new materials, ideas, and forms of how to deal with its political history, at a remove from the juvenile slander and adhominem attacks – “you’re a (closet) commie” – of many, that he would somehow blindly revive Enver in Venice?

But perhaps the Facebook page and the minimal discourse of “likes” that surrounds it do not so much aim at Lulaj, as at the Ministry of Culture, whose representative is a depicted as a dressed-up question mark. An article published by Romeo Kodra entitled “The Art Biennial in Venice and the Bi-anal of Albanian Artistic-Cultural Politics” may give us additional clues (but not about its “bi-anal” aspect, which unfortunately remains shrouded in mystery). Kodra starts out by reminding us of the (largely absent and/or destructive) cultural politics of the previous Berisha regime, and then of the hope of change that the new Rama regime would have brought to Albania’s cultural landscape. However, after he lost in the competition for director for the National Theater, Kodra himself bitterly lost every single belief in change, and claims that like a veritable Don Quichot he will fight against that loss up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. (Good luck, Romeo!) Kodra then moves on to the selection of Lulaj for the Venice Biennial, citing the many voices whispering that they knew he was going to win. This is a factual error. These voices first thought Anri Sala was going to win (just check your Facebook history, Romeo), and only when a respectable international jury was formed they came to the logical conclusion that most probably the artist best poised to represent Albania in the context of the theme of next year’s Biennale, as well as with regards to his international experience, and the timing in his career, would win. This is not “whispering,” this is logical sense, a logical sense brought out by an impartial jury, as impartial juries happen to do. So much for the “whispering.” (Or we may suggest that most of the contemporary art market consists of “whispering.” In that case “whispering” cultural aficionados of Albania may need a reality check about which scene they got themselves into.)

I agree with Kodra that I would like to see the jury report presented in full rather sooner than later, to take away any lingering doubts. I also agree with him that Lulaj’s selection offers the possibility of intensifying the national debate on the function of art in our thinking through of history, but that it seems a long shot that this will actually happen (for many reasons, one of them being the miserable state of Albanian art criticism and journalism). But I don’t share Kodra’s “personal” fear: that because he really likes Lulaj’s work (he even writes about it without using the word “anal”!), he is afraid that PM Rama or Minister of Culture Kumbaro will “empty” the work through their political machinations, that somehow, Lulaj’s work would be unable to resist the grinding forces of a corrupt politics, and will willy-nilly transport Enver’s specter, the ghost of totalitarian politics, the emblem of the inaccessibility of the state, the figurehead of all that’s rotten in Albanian politics (whether right or wrong) to the international stage of Venice. I quote: “If a politician or politics in general sticks its nose in this work it will by definition be over.”

Profile picture of the Facebook page “Enver Hoxha – Albanian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale

This fear shows the fundamental naivety of the Albanian cultural scene: that artists and cultural producers would somehow be defenseless against the state, and that approval by the state renders a work by definition powerless and void. This blind fear for the ruthless expression of power typical for Albanian politics (no matter how pleasant Rama’s ties are) and the “protection” of “weak” art, the cynicism that any governmental support corrupts the perceived purity of a work and ushers in the ghost of politics past (and/or present and/or future) into any oeuvre whatsoever, is if anything a sign of artistic and political immaturity. The fact that any governmental support can only be given in order to corrupt or appropriate a work, instead of haphazardly trying to start up a minimal amount of structural funding for the arts, no matter how immature or premature certain proposals may be.

The image of Enver superimposed on the Venice Biennial logo is nothing but the assertion of the perceived impotence of art – any art – and reflects a thorough ignorance of what three generations of institutional critique have tried and are still trying to accomplish. It is a passive-aggressive reflex of bedroom painters and desperate studio dwellers that doesn’t bring us any further in thinking through the relations between politics and art, whether in the past, present, or future. So this is the paradox: they want – feel entitled – to deal with the communist past, but without being politically implicated; they want to stay clean. But to want to stay clean means you’re already dirty. So let’s bring Enver Hoxha to the Venice Biennial, and let’s see how long he survives!