The Unofficial View of Tirana (92)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Edi Rama in his office, inspecting the portrait of “father of the nation” Ismael Qemali and the wallpaper made out of Rama’s own felt pen drawings.
by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
Edi Rama must be a frustrated man. Frustrated by the provincial tastelessness of the director he chose for the National Gallery of Arts. Frustrated by the utter lack of vision of his Minister of Culture. Frustrated by the fact that his crown prince, the impending mayor of Tirana, has the artistic sensibility of a frog. So frustrated, that he wanted to show his country a single example of how to design and curate a contemporary cultural space. And he decided to do so in the only building, except his own house, where he can do whatever he wants: his office.
The façade of the PM’s office under construction
A few weeks ago, visible work started on the outside of the office of the Prime Minister, which also houses the Council of Ministers, much to the curiosity of the national media. This historical building along the central axis of the Boulevard of the Martyrs was designed by Italian architect Gherardo Bosio during the Italian fascist occupation at the end of the 1930s, and carries a concrete bas-relief later designed by Muntaz Dhrami, Shaban Hadëri, Hektor Dule, and Edi Rama’s father Kristaq during the communist period. It is officially a cultural monument of the second category, which, according to the Law on Cultural Heritage, “are only protected as regards their volumes and architectural contents of their outside image” (art. 27). Apparently the intervention on the façade was allowed because “it did not threaten the monument, as the addition was not put organically into the monument.” Apart from what this sentence may actually mean, the speed with which this decision was made by the National Council for Restoration is remarkable. I guess someone must have been in a hurry.
Merkel and Rama in front of Thomas Demand’s Sign (2015)
When the scaffolding was removed last week on Wednesday, on the day of the arrival of German Chancellor Merkel in Tirana, it turned out that a giant marquee had been installed by artist Philippe Parreno. Later that day I saw an image of Merkel and Rama holding a press conference in front of a giant photograph of Thomas Demand. Art works were suddenly invading the media, which, however, failed to properly analyze their meaning, background, or relations. There was a general outrage about the supposed damage to the façade of the building, some screams about “how much money this had cost,” and so on, but hardly anything about the vision that Rama had tried to articulate. Why these art works and no others?
Anri Sala (in art black) explaining something to Merkel and Rama in the new library at the PM’s office
The day after the opening, which I failed to attend, I went to the PM’s office to see the exhibition from up close. The entire ground floor of the building had been transformed into a permanent public space, dubbed “Center for Openness and Dialogue,” which, according to the brochure I received, “offers a unique blend of three venues: a digital room that provides public access to the digitalized archive of the Prime Minister’s office, […]; and internationally registered library, […] and an exhibition hall that will host temporary art exhibitions.” The COD “seeks to become a laboratory that investigates the very threshold where different fields of art, politics, and research meet and their potentials overlap.” Let us remind ourselves again of the fact that this space is on the ground floor of the PM’s office. This is a space he wants and needs. This is a space that is essential to his vision of culture and art in relation to politics, and it is this vision that should be investigated.
Marquee Tirana, Philippe Parreno, 2015
Let us focus on the temporary art exhibition, one of the main components of COD, and, as I understood from its director, personally supervised by Rama. In other words, we may treat this exhibition, whose curator remains unmentioned in the exhibition guide, to be curated by Rama himself (and perhaps his long-term collaborator Anri Sala and COD director Falma Fshazi). This is an important fact, because it allows us to treat this exhibition as an expression of Rama’s vision on the relation between art and (his) politics.
The first, and most eye-catching work, is Philippe Parreno’s Marquee Tirana, installed, as said, on the façade of the PM’s office. Parreno is an artist well known for his collaborative work, for example his movie Zidane with Douglas Gordon. We find him as a previous collaborator of Edi Rama in the context of the latter’s monograph of felt-tip pen works on bureaucratic paperwork, and as an interlocutor in a conversation with Rama in the context of the exhibition Creating Space Where There Appears to Be None (PDF on Rama’s website). This conversation contains a few important pointers, especially at the moment Rama compares himself to Parreno and Douglas’s Zidane, and later to one of Hemingway’s more famous protagonists:
[T]here is a huge difference in that he plays in a field where he owns himself and the whole space inside those parameters. The rules are the same for everybody and he has all of the tools, the capacity to have complete control. In my case, I have to play in a field where the rules are not the same for everybody and my ability to control the space entails withstanding those different rules for different people without betraying my consciousness. I have to manage this without lowering my moral standards. So it’s a huge effort. It’s like the man and the sea, you know, the old man who fights to bring a fish to shore and he finally gets there, he only has a skeleton of a fish.
This slightly melancholic passage recalls the frustration which I sense in Rama’s public persona, the inability to “own himself,” to have, like Zidane, “complete control,” and the constant risk of “betraying” his consciousness or “lowering” his moral standards. According to the brochure accompanying the exhibition, Marquee Tirana acts as a “wordless sign or label,” and is “ghostlike […] seeming to invite visitors in for a show rather than a visit.” In the context of the conversation with Parreno, the wordless invitation of the marquee, it’s nostalgic appeal to the citizens of Albania to see a “show” rather than pay a “visit” resonated with its melancholy. On this marquee, nothing is scheduled or announced; the only object it seems to advertise is itself. In a way, it is the most open invitation, but to what no one knows. It is unclear what a ticket costs and when the show ends.
Sign, Thomas Demand, 2015
The ghostlike absence signaled by Marquee Tirana is continued by three photographs of Thomas Demand inside the main hall, within an architecture of impeccable marble contrasted with an open ceiling proudly displaying its tubing and a state-of-the-art mobile curtain suspension system. The work of Demand, who is linked to Rama through the Hans Ulrich Obrist connection (HUO seems to have been the main curatorial accelerator behind most of Rama’s and Sala’s engagements with the non-Albanian contemporary art world from the very beginning), like Parreno’s, erases any specificity by recreating scenes for photography in paper and cardboard. Sign, which is premiered in the present exhibition, “depicts a workshop scene where a sign is being produced for the New York’s World Fair Building The World of Tomorrow” from 1939, “which promoted one of the last great narratives of the Machine Age: the unqualified belief in science and technology as a means to economic prosperity and personal freedom.” It seems clear that his belief was mistaken, and that if there is anything left of the optimism of that period, it is a structuring of society not very unlike Edward Bernays’s Democracity, which premiered during precisely that same World Fair. again we find a melancholic note in the choice of work, a sign symbolizing a handshake, unfinished, blank, and empty gesture that reflects the self-reflective impotence of Marquee Tirana. A blank canvas for the future, a cartography of which only the lines are to be filled in. This symbolism is even more amplified when seen with Merkel and Rama in front of it, each of them with their own can of paint, flanked by an absurd flag on each side. An erased handshake symbolizing “partnership between people of the world by consumerism” that everyone stopped believing in: most of all Merkel and Rama themselves. What Rama accomplished here is no small feat. The woman who just now brought Greece to its knees, is here fully incorporated into a performance she is not in control of.
Attraction, Thomas Demand, 2013
Tribute, Thomas Demand, 2011
The other two works of Demand on display, Attraction from 2013 and Tribute from 2011, resonate with the mild despair and detachment of Sign. The works, installed on the walls left and right side of Sign, both prominently feature a light source: the marquee lights on Attraction and the multitude of candles on Tribute, repeating and reflecting the hyperactive LED movements on Parreno’s marquee outside. Their opposition is nearly perverse. We can well imagine that the people that seem to have dropped out from mid-air from the attraction are commemorated in the photograph opposite to it. But on a more serious level they give us again insight in Rama’s thought of politics: being caught in an ever-revolving attraction without going anywhere, passing time after time through an incandescent gate, applause, screams of excitement, only to exit where he entered; and on the other side, endless commemoration, the realization of the many people who died for his regime to take place, killed in the National Liberation War, during the communist regime, the unavenged crimes of Gërdec and January 21, the endless, often faceless victims of crime and violence that continue to haunt his country to this very day. But, and this is I think conceptually the most important, these are not photographs of “real life,” but of carefully, obsessively constructed realities out of cardboard, only amplifying the unbridgeable distance between politics and its field of activity, between policy and everyday life, between Rama’s “consciousness” and “moral standards” and the uneven playing field beyond his total control. These photographs are images of such control depicting its complete absence.
Giant Triple Mushroom , Carsten Höller, 2015
The last (or according to the brochure, first) work in the exhibition, again positioned outside, on a lawn next to the building, is Carsten Höller’s Giant Triple Mushroom, evoking “various geographies, cultures, as well as degrees between edible and toxic,” which “can be perceived as a comment on Albanian politics.” Here we find Edi Rama in his more ironic mood. Apart from the colorfulness of the object, which clearly recalls both his own felt-tip drawings and his large-scale interventions in the urban landscape of Tirana, its tripartition could refer to the three main political powers in the country, or perhaps the three main religions. The cheeky aspect of the work, and perhaps also its only degree of seriousness, comes only across when it is seen as a response to and comment on Ardian Isufi and Fatos Lubonja’s Postbllok across the street.
Postbllok, Ardian Isufi and Fatos Lubonja, 2013
Postbllok incorporates as its main element one of the ubiquitous bunkers in Albania built by the communist regime, in popular speech also referred to as “mushrooms.” Höller’s mushroom (consisting of Amanita muscaria, Cortinarius traganus, and Clavariadelphus pistillaris), “a comment on Albanian politics,” thus repeats and ironizes the communist mushroom across the street, pointing at perhaps the persistence of a “bunker mentality” even in contemporary Albanian politics, but at the same time celebrating its colorfulness (and what is more colorful than a Prime Minister curating a freaking exhibition in his own office?), leaving unarticulated which part is exactly the toxic one (unless you’re John Cage or Höller himself, who has a doctorate in biology). Höller’s sculpture is therefore also an aspect Rama’s own aesthetics – colorful, ironic, teasing – placed in counterpoint to an overly heavy and “serious” articulation of commemoration, with excavated bunker, supports from the Spaç prison mines, and an equally colorful, and slightly out of place piece of the Berlin wall. The installation of Höller’s Giant Triple Mushroom is a Gombrowiczian gesture, which instantly invalidates all monumentality that surrounds it.
Regular followers of this series are certainly aware of my insistent critique of the way in which Rama pursues his (cultural) politics, and the way in which he articulates the relation between art and politics (as for example in his lecture at the Creative Time conference). But in a way, the exhibition he has curated (without acknowledging this publicly, however – come out, Rama!) in his own office space feels as if he is trying to formulate the problematics he unsuccessfully and insufficiently addressed in interviews and lectures through a medium he still seems to be most comfortable with: art. His exhibition throws down the gauntlet to any cultural producer in Albania (and any politician with artistic ambitions) in terms of balance, selection, and coherence. And I can only say that in spite of everything, this is the best and most stimulating exhibition I have ever seen in this country in what is without a doubt now also its best exhibition space. The tragedy of it all, however, is that the only place where this could happen is Rama’s very own office, and that the majority of the other cultural agents, beyond his “total control,” are still wallowing in slothful mediocrity.
About the Author:
Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular series on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.