ANRI SALA

Missing Landscape & Promises: A video installation

February 20 – April 6, 2002
Opening Reception: Saturday, February 23, 7-9pm

TRANS> area
511 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001
Ph: 646.486.0252
Fax: 646.486.0241

Inagural exhibition of TRANS> area: First solo exhibition in New York:
ANRI SALA

MISSING LANDSCAPE
By Ann Sala

Imaginary Interview with Anri Sala
By Edi Muka

Nocturnes
By Edi Muka
Manifesta 3, Ljubljar, June 2000. (Revised) 

"Astonishing Disillusionment"
by Nicolaus Schafhausen
Manifesta 3, June 2000. (Revised)

“Anri Sala: Unfinished Histories”
Conversation with Massimiliano Gioni, Michele Robecchi and Anri Sala
Flash Art International  #214, July-Sept. 2001, pp.104-107. 

“Anri Sala: Images Never Sleep,”
by Charles- Arthur Boyer
Art Press, May 2001, #268, pp. 24-28 

“Venice Biennale,”
by Martin Herbert, Tema Celeste #86, Summer 2001. 

“Anri Sala”
by Allison Linn
Artnews, Feb. 2001, Review of exhibition at gallery JOHNEN + SCHOTTLE: Cologne. 

“Anri Sala,”
by Astrid Wege
ArtForum, Feb. 2001, p.161.
Review of exhibition at gallery JOHNEN + SCHOTTLE: Cologne.
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_6_39/ai_75577328

[PROVIDE LINK]

“After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Eurpe,”
by Ronald Jones
ArtForum, Feb. 2001, pp 126-127.
Review of exhibition at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. [PROVIDE LINK] 

“Anri Sala: Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,"
by Daniel Birnbaum
ArtForum, Summer 2004. [PROVIDE LINK] 

“Beyond Translation,"
by Ossian Ward
Art in America, Dec. 2004

Guarded Chilhood
By Alexandre Costanzo, 2001 

Geographies
By Alexandre Costanzo, 2000

  

MISSING LANDSCAPE

By Anri Sala

 Each time the ball goes away, the goalkeeper follows it, and disappears in the “missing landscape”.  When he returns, he always enters through the door to get back into the playground.  This action is like the theatre convention where the actor moves from the kitchen to the waiting room through the trapdoor, even though there are no walls or visible boundaries between the rooms in the scene.  The actor considers the entrances to the different spaces.  Each time the children enter the playground through the goals, considering a space in a space where there are no walls.  They are unconsciously cutting the playground off the world surrounded by the mountains.  They are playing the game and the play!  There are moments of tension and violence, receiving a stone when giving the ball, just a few meters away from the playground and a few seconds before stepping in.  The children are playing the adults living in the “missing landscape” in-between the playground and the world within the mountains.  They are also scoring a few great goals.

 

—Anri Sala 

 

IMAGINARY INTERVIEW WITH ANRI SALA

By Edi Muka

Edi Muka: It seems that there's a very subtle interconnecting line between your works in video, although they seem so different from each other. If we take into consideration for example some of them, like “Intervista”, “Nocturnes”, “Promises”, “The Missing Landscape”, or even “UomoDuomo”, they all involve something on the fatality and on the irreversibility of the things done. Further more, almost all of them speak about similar situations or common responsibilities, about their long term social impact, or the way in which such actions have inflicted our lives. How do you encounter your subjects? Do you have something in mind when you start working or you live it up to the pure chance to structure your work? 

Anri Sala: (seems a bit confused by the long introduction)… well, maybe you're right. I don't think I think too much on what you define as “interconnecting hidden line” of my works. Actually this is an interpretation of yours that might stand for it, or might not. It's interesting though to hear it even though I consider it as a twofold phenomena. On one side it gives a general insight to my work, which is useful of course, but on the other hand I can not accept it as an ultimate truth about it, because that would mean to touch the end and exhaust the sources for me. 

E.M.: Does this mean thus that you like to live it up to the casualty of things to create the basis for your work? 

A.S.: (no answer, moves his shoulders…) 

E.M.: Or do you consider it as a natural artistic praxis to be deliberately not fully aware of what your next project shall be. Or further, if this is true to some extent, maybe there's something in this practice which derives from your previous education and way of life in which you were brought up, and that has remained somewhere in your subconscious… 

A.S.: Maybe, but don't forget that now I function in a totally different system, a system in which one can not survive upon the standards of what you described above, that we both know very well. 

E.M.: Of course, I'm aware of that fact, but there might be a third way, which fuses the previous standards – non operative in the new system you function with – and the new ones, that are totally exhilarating and exhausting for the pace they impose on you – producing thus a new situation that allows you to be consciously unconscious in detecting the potentials for your work. 

A.S.: Uh… seems hard to follow but sounds correct. But still, what do you mean by the “interconnecting line” that has to do with fatality and the irreversibility of the things done, how can you relate the works one with the other within this framework? 

E.M.: Well, let's take for example all the works we mentioned above, that constitute an important part of your carrier.

In “Intervista” you elaborate on a fatalistic situation of an entire nation that produced something everybody had to regret afterwards. There seems to be a missing link that caused that fatality, and everybody shares the same responsibility in these regards. Then you try to recreate this missing link by re-interviewing you mother in a different time and context.

While in “Nocturnes”, the film is entirely threaded together by the idea of fatality. The smell of death is present all over it, although in a very subtle manner, which makes it more curios of course. Still, at first glance there seems to be a missing link between the two totally different characters, a link which you recreate very delicately by establishing common communicating points between their stories.

If we consider “Promises” on the other hand, either in the text or in the script the presence of the ultimate action of fatality – the murdering – is obvious and directly stated, even though it is clear that this is not just for the sake of fatality in itself. In the meanwhile, the inability of the character to vest the features of the gangster and state the sentence, is the recreation (the invention) of the missing link that in this case interrupts the simple narratives of Fatality. This is also very present at the “Missing Landscape”, in which it's the subject itself and its image as well that has suggested what we're talking about so far… 

A.S.: (interrupts) Ok, ok, I got it, it's enough I guess. Even though I have to say that I don't consider myself as the artist of fatality.

I imagine that you'd be commenting my other work “UomoDuomo” on the same terms right? 

E.M.: Absolutely not. I mean I don't consider you as the artist of fatality. I was just trying to trace a hidden subconscious line in your work, which seems to reflect a very contemporary issue and makes it so powerful and heavy, even when it seems light. But it's by no means that I'd define you as a “fatalistic artist”. But since you started talking about it, let's comment on your work “UomoDuomo”. 

A.S.: Yeah, what about it? 

E.M.: Well, first of all I think it does match and reflect the first topic of “the third way” in your creative process, that we touched upon at the beginning. As you've described the situation, you're in Milan to work on another project, and suddenly you encountered this old man at the Duomo. This shows that you allowed the case to propose you the work (previous educational standard), and you go for it, because you constantly need works (new system).  

A.S.: This is a bit too simplistic, almost banal, don't you think so? 

E.M.: It might sound so, but it has a good percentage of truth in it as well, doesn't it? 

A.S.: Ok, let's go on.

E.M.: All right then. In my view this man does represent a great depiction of the condition of elderhood, as the quotation of the prize you were awarded with in Venice said, but not only. To go a bit back to our previous topic, (A.S. shakes his head chuckling), this man embodies a condition of fatality contained not only in himself and his age, but in the entire structure of the work. He does represent a fatalistic condition that doesn't have a come back, he can not restart, even if he was given the chance. On the other hand, he is filmed in a fatalistic context as well, which is the Duomo, a church, a cathedral. One might argue on this fact by saying that the cathedral is not a fatalistic space. I'd say that it is not only fatalistic, but it definitely is such in its essence. The whole idea behind it is, the religion itself suggests that only through a cathartic fatality – Death – one can gain what he's missing in this life, the Eternity. 

A.S.: And… 

E.M.: And furthermore, to continue the logic of your interview with Obrist, it is the presence of this man that defines the nature of the space. You mention for example the lady that stays at Les Halles and cleans the glass as it was hers, changing thus the belonging relationship of what you describe as “public property”. That's what the sequel of your film does as well: it changes the belonging and the context of the space you depict in your video through tracing just a few minutes from the life of a homeless guy. And you go further in this direction and name the work “UomoDuomo”, wiping thus out the borderline of belonging between the subject and the space; here one can no longer distinguish if it's the man that belongs to the space or it's this latter one that belongs to him. By shooting these frames of images you bring together two completely separate entities, the old man and the church and fuse them in such a way that it resembles a playing card, whichever side you turn it there's always one head up and one down, but the card remains the same. By doing this operation you change the dimension of the space, bringing it to a very human level. Normally Duomo imposes on you quite an impressive and authoritarian feeling, but at “UomoDuomo” you spoil the space of this quality. Strangely enough the reflection of light upon the wooden frame behind him creates the association of a luxury coffin that is waiting for the old man to finish his dream and wake up there where there's no end. While in the mean time, people moving in the background seem as mere walking ghosts or shadows. I guess you were very determined to keep it almost black and white and put no colors in it and as I can see from you previous interview it's crucial to you that the video has no sound. The space thus becomes some sort of shelter for the old man, the only secure place where nobody can disturb his sleep, not because they care about him, but because they care about the space and what it implies in itself. It is here I find that the Beckett like nature of this work that Obrist mentions and that you confirm comes up, in creating a non-defined situation out of two defined entities. 

A.S.: Well, yes I agree, even though I have to say that I feel a bit strange, because in an interview as far as I know, you're supposed to do the questions and I am supposed to give the answers, while here… 

E.M.: Oh yes, you're fully right. We can swap though and continue the right way. So… (Suddenly the power is off and the interview can not continue. Both of them stand up and walk out of the place to find another place where the power doesn't go off and continue the interview according to the standard.)  

Edi Muka

 

Nocturnes

By Edi Muka

Manifesta 3, Ljubljar, June 2000. (Revised) 

Anri Sala is a young Albanian artist of the 1990s generation who has successfully built up an artistic reputation. It is interesting to trace his development, since it is of importance not only for understanding his own work and personality but also for gaining a broader perspective on the general context of this development.

 

Sala belongs to the generation of young Albanian artists who received their education after the system in Albania changed. He had already spent many years under the old regime in his early youth, and it was experiencing both situations from a different point of view that gave Anri Sala the opportunity to create his artistic position and come up with really interesting work.

 

This development began during his student years with his loss of interest in painting and his research in video. A more complete work emerged in 1996 with his final graduate project, ‘The Tongue.' For 26 minutes the screen is invaded by a licking tongue, which spits and obsesses the viewer with its almost endless movement.

 

In 1997, Anri Sala was given the opportunity to study at the Video Department of the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Equipped with a rich cultural background from a land as different as Albania, he began to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the use of his medium. Consequently, his work began to take on a new profile. His first production, ‘Déjeuner avec Marubi,' is very shortbut intensely ironic. Continuing his interest and research into the social phenomena of his homeland, Sala selected two pieces of meaningful contextuality, the Marubi photo ‘Women in Shkodra dress' and a detail from Manet's ‘Dejeuner sur l'herbe.' With great irony, the artist addressed the issue of the body and sexuality, a typical taboo for the Albanian mentality.

 

This work was immediately followed by a trilogy that does not contain the same sophistication or subtle irony. To a certain extent this is understandable, considering the dramatic and significant events in Albania in 1997, which explains the very strong political influence inthese pieces. It was only after some time that Anri Sala succeeded in attaining the full dimension of his earlier attempt to compress and describe his cultural reality and background. And this happened in his first film Intervista. It is in this film that exploring socially-oriented problems and addressing social taboos or phenomena becomes an important feature of Anri Sala's work.

 

Beginning with the early video works mentioned above, Sala has shown a growing interest in these subjects and their development through the medium of video. ‘lntervista' tells a personal story but reaches the full dimensions of the Albanian universe. It is the personal story of every individual. To every Albanian, that historical sequence, excellently compressed by the artist, is a mute one, but it bears its heavy burden and casts its shadow into the present Albania.

Following the same reflective line is the short film Nocturnes'. Once again, the body of the work is built on a story, but this story is not the defining narrative as in Intervista. The video camera itself works in a new way as part of the story-creation process, testifying to the artist's higher professional maturity.

 

The story is a metaphor of the Balkan situation, but nothing is told directly by any of the characters. This gives the film a universal reflective dimension in which the value and devaluation of human life are shown in a powerful manner that conveys a sense of permanent anxiety to the viewer. It is the kind of film, I believe, that speaks differently to people from different cultural backgrounds. The artist has chosen a rather intriguing way of adding up the emotional weight of the story. Avoiding a simple storyline (which would make it a mere documentation of the events in somebody's life), Sala de-fragments the narrative line of the film by cutting and pasting bits of the story as it passes from one character to another. This is a very refined solution that creates confusion in the viewer. On the other hand, it is this solution that makes you lose the limited notion of a personal story and makes you perceive the story ‘globally.'

 

As in his other works, of course, a slice of irony is present here as well, but it is a very subtle and sad irony. On one side there's somebody speaking about killing people, or people being killed around him. trying to describe the noise and the colours of death. On the other side there's another guy speaking about common, even banal things like the life of his fish and his worries about what might happen to them. Even the opening of the film is really strange: somebody talking about how beautiful his fish are, contrasted with a pair of hands and a voice describing how he killed four people on an exact date and hour. The irony here gets very political but still remains very indirect. It seems as though we have in front of us two completely different worlds: Western and non-Western. Each of them seems to live on its own, without knowing or understanding the other. The artist gives a ‘nonsense' word to Jacques, whose only worry is about his fish, and a shivering story to Denis and his nightmare. Jacques says, “I always felt like a Martian,” which makes the irony sharper, while the play-station views from Denis are even sarcastic. Both stories find a perfect match, however, when they mingle with each other. Watching them tell their stories, we can lose track of where one stops and the other starts. But slowly we are able to trace the common thread that links the two: “humans are not violent, but they are taught how to develop their cruelty. When you've got a gun, you've got to take care of it. There they tell you: you work with your gun, you sleep with it, you have sex with it! A gun is normal. So when you get here and you don't have it, it changes you!” A beautiful attempt to build a bridge of understanding between different cultures and territories, Denis' words point to a crucial moment that indicates differences and similarities at the same time.

 

“And the sound here is really stressful because it's everywhere, and then sometimes it stops and it's awful! And when it stops I say to myself, oh shit, it's a disaster, they're all going to die!”

 

At this point the words are no longer mere irony. It is here that the balance is changed and the phrase makes you feel like rushing out and getting a breath of fresh air.

 

The artist's careful choice of characters and the way they are followed during the film almost pulls you inside them, making you feel the same feelings and experience the same nightmares and anxieties.

 

"If I write about something that happened 15 years ago," says Sala, "it's much easier in Albanian. If I write down an idea that concerns me now or that I've had in the last few years it's probable I will write it in French, but there are no rules." Sala is not deterred by geographic boundaries, having made films all over the world, from Milan and Tirana to Tourcoing (France), North Carolina and now Iceland--although, strangely, never in Paris. But as he moves further into unknown territory, the works seem to become more abstract, and the narratives more obscure. The thoughts and words that cannot easily be translated between disparate languages and cultures turn into mere sounds, especially in Lakkat (2004), which was shot in Senegal. Enveloped in semidarkness, one of two African schoolboys hesitantly repeats unfamiliar words enunciated by his teacher in their native tongue, Wolof, alternating with the occasional stirrings of butterflies and moths on a fluorescent light.

 

Subtitles flashing at the foot of the screen reveal Sala's chosen text: an array of Wolof phrases and words describing varying shades between white and black as approximated in other languages. While the boy chants "Nuul, Bu nuul, Ku nuul kukk, Bu nuul kukk," the English titles read "Dark, a dark thing, a very dark thing, a very dark one." Because the Senegalese language has words akin to some in French, the subtitles in Paris corroborated many of the Senegalese sounds; toubab (meaning "European" or "white person" in Wolof) became toubib in French (slang for "doctor"), whereas the British version exhibited at London's Hauser & Wirth gallery translated toubab as "Whitey," losing the mimicry of sound but giving a more accurate interpretation.

 

 Perhaps Sala intended to add this racial dimension to the work, casting himself or the viewer as a white outsider looking toward Africa as alien or "other." Or maybe the connection between "light" and "pale-skinned," for example, merely surfaced in the process of translating a child's recitation into French, English and German. Then again, perhaps Sala engineered this entire "gray" area. After all, the title word, lakkat, which in the French becomes charabia (gibberish) and in English "outlandish," more closely signifies "one whose native tongue is different from the language of the place where he is." In the absence of an absolute meaning, the rhythmic sound and captioning lend to the film a staccato, abstract poetry.

 

Since Intervista, Sala has moved toward using language and words for hypnotic repetition or as an allusive obstruction to clear meaning. However, the problem of words did not lead to an abandonment of narrative. In the 15-minute work titled Dammi i colori (Give Me the Paints), 2003, Sala returns to a semi-documentary style for an interview with his former mentor, the painter Edi Rama, now mayor of Tirana. Rama's utopian vision for the city involves covering the exteriors of many of the run-down apartment buildings with bold, bright shapes, transforming house painters into hard-edge abstractionists.

 

Apart from Dammi i colori, the half of Sala's production routinely described as "documentary" was not represented in the Paris-Hamburg show. The works that were on view brought to mind the self-deprecating Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard by Jorge Luis Borges in 1967-68, the audiotapes of which (much like the footage in Intervista) were thought lost for over 30 years and only recently found, transcribed and published. In a state of semi-blindness--Borges could only appreciate amorphous patches of yellow (a comparison with Sala's Ghostgames seems appropriate here)--the elderly writer described poetry as "word-music (or perhaps word-magic) of sense and sound," an apt description of Lakkat. And Sala could have been thinking of Borges when he said of his search for an apt translator for the passages of Lakkat, "I need to find someone who knows the art of making one word speak several times."

 

In the lectures, Borges discussed the futility of translation and advocated the immediacy of storytelling, though he did so in a groping, meandering style, perhaps because he gave the talks without any notes. Sala shares those preoccupations with the untranslatable and with immediacy, as achieved by digital footage, as well as a seemingly unedited approach, for his camera may dwell on unmoving or unremarkable scenes for long periods of time. Although it appears that the artist leaves in more than he takes out, Gregor Muir, a curator of the current Tate Modern show that includes Sala, argues that he actually is a very skilled editor who "entices our own observations" without imposing his vision. Sala's work represents a separate and specific reality, in which he may suggest the rules of the game or attempt a translation but never reveals the final score or discloses any answers to his riddles.

 

"Entre chien et loup," curated by Laurence Bosse, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Garimorth, was shown at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Arc [Mar. 25-May 16], and traveled to the Deichtorhallen Hamburg [May 14-Aug. 1]. It was accompanied by a 200-page illustrated catalogue with essays by the curators and other contributors. Sala had a solo show in London at Hauser & Wirth [June 3-July 17]. His work is included in "Time Zones: Recent Film and Video," curated by Jessica Morgan and Gregor Muir, Tate Modern, London [Oct. 6, 2004-Jan. 2, 2005]. Sala's first 35mm film, Now I see, commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago, is currently on view there [Oct. 21, 2004-Jan. 30, 2005]. His videos and photos were at Marian Goodman, New York [Oct. 12-Nov. 13].

 

 Ossian Ward is a freelance art writer and editor based in London.

 

COPYRIGHT 2004 Brant Publications, Inc.

 COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group 

 

“Astonishing Disillusionment,” Manifesta 3, June 2000. (Revised)

by Nicolaus Schafhausen 

 

The crisis of confidence in which both filmic as well as photographic images find themselves – which did not begin with the digital revolution – forms part of the standard topics of contemporary art. The visual has long since stopped serving as a guarantee for a stable referent. Yet with Anri Sala, the thematicization of the now ambiguous visible is considerably more complex. In his 1998


video Intervista, the medium of film as a preserver of the real is presented not as a manipulation, but rather as a semantically open structure, the interpretation of which makes distinctions via the (re)construction of the past. For these reasons I'd like to limit myself in this text on Sala's work primarily to his most well-known piece, Intervista, not least because I consider this work exemplary of his subsequent video work up until now.

 

Pictures don't lie, but they are silent. This makes them susceptible to narrative pocketing and visual indifference. Yet it is precisely in the knowledge surrounding these strategies of uncoding the visually factual – and this is what's special about Intervista – that Anri Sala insists on the testimonial powers of the filmic image, and the historicity writ large upon it. By reconstructing the missing soundtrack, putting language into the image, and trusting in the evidence of the word, the pictures reveal what has essentially always been there.

 

But other works, such as ‘Nocturnes' from 1999 and ‘Byrek' from 2000 (which are also being screened in this exhibition at De Appel, his most comprehensive thus far), are characterized by the fact that, despite a specific spatial interest, as well as the creation of defined environments as such, and particularly by the limiting of past and present, they symbolize the possible future. As his works structurally insist upon space and time, on geography in relation to the past and the present, this raw material reconfigures the spatial-temporal parameters.

 

In the works of Anri Sala, space and time become almost pliably visible and perceptible categories.

 

After objects in cinema had exchanged their visibility for their meaning, and their presence for the dynamics of history, it was only a matter of time before artists who work with the media of film and video would latch onto the dynamics of meaning. In this regard, the work of Anri Sala appears to me as nearly exemplary when it concerns the constitution of new and contemporary developments in the current production of art. When the Albanian native Anri Sala changed apartments, he found a roll of 16-mm film which showed a TV segment from an interview that his mother, the leader of the communist ‘youth alliance' from the 1970s, gave to Albanian state television. Back then, the images and the sound were recorded separately from one another; on this roll, the soundtrack was missing. Intervista (which means ‘interview') is about the search for language that has been lost, and this search for language is at the same time a search for one's own identity.

 

The work of this Albanian links, as biographical investigation, the individual and the collective quests for identity and history. Provoked by this found filmic document, Sala achieves an astonishing work of reconstruction.

 

It is primarily the migrants from the first and second generations who, as artists, have considerably and increasingly influenced the European art world over the past two years. It is the local points of reference, and, in old-fashioned terms, the loss of the homeland, that these artists have successfully implanted into the Western art world. With the fall of communism, and at the latest with the Gulf War, the Europe of today is no longer divided into East and West. The political notion of the third world has also been settled by this point; as George Schoellhammer so, clearly puts it, “the world is now divided into the West and the rest.” Anri Sala's interest in his own transnational biography, in the ‘domestic exoticism' that this represents, is hardly a romantic one.

To have what is one's own serve as the occasion for aesthetic artistic production, in an era in which the private is now little more than a fantasy when confronted with the reality of the technical and legalistic possibilities of surveillance, can also be seen as a form of resistance. Especially in the light of the artistic production of the past decade, in which the aesthetic artistic practice has often been displaced by criticism of institutions, of the media or of representation, artists such as Anri Sala can today ask themselves whether their aesthetic work and thus artistic practice possibly contains a repressive relation to itself. Like other artists with comparable biographies, he directly brings into the artistic discourse his cultural capital of the familial and social experiences of break and continuity, life in a historical construction that's different than most others, and the complex network of the transnational's experience. What's special about  Intervista is that Sala convincingly manages to place the individual experiences in a collective context. This distinguishes his work from many other productions by younger artists, who also investigate concepts of subjectivity and identity, yet often without reference to their positioning within a social field. The topics don't usually address the social and cultural context, but instead all too narcissistically deal with sleeping, dancing, drinking, youth, and beauty.

 

Anri Sala travels from France (the country he selected to study in during his twenties) to Albania. He visits his mother, and they watch the recovered film fragments together. It remains unclear whether the mother is able or willing to remember the contents of the interview. This scene is a powerful one for the viewer, since everyone has potentially similar experiences and recollections.

 

Sala visits his mother's former party comrades. It becomes more than obvious by this point that no one really wants to remember the past, be it society's or one's own. The contemporization of the past does not fit present-day Albania. A possible future will not present itself from the fall of the old system. From this point onwards, Anri Sala's journey becomes a journey along illusion and disillusion. He has students at a school for the deaf read his mother's lips. With the help of a teacher, the motions of her lips are translated into phonetic language.

 

Translation difficulties become obvious here: the ideological-rhetorical terms that dominate the interview are no longer well-known, almost ten years after the fall of the old political system.

 

In Intervista, a characteristic of every ideological language is hereby clarified; namely, that said language is only valid in the system of which it forms a constituent part. In general, this fact permits the speculation that language contributes to the production of the everyday reality within political systems, here being the communist dictatorship. Sala confronts his mother with the reconstructed text. He overwhelms her with the results: “I don't believe this. It's absurdly... it's just spouting words!” The fifty-year old in denial, shocked by her own ideological stereotypes, eventually retrieves the lost language with her son. Intervista becomes a portrait of the mother. And the portrayed now portrays her son. The investigation gives her the impulse to narrate a part of her biography anew.

 

The film ends with a sincere discussion about the hope of the past, and the future of the young generation. For the artist, the contemporization of the past allows for the artistic product.

 

From the perspective of the audience, Intervista maintains the fragmentary character, consistently seeking out its completion, much like the Europe that does not want to admit to its history. The past is a metaphor.

 


Gioni, Massimiliano and Robecchi, Michele “Anri Sala: Unfinished Histories,” Flash Art International  #214, July-Sept. 2001, pp.104-107. 

Massimiliano Gioni and Michele Robecchi: The first time we saw you work, it was in the Albanian Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale, two years ago. It was a video titled Intervista, in which you forced your mother to face today what she had said in the past, by restoring the audio of an old video that portrayed her during a communist rally. A quite direct, straightforward story, built on a simple narrative, with a beginning and an end, and nothing to do with the more flashy video loops that are fashionable in the art world today. Your video was somehow more cinematic, and yet more real…

 

Anri Sala: It was my first video. I learned a lot through filming and editing it. Above all, I experienced and learned how far one could go touching where it could hurt, but still respecting the other while implying one-self. It is not easy to give out your personal history or that of your dearest people, especially when it has been embroidered with disillusion, pain, loss, responsibility and failure.

 

MG&MR: Despite its simplicity, Intervista was reflecting a quite complex, even absurd scenario: historical tragedy as seen through your eyes and the eyes of your mother. It was like writing history infirst person.

 

AS: I'm very often working with problems that are or could be mine; therefore, I deal with them in a personal way. There are times when I'm dealing with somebody else's problem, appropriating it, because I believe that there is a very small step that could bring each of us into everybody else's situation. When this gets in your head, then you understand that when our common past is still fresh, it's unfair to speak about it in the third person. But it would sound like an interrogation if you do it in the second person, without being personally implied. In the Albanian communist society most of the people were accidentally and not consciously implied in the system. Or then again, they were mainly consciously implied in their ideals and accidentally implied in their results. There was no choice; the decisions were taken in the name of the people: reflection meant prison or a death sentence in the name of the people, the same people who had no more choice than you, the same people that were simply happy to survive. What makes the situation complex today is finding personal responsibility in the collective one. I don't have a solution; I just try to scratch things when I feel that I'm succumbing to the immoral collective mentality and passively accepting reality.

 

MG&MR: A year after came another video, ‘Nocturnes,' in which the references to history and biography, narrative, and reality are even more blurred. ‘Nocturnes' is again made up of a series of interviews: a mercenary and an obsessive collector of fish and aquariums take turns in describing their lives and, as the film unravels, the two characters almost seem to exchange roles. The violence recalled by the mercenary is somehow transmitted to the life of the fishes that live trapped in the aquariums: the banality of life becomes a metaphor for borders and ethnic conflicts.

 

AS: At the beginning ‘Nocturnes' wasn't my personal story, but it slowly turned into it. When I met the young mercenary, I never thought of him as a criminal, a serial killer, or somebody insane. I just thought that if we could divide his responsibility into parts, each of us should get one. It's the same with the other guy living with his fishes: if it looks like something could be wrong with him or all those fishes, it's simply because he suffers the consequences of a bad social situation whose origins are probably the neighbors next-door.

 

MG&MR: So, you would say the characters in your movies are accidental products of a dysfunctional situation? Actually they all share a sort of maniacal behaviour: the characters in Nocturnes — just as your mother in Intervista — unconditionally subscribe to some role models, as though they were ready to give up their personal freedom for the sake of an ideology, a hobby or, more simply, for the sake of violence.

 

AS: My mother subscribed to a bigger ideal than personal freedom, things like the “people's struggle against imperialism, working class freedom...” And she ended up being part of a system that took away every single freedom from its own people. The military guy in Nocturnes got involved in a service that was supposed to deliver hope and peace to people in disaster, but he was awarded insomnia and nightmares. The fish man tries to set up a harmonic coexistence between hundreds of fish, which goes beyond a simple hobby.

 

MG&MR: How do you find your characters?

 

AS: I don't know how I find them, trust me, I never know where I'll go looking for the next one. I guess everyday thousands of stories go on around us; what makes me choose one story instead of any other is my sensibility or my predisposition towards that topic or that problem in that specific moment. What plays an important role is the awareness of what's happening around you: you have to drag yourself out of the somnambulism of the everyday.

 

MG&MR: Do you think that as an artist you have the responsibility to face history and engage in a commentary on what's happening in your own country or in your own reality?

 

AS: Ideally, my responsibility should not simply be a commentary on what's happening in my country: it should be about participating in it, first of all because I consider myself part of a community there. Unfortunately, the way things are now, commentaries are tolerated but participation is not yet welcome. Yet the tolerance is growing, and I hope that gradually more people and ideas will find their place in society.

 

MG&MR: In your videos, the absurdity of violence and history comes across through the simple means of juxtaposition. You alternate past and present, like in Intervista, or you present two characters who apparently have nothing to do with each other, like in ‘Nocturnes:' it's as though your work were merely a matter of editing.

 

AS: The juxtaposition of different stories is extremely important: alternating past and present, moving to different places, from here to there, overlapping narratives... This alchemy of images and sounds helps to create a simulacrum of reality, an alternative present time, which is the time of a projection, and which could actually be more real than what we think reality is.

 

MG&MR: There is a strange mistrust towards reality in your work, even though everything you do seems informed by the language of television and documentary films.

 

AS: Maybe, I don't know. I think there are no such direct influences. Television and cinema were never really part of my everyday life. In Albania, the only TV program we had started at 18:00 and ended at 22.00, mainly airing the same news program and fiction film three times a day. Everything was so unreal that I remember the only realistic thing was the weather forecast.

 

At the end of the film Intervista my mother says: “I think we passed to you the ability to doubt, in the sense that you always have to question the truth.” This is part of the mistrust towards reality that we inherited: people had to believe in a reality that didn't exist, and they had to act as if they saw it everyday. It was like The Matrix, the film, have you seen it? You didn't have the choice to believe or not, and lots of the people probably didn't want to have one either. Actually in The Matrix there is this great scene I absolutely love. In this scene they ask Neo, the One, if he wants to go “Our way or the highway?” And Neo opens the door of the car he's sitting in and tries to leave. Trinity stops him and says: “Neo, please, you have to trust me.” Neo answers: “Why?” Trinity: “Because you've already been down there, Neo. You already know that road. You know exactly where it ends. And I know that's not where you want to be.” Neo closes the door. When I saw the film, I thought this road could be every street in Tirana and I couldn't stop thinking of all the people there trying to find a way out.

 

MG&MR: So far your work has proven a certain distance from the more spectacular forms of today's video art. Somehow, it seems like you are more attracted to reality, more interested in the characters rather than trying to reach a specific effect.

 

AS: I'm always trying to reach a special result with each work, and I feel this necessity to produce certain specific results every time. That's what drives me from one story to the other. When I turn my head back, these stories are there for me like milestones. Maybe I don't remember every moment of the walk, maybe I didn't mind each step, but I know that I went through that walk consciously.

 

Since my first steps with painting, since the time I was studying in Albania, and later in France, I got in touch with new people and different situations: all that generated new doubts that sometimes proved to be hurtful, because they were triggering my insecurity, creating a feeling of uncertainty. And yet those doubts help me in my work.

 

MG&MR: How do they help you?

AS: The sense of beauty changed. The way the world was presented to me changed. What was given to see changed. The flux of the changes and the images they generated were of course important to my evolution, and for awhile it was impossible for me to deal with certain problems through painting, photography, or still images. That's why I started working with video. I found that the ambiguity of moving images was more interesting and meaningful than the ambiguity of still images. Maybe it was just a personal problem, something that was simply related to the social and political changes in the world I was living in. Now I'm also working with photography, it feels as if I could have that gift back again, I mean this possibility of negotiating meanings all through one image.

 

MG&MR: But for your latest participations in the biennials in Berlin and Venice, you still decided to work with videos...

 

AS: In Berlin I showed Byrek, a video and a slide projection. It's a film/recipe, an answer to a letter I received: better, it's more about the necessity to answer rather than about the answer itself. I got this letter from my grandmother: she had sent me the recipe for Byrek, a traditional dish in Albania. We used to eat it very often when I was still there. In the video we see the hands of a woman preparing Byrek, laying out the flour, kneading the dough etc., while from time to time, through the kitchen's window, we see planes taking off. Every time we hear their noise, the camera chases them through the window, following them until they disappear. On the other side, in the slide projection, I wrote the story of my grandma's Byrek: usually the more you lay out the flour of the Byrek the bigger it gets, but my grandma's Byrek actually got smaller and smaller as time went by and my sister and I left. So the piece in Berlin is an interplay of Byrek and planes, nutrition, and absence. The piece I presented in Venice was a video installation called Uomoduomo, a filmed sequence showing a man (uomo) sleeping upright inside a church (duomo). The sleeping man falls in his sleep every now and then, coming back to his first position and falling again and again in a peaceful real time, which looks like a slow motion. His fall and rise seem as much choreographic, religious, blasphemous, or just like the endless sleep of someone who is looking for a shelter or waiting for something to happen.

 

MG&MR: In a couple of years you have found yourself in a couple of biennials. Even implicitly, biennials promote this vision of the art world as a border-less, international community. What is your perception of today's internationalism and global vogue?

 

AS: Some borders are transparent, forgettable. Some others are not. The idea of an intemational, global, borderless world is an invention of the occidental culture, so it becomes its reality. Thus, the white cube becomes a place for global, international, borderless art, which is witness at the same time to a fragmentary world, made of prejudices, intolerance and separatism.

 

Boyer, Charles- Arthur, “Anri Sala: Images Never Sleep,” Art Press, May 2001, #268, pp. 24-28. 

Aged 26, and with only six videos to his name, Albanian artist Anri Sala is already a noted presence on the French contemporary art scene and is becoming increasingly well-known abroad, too. His stock has risen sharply since his participation in Voilà, at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2000) and since he won last year's Gilles Dusein prize.

 

“War doesn't leave us a chance of escaping: you may have killed a man, you still want to live, you still have the strength to live after that, all you have is the strength to live, and it'll never end until the war itself has decided to put an end to us!” Arnaud Cathrine

 

First sequence: night, exterior, a man (Jacques) is bringing home a live fish in a plastic bag full of water. The camera follows him through the glass panes and screens of his shop-cum-apartment. He releases the fish into one of his many aquariums as he explains didacticallythat, since these fish are predators, it takes time before an exogenous specimen is accepted and integrated into the community, even though they all belong to the same species. Second sequence: the camera focuses on the hands of a young man (Denis) as he talks about his life choices and about the moment when, aged 18, he first killed a man.

 

Neither character is named in the film itself, only in the closing credits. Of the first we see no more than his half-hidden face, of the second just his highly expressive hands. Now the monologues begin to alternate, intertwining these two individuals who hardly know each other, even though they both live in the same district of the Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing conurbation in northern France, not far from the Studio des Arts Contemporains in Le Fresnoy.

 

This is one possible description of Nocturnes (1999), the third of Anri Sala's videos, which has won his budding career the Prix Gilles Dusein, set up in commemoration of the eponymous gallerist who, with his curiosity and determination not to adopt a certain bourgeois mode of contemporary art-making, shook up the small Parisian art world about a decade ago now.

 

The Real outside the Real

 

Anyway, Nocturnes, which Sala made at Le Fresnoy when Robert Kramer was visiting teacher there, is very much in the spirit of Dusein. It skips out of reach of categories and cliches by virtue of its dazzling mastery of its medium and its acute awareness of the roles and functions of images and discourse in today's world.

If, at first glimpse, Nocturnes may look like a close cousin to the fly on the wall documentary, an echt slice of life cut thick from the body of that contemporary reality that never makes it into the dizzy waltz of mediated (because media-friendly) confessions and assorted freak shows, we soon realize that image and editing are perfectly under control here, that there is real mise-en-scène evident in the use of framing (loose for the first man, tight for the second) and the position of the camera (mobile for the first man, fixed for the second), the succession of sequences, the overlapping or even slight discrepancy between sound and image and the “plasticity” of the nocturnal light. Like Chris Marker's La jetée or Marguerite Duras' Le Camion, Nocturnes attests the desire to insert an overtly professed fictional element into the retranscription of the real, or conversely (but then is it really a process of reversal?), to capture this fictive quality, or “fictionability” that can characterize the real when it gets “beyond itself.” This phenomenon is also evident in another early video, Intervista, albeit in a different mode, one that combines documentary realism and self-fiction (not so far from certain aspects of Raymond Depardon's work).

 

For if the two interlinking confessions that constitute Nocturnes never make any direct demands on our compassion or pander to voyeurist impulses, it is because Sala never just places his camera in front of his subjects, never just films what "happens," or whatever it is that these two individuals may want to tell us. Rather than simply opening a window on the exoticism of their world, or allowing them their 15 minutes of fame, the film follows the very personal ways in which, on one side, an adult who is almost drowning in his passion for his fish and, on the other, a still adolescent former peacekeeper from the Balkans, find ways of coping with the singularity of their experience, with the relation between their solitude (albeit one surrounded with images: real images for the first, virtual images for the second, or nearly), and the social and the political spheres. In other words, it shows how their “I,” although particular and remote, is related to our “we,” which is close and immediate: for this piece is not about everyday life, but about a form of existence that reflects on something that we all have within us.

On one side, then, there is “Jacques,” an initially friendly and open figure, who locks himself away in his passion for fish, enacting a primitive gesture of exclusion, rejecting an outside world that no longer seems to absorb either his life choices or his anxieties regarding the social organization manifested by his animals (the search for an absolute harmony or equilibrium as analogy or metaphor of a human ideal?).

 

On the other there is “Denis” the “soldier of peace,” who lightens the terrible burden of the killings that he has on his conscience by his extraordinarily mature perspective on the role he played in the Balkans, by an efficient and lucid organization of his return “home,” back to civilian life, and by the use of video games as an escape from his insomnia and nightmares (the theme of these games being war, combat and car racing: here too, his “reality” is reflected onto a fiction, a virtuality that is not exactly similar or synchronous, as if to better leaven its gravity: face to face with his Playstation, he seems indeed to be weightless, out of his life and his world, unfolded from himself.

 

Eluding the Grip of Images

 

We are not so far here from the Robert Mitchum figure in The Night of the Hunter, from De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or from the hero of Benny's Video). Thus the words of the two figures in Nocturnes are never merely one-dimensional, exemplary, allegorical or iconic, but are constantly traversing different strata of language, going from connotation to denotation, from metaphor to metonym, from denial to Freudian slip. Likewise, the camera that accompanies them (that pursues or joins them, seeks them or comes back to them) is continually moving through successive spaces delimited only by the thresholds that are doors and porches, reflective or transparent envelopes (windows, glass panes, display cases), or screen images (fish tanks, the Playstation). The term "to reflect" comes from reflectere, meaning to "withdraw, fold back," and "reflexion" comes from reflexio, meaning the "action of turning back.” But does the act of drawing in one's consciousness from the self, from others and from the world coincide with the image that we have of ourselves and that we hope others have of us? And does it fit with others and with the world as they are or as they were? It is no doubt here, in this fold, in this interval, in this gap between the enfolding and unfolding of consciousness that Sala's two "characters exist, and it is undoubtedly from the place of this space that they function as an "image, a that they take up a position and communicate to us their consciousness of the world.

 

Seen in the light of this reading of Nocturnes, Intervista (1997), one of Sala's first videos, which was shown at Manifesta 3 and at Voila, suddenly gains considerably in density. At first viewing it comes across as a journalistic report on modern Albania (documentary realism, hand-held cameras, direct interviews interspersed with shots of streets or countryside, archive footage), seen through the prism of the journalist, Sala himself. The guiding theme is the discovery, during a move, of an old newsreel in which Sala's own mother, as director of the Albanian National Library (you couldn't wish for a more obvious symbol), is interviewed during an international congress of communist youth held in the days of Enver Hoxha. The thing is, though, that this seminal document has no sound track. Sala's film thus records his attempt to track down his mother's missing words (or words that went missing during the days of oppression that nobody likes to talk about any more).

 

His search for his mother's words, for (who knows?) the mistakes of the past, will take him to, an institution where deaf-mutes are taught to lil read and to "speak" with their hands (to make the visible legible, or "audible"). On the way, however, interviews with others who were directly or indirectly involved in the film will reveal how some of them compromised (the power of ideology and discourse) and others fell from grace ("fear of the street is finite, the fear due to political oppression is endless," says one of them, a former sound engineer at the national television station, and now a taxi driver). But just as the former are not condemned as traitors, so the latter are not built up as heroes. The same balanced vision is applied to Sala's mother, the dualistic, linking figure who articulates family an national history. Byrek (2000), which focuses on the artist's grandmother making the Albania national dish for her absent grandson, is another work in which Sala combines the familial an the national, the geographical and the emotional. This is done, notably, through the image of hands (making the byrek). Their expressive topography, like the hands of "Denis" in Nocturnes, the deaf-mutes in Intervista, seems almost literally to contradict speech, to open it up. Words are not innocent, but nor are images.

 

In fact, Intervista works through a whole range of registers and categories of images, as if seeking to escape their power: black-and-white image and color images, reportage, hastily filmed out takes, recreated images, mise-en-scene, newsreel images, propaganda images, objective images, subjective images; video images, television images, movie images—these different levels of filmic language all replay in their different way the same seminal scene, each version introducing a discrepancy. How does one makes "bits of reality" talk by superimposing sound, a voice speech or discourse over the image? Here too, the development of the story, of the plot – of what is revealed to us by the words of the is interview, this Intervista—intersects with a growing awareness of the failure or defeat inherent in all images, and indeed in any interpretation of images; of their incapacity to say "the” truth. The only truth(s) or accuracy, it seems, is to be found in-between between layers, between folds, between the enfolding and unfolding of history and memory. And the more one tries to get away from one's own history, the more inexorably one is pulled back into it, even if, as Sala emphasizes, "this past is the past of a time that they did not choose. When voice and vision no longer coincide, when the legible does not match the visible, then images must be made to talk, to inter-view one another, to con-verse (to turn into one another' And the topography of these images turns out to be shaped by our own sleepless obsession. Here is one definition of the uniquely valuable work of Anri Sala.

 

 

 

“Venice Biennale,” Martin Herbert, Tema Celeste #86, Summer 2001.

By Martin Herbert 

Anri Sala

 

Martin Herbert: At the Venice Bieniale you are exhibiting Uomoduomo (2000), a short video loop that depicts an old man, jerking spasmodically and seemimgly half-asleep, in Milan's Gothic cathedral, or Duomo. It's evidently a scene that you chanced upon, but how did you feel about filming him ?

 

Anri Sala: Not uncomfortable, because it's not like spying. Plus. it made sense to me to show it, and when that's the case, it goes beyond the question of whether I feel bad about it or not.

 

Martin Herbert: What interested me about Uomoduomo was its implicit question of who was making best use of the church—the man, or the tourists who walk obliviously past him.

 

Anri Sala: Yes, this is the main point: what does it mean to "use" a church? Is it a shelter, a place to concentrate, to pray, or to take photographs because the church is a work of art? And this is what interested me most, besides the fact that I happened upon this man. You said you found the Duomo singular because it's in an area sunounded by shops, but the way people go into it, it's like a shop too, and dependent on visitors.

 

Martin Herbert: The man's social status is highly ambiguous.

 

Anri Sala: This is also very important for me. You can't tell anything about his charactcr, whetller he's a beggar, a crazy man, a homeless person, or just someone who needs a rest before going the next five hundred meters. So you don't feel sate with hUll. If he's crazy, and you're not, then that's voyeurism—but you never know that it might not be you at some point in the future. The film is quite rough, almost black-and-white. You can't deduce much from the man's clothes. I took the sound off too, because sound would make the film seem safer. The film is very ephemeral and fragile— you're never sure if the image will still be there in three seconds' time.

 

Martin Herbert: Your films have covered disparate subjects, from your mother's Communist past in the found footage of Intervista (1998) to the unlikely insights into violence shared by an aquarium owner and a young soldier in Nocturnes (1999), to the traditional customs of your homeland in Byrek (2000). Are there many consistencies in your working process?

 

Anri Sala: Each work develops in relation to, or reaction to, what I've been doing before. In the case of Nocturnes, it was also connected with my move from Paris to a small town in Northern France that has a lot of social problems. I lived there for a year, for my studies, and I wanted to get to know the people. But after I got to know these two people who are in the film. I didn't try to meet anyone else. I had a real feeling that they could work together. because I knew that they had some strance points in common. but I had to reveal this through the editing.

 

Martin Herbert: Did you start Nocturnes with a firm idea of the connections that you wanted to make?

 

Anri Sala: Yes. but it's difficult to do because it's not fiction. I didn't write the story. but I had it in my head. I knew what the men would say in their interviews, and that the film would depend on parallel editing between the two. It turned out to be like a bet with myself. that I could do it. You have four days to make the film, and then it's all in the postproduction. Nocturnes is more cinematic than my other works. In Intervista it was important that people believed that the story of my mother was true. In Nocturnes  it was more interesting that people didn't have to believe it. People who have had these types of experience will believe it. Others never would, even if I filmed it in a documentary style. Why should I make a sacrifice for those who would never believe anyway?

 

 Martin Herbert: Your work has been shown in both film festivals and galleries. Nocturnes is a cinematic film for a gallery space. You've also made movies that are more in the tradition of artfilms and screened them in cinemas. Which audience—gallerygoer or moviegoer—do you consider first?

 

Anri Sala: I don't naturally think about the difference, but I have to be aware of it because the audiences are different; the space is different, and the public doesn't get engaged in the same way. I prefer showing in art spaces. We go to cinemas to escape, to see someone else's life, whereas we go to art spaces to confront something, to see something that you might imagine happening to you. And that's what I want, for people to think, "That could happen to me." 

 

 

“Anri Sala” Allison Linn, Artnews, Feb. 2001, Review of exhibition at gallery JOHNEN + SCHOTTLE: Cologne.

 

Anri Sala, one of the artists who represented Albania in the 1999 Venice Biennale—the country's first year of participation—attracted notice with his 1998 awardwinning documentary Intervista. It is based on Sala's discovery of 20-year-old footage of someone interviewing his mother, who, at the time, was head of the Albanian Community Youth Alliance. With the sound lost and Sala's mother unable to recall what she had said, the artist took the film to a school for the deaf, where it was deciphered via lip reading. As part of the video, his mother is presented with her words and discusses both her past ideals and life in contemporary post-Soviet Eastern Europe.

 

For this show, Sala presented a more subdued piece titled Byrek (2000), a 21-minute color video of a woman making the bread called byrek. According to the gallery notes, Sala, who was born in 1974 in Albania and now divides his time between Paris and Tirana, remarks that some of his earliest childhood memories are of his grandmother making bread for his family. In the video, an Albanian immigrant living in Paris serves as Sala's model, rolling the dough into a nearly transparent layer, turning one corner over, adding some filling, and then expenly shaping the dough into a snakelike curl for baking. The video is projected on a sheet of upon which is printed his grandmother's handwritten instructions on how to make the bread.

 

It was strangely entrancing to watch the woman's hands and forearms—one never gets a glimpse of her face—while she silently goes through the complicated motions. As she works, her hands grow an ever deeper shade of red, but otherwise, she seems little moved by the domestic task. Cued by the camera's rarely changing angle, viewers can identify with what Sala must have felt watching his grandmother make bread, absorbed and longing for the outcome.

“Anri Sala,” Astrid Wege, ArtForum, Feb. 2001, p.161. Review of exhibition at gallery JOHNEN + SCHOTTLE: Cologne. 

“After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe,” Ronald Jones, ArtForum, Feb. 2001, pp 126-127. Review of exhibition at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. 

[PROVIDE LINK] 

 Birnbaum, Daniel, “Anri Sala: Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,” ArtForum, Summer 2004. 

[PROVIDE LINK] 

There is something soothing and even soporific about repetition; it is, after all, the foundation not only of lullabies but also of certain hypnotic techniques. Sometimes, however, the monotony of repetition becomes irritating, unbearable, indeed, eventually torturous. The Paris-based Albanian artist Anri Sala is an expert in creating mesmerizing forms of repetition that produce strange states of mind, but he never goes so far as to cause pain. In the film Uomoduomo, 2001, which won the Young Artist Prize at the 2001 Venice Biennale, an old man in a Milan cathedral is drowsing away. His head drops for a second, then jolts back through a natural reflex, then falls again, then jolts back, over and over again, his spastic in-between state extending benignly to the viewer, who is slowly lulled into a similarly sleepy condition.

 

Sala's recent show at the Couvent des Cordeliers, organized by Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and curated by Laurence Bosse, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Julia Garimorth, included a number of more recent films that also explore repetition--in physical, linguistic, and perhaps political manifestations. All were displayed in low-lit galleries, a kind of twilight that the French call entre chien et loup (between dog and wolf), which is also, appropriately, the title of the show. Since the majority of the works were shot at night, Sala's idea was to project darkness into a twilight zone rather than the usual light onto darkness. In this ambivalent visual environment, you don't quite know what you see, and you soon accept the "possibility of being wrong and also of being taken for someone else," as Sala describes in the exhibition catalogue.

 

Entre chien et loup is also apt for its reference to animals, which are abundantly present in Sala's recent works. Cabs, stray dogs, and butterflies all appear, along with an old, pathetic horse that stands alone on the side of a Tirana motorway in time after time, 2003, its body illuminated only by the headlights of passing cars. Again, it's very difficult to discern what exactly is going on: There is no explanation as to how the pitiful creature ended up in this predicament. Perhaps it was left behind, perhaps it escaped the slaughterhouse, who knows? It just stands there, repeatedly lifting its hind leg in a heartbreaking gesture of self-defense. A similarly visceral automatism can be found in Ghostgames, 2002, which follows the paths of crabs "chased" by flashlights as they scramble along a nocturnal North Carolina shoreline. It's easy to view this scene as a political allegory about territorial power and surveillance, but Sala is never so explicit. His work precludes grand theories to focus instead on the visually concrete, as philosopher Jacques Ranciere has noted: "At the heart of all of Anri Sala's films, including those that touch most on political issues and tend to documentary form, the same question lurks. A formal one for some, and yet it is the most profound, also in a way the most political. What is it that we see?"

 

In some cases, for instance in Mixed Behavior, 2003, that question is a particularly vexing one. What we do know: A DJ is alone on a roof or terrace, performing in heavy rain, hiding beneath some kind of tarp. The music is festive, and so are the fireworks that, despite the weather, explode in the sky in sync with the beat. But where is the audience? Why doesn't he give up? There's plenty to see here, but the visual clues just don't add up; instead of a coherent narrative, we're left with still more questions. In Lakkat, 2004, similarly, there is clearly some kind of wordplay going on, but its ultimate objective remains unclear. Shot in Senegal, the film shows three children repeating words in Wolof: "Xees, Xees, Xees, Xees pecc, Xees pecc, Xees pecc..." Their eyes shine, but their faces are barely visible in the dark; a few flies gravitate to a neon tube, the scene's only light source. The exercise continues: "Xees pecc, Xees pecc, Xees pecc..." The words stand for light and dark, I've learned--evidence, perhaps, of a will to conceptual clarity hiding behind the linguistic repetition compulsion. But this takes us nowhere; the darkness remains.

 

In Dammi i colori (Give Me the Colors), 2003, finally, the old tension between political power and aesthetics provides both the starting point and the very subject matter of the film. The mayor of Tirana, artist and politician Edi Rama, who questions whether "it is worthwhile painting at all today," is turning his city, the poorest and perhaps most depressing of European capitals, into a gigantic collective artwork by having its facades painted in huge swaths of bright colors. The film pans across the facades, sometimes in daylight, sometimes at night, following the mayor/artist as he drives through town and reflects on the ultimate significance of this major urban maneuver: "The city was dead," he says, but "color has an impact." Once again, Sala avoids overtly political or symbolic gestures, leaving us with lurid surfaces and the sincere face of the mayor. Whether Sala is an accomplice or a critical observer is not clear, but the portrait of the unlikely Edi Rama conveys one thing distinctly: sympathy. 

 

Ward, Ossian, Beyond Translation, "Art in America, Dec.2004" 

Trained in France and based in Berlin, the Albanian artist Anri Sala specializes in films and videos featuring fraught situations in which language, and even light, can take us only so far.

 

Anri Sala's work has prompted numerous discussions as to whether he is a documentarian or a video artist, although Sala would argue that he is now firmly the latter. Just 30, the young Albanian can boast of an award-winning career as both, having won the prize for best documentary at the 2000 Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival as well as the Prix Gilles Dusein (2000) and the Young Artist Prize at the 2001 Venice Biennale. He has been nominated for the Hugo Boss and Marcel Duchamp prizes, and now the 2005 German National Gallery's prize for young art. In truth, it seems pointless to split Sala's output, which spans less than a decade, into an "early" documentary-style period and "later" video art. Moreover, his favored medium has always been the more modest digital camera, rather than 16mm film, and he continues to veer between short 2-minute abstract pieces and 25-minute narrative works.

 

At Sala's solo show in Paris last spring, the daring installation had the effect of an all-encompassing experience rather than of a sequential stroll from one video to the next. Here was not the familiar sensation of being plunged into darkness, one video room at a time, periodically coming up for air and a quick burst of healing light before being dunked again into the flickering gloom of another booth. Instead, Sala devised a magical twilight encounter with his work in the Cordeliers convent in Paris, a place rich with architectural detail and historical associations. (The body of revolutionary writer Jean-Paul Marat lay in state there after his assassination, and it is also said to be the final resting place of Nostradamus.) Used by the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris while its own premises undergo renovation, the cavernous interior of the convent was left open and given over entirely to seven recent video pieces either projected directly onto walls or displayed on monitors. Sala also designed the installation at the show's second venue, Hamburg's Deichtorhallen, where he arranged the works in seven separate spaces in the gallery's vast, tunnel-like hall.

 

In both cases, the whole space was carefully maintained in a state of half-light or, as the French title of the show characterizes it, "Entre chien et loup" (literally "between dog and wolf"), to indicate that stage at dusk when perception and recognition break down. In the catalogue, the artist described his wish "to extend this moment of time that normally lasts 15 minutes to the whole time of the exhibition, hour after hour and day after day." He achieved that intention by partially covering the windows and painting the walls a deadening gray that sucked up the light.

 

Utter darkness dominates Ghostgames (2002), in which a handheld camera follows the dizzying trajectories of ghost crabs (so-called because of their translucent carapaces) as they scuttle up and down a beach at night, chased by young boys with flashlights. There is indeed a game concocted by the humans around the frantic movements of the crabs. As the creatures vainly try to flee the bright lights, the boys use intermittent flashes and beams to urge a crab through the legs of the opponent, which once or twice results in a hushed exclamation of "Goal." Neither the rules, the context of this particular beach in North Carolina, nor Sala's exhaustive research (with specialists in Chile, Taiwan and Australia) into behavioral patterns of crabs is at all vital to the work's appreciation. What is striking is the pared-down field of vision that Sala presents: only the occasional sweeping or blinking yellow spotlight disturbs the almost black screen. This rhythmic, strobelike light, which co-curator Laurence Bosse describes in the catalogue as producing “blindness and bedazzlement,” is part of Sala's own sophisticated visual Morse code, and switches between realism and abstraction as quickly as between light and dark. The most intriguing moments of the more than 9-minute-long Ghostgames are those when the digital camera has been unable to focus, and all recognizable imagery disappears, leaving a grainy, gray haze—a poetic, painterly echo of Renaissance sfumato.

 

The 8-minute video Mixed Behavior (2003) pictures a DJ, his back to us, playing music from a rooftop, hampered by a plastic sheet keeping the rain off his records. In front of him, a New Year's Eve celebration of fireworks lights up the sky above Tirana, Albania's capital. The shadowy figure and night sky are all but indiscernible until a firework goes off, the timing of which seems controlled by the choice and rhythm of the music. It is Sala himself, not the DJ, who has digitally orchestrated the pyrotechnics display to slow or start at different points, perhaps the performative equivalent of Andreas Gursky manipulating his photographs on the computer. Within this hypnotic collage, there are hints of Sala's political concerns, as the colorful, booming explosions overhead differ little from the rocket bursts above the rooftops where journalists report from war-torn cities, including those once engulfed by the bloody Balkan wars. Although the political edge is more obvious in Sala's earliest works, especially those shot in Albania, it is rarely overt. Any firm meaning, political or otherwise, in his later efforts surfaces and then disintegrates in much the same way that the DJ mixes songs. Sound and imagery are similarly interchangeable; when one fades out, the other takes over.

 

Sala shifts between spoken languages as well. Born in 1974, he studied painting in Tirana and went on to film school in Lille. He lived and worked mainly in Paris for five years before moving to Berlin early in 2004. Some of his work highlights the impossibility of translation, just as entre chien et loup, with its suggestion of a threshold zone between the domestic and the wild, cannot be fully conveyed in another language—certainly not by the approximate title given to the English portion of the bilingual catalogue, “When the Night Calls it a Day.” The title of the German edition, Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen—“where the fox and the hare say goodnight to each other,” actually meaning “in the middle of nowhere”—was chosen by Sala himself because it, too, evokes animals as well as the expanse of the undivided gallery in Hamburg.

 

In longer films, such as the 26-minute Intervista—Finding the Words (1998), the theme of language is explicit, as is the political import. Here, the young Sala finds an old reel of film depicting his mother in the 1970s at a rally of young Albanian Communists, but the soundtrack has been lost. The camera follows him as he employs various tactics to restore the audio before turning to a school for deaf-mutes, where his mother's lip movements are read and transcribed as subtitles. Sala presents his mother with a tape of her on-camera interviews and the transcript. Her incredulity at her younger sells militant diatribe and idealistic babble ("Those aren't my words," she exclaims) lead her to believe that ultimately the words "say nothing" to her. She urges her son to "always question the truth."

 

Dealing with an absent soundtrack and subsequent enlightenment, Intervista conveys something of the strict censorship in Albania, which denied Sala any access to cinema during his youth. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, also a curator of the Paris show, Sala recalled, “You could find things sous le manteau,” literally “under the coat” or on the black market, but “to see an illegal movie was practically impossible.” The thread through Sala's work that alludes to Albania's recent history—from dictatorship to tentative democracy in 1991 and a botched revolution in 1997—suggests a superficially bustling but ultimately barren place. Videos such as Arena (2001) and Time after Time (2003) feature mangy or menacing animals in an uncivilized, unpeopled world. Missing Landscape (2001) offers a repetitious soccer match between Albanian boys in which the makeshift field is so primitive that they have to constantly chase the ball as it disappears down a sharp incline, as though the whole scene were about to slip off the edge of the earth. Blindfold (2002), a two-channel projection of a blinding sun reflecting off a pair of new and as yet unoccupied metal billboards in Tirana as crowds of potential consumers file by, seems to comment on the delayed arrival of big business in the capital.

 

“If I write about something that happened 15 years ago,” says Sala, “it's much easier in Albanian. If I write down an idea that concerns me now or that I've had in the last few years it's probable I will write it in French, but there are no rules.” Sala is not deterred by geographic boundaries, having made films all over the world, from Milan and Tirana to Tourcoing (France), North Carolina and now Iceland—although, strangely, never in Paris. But as he moves further into unknown territory, the works seem to become more abstract, and the narratives more obscure. The thoughts and words that cannot easily be translated between disparate languages and cultures turn into mere sounds, especially in Lakkat (2004), which was shot in Senegal. Enveloped in semidarkness, one of two African schoolboys hesitantly repeats unfamiliar words enunciated by his teacher in their native tongue, Wolof, alternating with the occasional stirrings of butterflies and moths on a fluorescent light.

 

Subtitles flashing at the foot of the screen reveal Sala's chosen text: an array of Wolof phrases and words describing varying shades between white and black as approximated in other languages. While the boy chants “Nuul, Bu nuul, Ku nuul kukk, Bu nuul kukk,” the English titles read “Dark, a dark thing, a very dark thing, a very dark one.” Because the Senegalese language has words akin to some in French, the subtitles in Paris corroborated many of the Senegalese sounds; toubab (meaning “European” or “white person” in Wolof) became toubib in French (slang for “doctor”), whereas the British version exhibited at London's Hauser & Wirth gallery translated toubab as “Whitey,” losing the mimicry of sound but giving a more accurate interpretation.

 

 Perhaps Sala intended to add this racial dimension to the work, casting himself or the viewer as a white outsider looking toward Africa as alien or "other." Or maybe the connection between "light" and "pale-skinned," for example, merely surfaced in the process of translating a child's recitation into French, English and German. Then again, perhaps Sala engineered this entire "gray" area. After all, the title word, lakkat, which in the French becomes charabia (gibberish) and in English "outlandish," more closely signifies "one whose native tongue is different from the language of the place where he is." In the absence of an absolute meaning, the rhythmic sound and captioning lend to the film a staccato, abstract poetry.

 

 Since Intervista, Sala has moved toward using language and words for hypnotic repetition or as an allusive obstruction to clear meaning. However, the problem of words did not lead to an abandonment of narrative. In the 15-minute work titled Dammi i colori (Give Me the Paints), 2003, Sala returns to a semi-documentary style for an interview with his former mentor, the painter Edi Rama, now mayor of Tirana. Rama's utopian vision for the city involves covering the exteriors of many of the run-down apartment buildings with bold, bright shapes, transforming house painters into hard-edge abstractionists.

 

 Apart from Dammi i colori, the half of Sala's production routinely described as "documentary" was not represented in the Paris-Hamburg show. The works that were on view brought to mind the self-deprecating Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard by Jorge Luis Borges in 1967-68, the audiotapes of which (much like the footage in Intervista) were thought lost for over 30 years and only recently found, transcribed and published. In a state of semi-blindness—Borges could only appreciate amorphous patches of yellow (a comparison with Sala's Ghostgames seems appropriate here)—the elderly writer described poetry as "word-music (or perhaps word-magic) of sense and sound," an apt description of Lakkat. And Sala could have been thinking of Borges when he said of his search for an apt translator for the passages of Lakkat, "I need to find someone who knows the art of making one word speak several times."

 

 In the lectures, Borges discussed the futility of translation and advocated the immediacy of storytelling, though he did so in a groping, meandering style, perhaps because he gave the talks without any notes. Sala shares those preoccupations with the untranslatable and with immediacy, as achieved by digital footage, as well as a seemingly unedited approach, for his camera may dwell on unmoving or unremarkable scenes for long periods of time. Although it appears that the artist leaves in more than he takes out, Gregor Muir, a curator of the current Tate Modern show that includes Sala, argues that he actually is a very skilled editor who "entices our own observations" without imposing his vision. Sala's work represents a separate and specific reality, in which he may suggest the rules of the game or attempt a translation but never reveals the final score or discloses any answers to his riddles.

 

 "Entre chien et loup," curated by Laurence Bosse, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Garimorth, was shown at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Arc [Mar. 25-May 16], and traveled to the Deichtorhallen Hamburg [May 14-Aug. 1]. It was accompanied by a 200-page illustrated catalogue with essays by the curators and other contributors. Sala had a solo show in London at Hauser & Wirth [June 3-July 17]. His work is included in "Time Zones: Recent Film and Video," curated by Jessica Morgan and Gregor Muir, Tate Modern, London [Oct. 6, 2004-Jan. 2, 2005]. Sala's first 35mm film, Now I see, commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago, is currently on view there [Oct. 21, 2004-Jan. 30, 2005]. His videos and photos were at Marian Goodman, New York [Oct. 12-Nov. 13].

 

Guarded childhood 

By Alexandre Costanzo, 2001  

Anri Sala films Albanian children playing soccer on a precarious field of gravel.

The field is isolated on heights offering two panoramic views (abrupt slopes of mountains and a cliff on one side, two mountains that seem to meet in the center of the goal on the other) away from the village, conventions, and parents... A field that becomes the substratum of a parenthesis of childhood as the playground on which it is consumed. Just as the film will surely arouse in us a certain reminiscence or nostalgia, it might also catch the eye of some recruiters… 

 

As one watches the children's game—its dribbles, goals, scuffles, and in between, the waiting—the players are often waiting for the ball as it has left the field to return from the place outside the frame of the image where the goalkeeper goes to fetch it. This waiting, this « inbetween » time is the referent for the enigmatic title «Missing Landscape». The image—and by extension an entire part of childhood—is pulled in conjunction with the ball towards the gravel slopes. This disjunction structures the film, between «spaces», «places» or «worlds». The film is shown in a nearly imperceptible loop (seven minutes and thirty seconds repeated twice). The only difference between these two loops is in the soundtrack. On one hand it renders the children's world (the steps, the shouting, etc.) on the other is mostly absorbed by the missing landscape. Through another disjunctive manœuvre, Sala draws the viewer's attention to what is outside of the frame as well as the weight of time spent waiting on the field—this is the time spent being a kid—it is the substratum of an lingering dream.

This « voice from the outside » as we could call it, acts as an enchanting lost rumour, a lullaby penetrating the stage, veiling it, adding a layer to the landscape while adding a « presence ». In other words, and through the juxtaposition of the rocky slopes with sounds coming from the « outside », a phantom like landscape is introduced, coming to haunt the playground as well as childhood. This combination of image and sound, metaphorically translated by the coming and goings of the goal keeper and of the ball, conveys a figuration of the  missing landscape whose status remains problematic and leads to a fiction of the image - inhabited by a ravine threatening to swollow it, hence making way for a sensation of the uncanny. Consequently, three sorts of spaces are conflated in the film. The first one is the field, the frame, as a playground. The goal—through which the children systematically pass through in order to leave or comeback to the field—becomes a symbol for a door that marks the difference between one world to another, from the so called parental sphere, to this other sphere. This territory may be metaphorically identified as a stage whose imaginary border would be a frame, the goals, a window or an open picture, circumscribing the limits of the field. Even the children's play unnoticeably embraces the one of the « actor ». Anri Sala has chosen to use a fixed shot that is focused on the goal in order to emphasize this « door » metaphor.

The second space is found off-frame and refering to the missing landscape. This is a sort of backstage space that is subordinate to the main stage ; it suggests the village's rumour that is on the other hand associated with « outside voice » or to the gap in the image . The third and final space metaphorically refers to what is beyond the mountains, to what one could designate as the « Western » rumour – in other words, to the viewer's own world, their own stage and backstages spaces, where off frame shot and the reverse shot coïncide, an « off-frame reverse shot». This space beyond the moutains could be the actancial place for the viewer, simultaneously subjectified, ciphered, and codified both in and outside the film. 

 

 

Watching the film the viewer basically witnesses the recording of a soccer game, of children at play, of a disturbing landscape. The sound of steps on the gravel ground, the movements, the shouts and voices of these kids on the field, the exchanges of kicks—all of these elements crystallize to form a cartography of childhood the same way the cook in Byrek was encoding a territory by working layers of dough. Somewhere between metaphor and allegory,these two works articulate two images of « Albania » on an empirical level. They melt together into a topographic fantasm, unveiling a cartography of bodies, of physical effort, and of laughter that has been lost and whose substratum is in one case the layers of dough and in the other a childhood playing field. These evoke memory as much as they cipher time lost and spent, the fragile relics of time, soil or stories, that like dead roots, do not longer grow anywhere.  

Following this line of reasoning, the goal-keeper acts as the very guardian of childhood. If the game that the viewer witnesses actually reveals a particulary temporality of childhood—where children's voices and steps are entwined with the « voice from the outside »—the goalkeeper quite obviously becomes its symbol. Just as he focuses on the game, he is also attracted by the missing landscape twice as he fetches the balls but is also drifting in a state of boredom mixed with expectations, as if he were also vaguely attentive to the echoes the « silent voice» . Walter Benjamin gives a beautiful definition of boredom as being « the dream bird that incubates the egg of experience ». In this film one easily discerns the dream bird's incubation that guides the child towards a certain passibility. Deliberately or not, the missing landscape is the symbol of childhood anxiety through the polarization which frames the stage upon which the game is played. But there are also the expectations that the children sow about the future. The anxiety of the landscape neither belongs to the village or to the « West » : both are suffocating . There are landscapes where the seeds of possibilities are sowed, opening towards landscapes still to be conceived, ones where silent promises as well as encounters with oneself can be held. Refering to the words of Lotze, Benjamin states that « our image of happiness is entirely colored by the time in which we are bound to live in …». If Anri Sala's film expresses this, it is necessary to state the contrary from a child's perspective, to take into account his dreams of the things that await him, and what he already grasps, that other missing landscape maintained on the fields of childhood, where the echo of a « silent voice » and expectation make one.  

 

But in the end, as one grasps the meanings of missing landscape as they have been elaborated on above—somewhere between expectation, anxiety, and a place full of promise, a place plagued by rumours, or the space for reminissing about lost times--all of these possible meanings corresponding to the permanent echoeing of a « silent voice ». This « voice » is what haunts the film - and all writing. What it maintains, let's call it infantia (to borrow a term from Lyotard) is constituted as lost, becoming a shelter for what remains.      

© Alexandre Costanzo, 2001

 

Geographies

By Alexandre Costanzo, 2000 

The work of Anri Sala is articulated around two main axes: first of all, the questioning of the notion of identity or subject, but also, the probing of the category of the real. This dual problematic is treated through his approach to the motif of geography. [1] If only for programmatic reasons, then, we need to disentangle and enumerate a few of the strata of the geographic in his work.

In fact, different places are interlaced in the works' relation to the exhibition space. This place, then, the work's inhabiting of this place or the cohabitation of the two, first poses the question by exposing/exhibiting the place, by exposing the exhibition, to put it schematically. And this is what Byrek [2] is about, since this installation reflects the place and enters into a dialogue with it, so that it becomes part of the work: the space, the darkened room, the projections, replay, in the white on black of Sala's projected text (itself echoing the white on black of the credits in Nocturnes), the passages between (so that the narrative reappears where we are not expecting it, in space, between the rooms, made actual by the movement of the viewer), dismantling the frontier between real space and virtual space; and, ultimately, replaying the scene of cinematographic projection and/in that of writing…

At the same time, the question becomes one of representation, of topography. It is in this respect that I emphasised the motif of the screen in Sala's work: the screen as both the screen of the place (for which it is substituted) and “a place”. In Nocturnes, [3] for example, the parallel between the two characters is established by the equivalence or comparison between two “screens”. The television or, more precisely, the PlayStation, is the final level to which the soldier clings, on which he reconstructs himself, as the screen of memory, of his suffering. It replaces the real images of his war, jumping from one war to another, ludic one. This young soldier is characterised by the chiasma of forgetting, between what he tells us – “they inject it in your body, it's a product that somehow makes you forget you're a human being” – and his present inability to forget those he killed: “I killed that person on 13 March, 1995, at 5.28 in the evening […] He's the one who keeps me awake, whenever I come to a halt in front of his face.” What Sala films is his insomnia within this articulation. And the other “screen” is that of an aquarium on which the life of the second protagonist focuses, and which refracts what he sees. Thus, in the very first shots of the film, Sala confronts two images: that of a puddle outside and that of a “pocket or hand aquarium” (the character is carrying a fish in a plastic bag) which will be emptied into a fish tank. This jump from puddle to aquarium, this passage, reflects a confusion between interior and exterior, inside and outside, which ties together the narrative structures. Outside and inside become invaginated: the rain and the puddle make the outside (and the off-camera) into another aquarium of which the plastic bag would then be the trace or remainder, the metaphor and metonym, an aquarium within an aquarium. Each of these elements, then, is a screen. We would need to patiently enumerate the interlockings, duplications and repetitions – each one a mise en abyme – that make this little bag, to put it crudely, the aquarium of the aquarium of the aquarium of the aquarium, in that it is itself emptied into an aquarium by a character who is himself behind glass (when we see him from outside through the window, in his aquarium-house; an impression to which all the shots of facades and windows contribute). As we have already seen, the street-aquarium is comprised in this other one, between the placing behind glass effected by the camera and the projection of the film. Naturally, the projected aquarium undermines the room/screen relation – for while what is in play here is the spectator's terrible gaze focused on the fish, there is also, chiasmatically, the gaze of the fish which, via the screen, transforms the rest of the room into an “aquarium”, a gaze that records the recording, that encrypts the scene in the living screen… But let us retrace our steps: in Nocturnes, three modalities of the image refer us to three types of topographic notation: the image, whether on video or printed from film (stock), that of the PlayStation and that of an aquarium. In short, here are three types of screen. Indeed, the film is always already the map of a place (or/and a situation, etc.) to which it refers us while both (re)constructing and dismantling it. It is the same with the PlayStation and the aquarium which is in the film, a film of the film and a kind of living map that the character analyses and modifies. And as I emphasised when looking at Byrek, by showing how the byrek (a traditional Albanian dish) is a map, the map of a certain Albania, as, too, is the letter that Sala receives from his grandmother, the map is always already the map of something, of someone, referring to the other and to itself. Consequently the question concerns the nature of the gap between the representation and the re-presentation of the real: it catches them both out by assimilating, confounding one with the other, the ideological or imaginary commonplace and the empirical, the non-place and the place, the “true” and the “real” (in the sense of the disjunction indexed by Husserl's statement that “the earth-ark does not spin”). But let us leave things there for the time being. For, as we shall see, whether with the allegorical “Albanian skin” of Byrek or, stated above, the living map of an aquarium in Nocturnes, the geographical question shifts into a question of geography and political philosophy. We have observed this, for example, with the metaphor of the person watching, analysing and manipulating an aquatic community whose failings he is familiar with, in which he perceives the slightest symptoms of illness, of stress, and in which he institutes the proper balance that allows them to live together. What interests us here, as the foundation of the “geography” question, is the theme of identity, articulating motifs of rootedness and uprooting, dispatch and departure, as I showed for Byrek.

 

The silent voice

“On feast days she would hide a lucky coin in the byrek […] There was always a second coin hidden in her hand, for if someone else found the coin, my grandmother would ‘help me' to look properly…” writes Sala in Byrek, adding: “I had a nightmare and, to help me not be afraid, I asked her to hold my hand, all through the night.”

The hand hides, the hand reassures, it does the caring that the hand of the young soldier and of the man with the fish in Nocturnes must go without. For, in the end, the films of Anri Sala seem to allude to a “little history of hands”. Hands busy preparing the byrek, throwing the flour, kneading the dough, spreading it out, manipulating and caressing it, covering it with melted butter… Two hands measuring and thinking through each action, precise, working alone in this process of moulding, giving form, sculpting both the dough but also the image that is thus materialised. And this mysterious choreography contaminates the sheet of dough, contaminating it from skin to skin, embodying it by the laying on of hands. Allegorically, then, all this is about the “Albanian skin”, its body without organs, as I noted elsewhere, that is to say, a fleshly topography referring to a double incorporation: that of childhood, of empirical and ideological commonplaces. The films of Anri Sala make the hands give up their secret, the secret of hands.

And the hands of the Albanian woman, struggling with the immemorial actions of preparing the byrek, bathed in light, are the antithesis of the soldier's hands in Nocturnes, hands emerging from the torturing night. As with the cook, we do not see his face, only his hands: this is their confession, made by their gnawed nails, scars and traces. They contain and encipher all his experience, thus giving themselves up to a mysterious choreography as they touch, fidget, stretch the skin and, tense, thus indicating all the weight of his anguish. It is from these hands, it seems to us, that the soldier brings forth the images that haunt him, the hands that kill, inhabited by the gun, a prosthesis that is both grafted on and amputated – and/or on the contrary only his hands manage to translate, transcribe, evaluate, speak these images: here the skin still remembers, encodes and reveals at the same time the unforgettable and the unsayable; the geography of bodies is fraught with the dwelling of phantoms. And in counterpoint to this choreography we have that of the man with the fish, plunging the fish from the little bag into the aquarium, and what Sala focuses on, once again, is the work of the hands, all the more so since this person speaks with his hands, trying out all kinds of mimicry. The editing underscores the exchange between the two protagonists, from hand to hand.

To reiterate: it is when following the movements of the soldier's hands, touching and pulling the skin this way and that, that the words arise: it is in the cryptic inscription of the skin, in its hands that the images come to him, that his narrative, his story, falls into place, making the hands not only the topographic or cartographic support of his experience, but also the memory and at the same time the mode of enunciation, the translation, the evaluation, in a sense, in a performative mode: they speak, they speak to themselves or to us just as they communicate with the hands of the man with the fish or are the pendant of those of the woman cooking the byrek.

For this is what has happened. We may remember that, already in Intervista, it is the hands of deaf-mutes who revive the words on the lips of Anri Sala's mother, lending their “voice” to History (in the context, Albanian history, but by extension the history of the century, or rather, of a certain view of a certain century, bringing forth the real in its subjective dimension, as a prosopopoeia of the “century”); in other words, it is the lost language, the mute voice of History that has passed into these hands, these resurrecting hands, hands that, again here, are the guarantors of lost memory and language. And the same applies to the secret, mysterious choreographies of which the women cooking the byrek is the custodian, and to those of the hands of the young soldier or man with the fish; hands full of a voice that is made visible. For if it is the silence of gesture that enacts the resurrection of the voice of History/his story, these hands are moreover the hands of the blind, whose touch makes visible, paradoxically makes us see the contours, the geographical itineraries that they trace out. The films therefore pose the mysterious encounter between hands (of deaf-mutes, of a soldier, a cook, etc.) which, on each occasion read and speak, draw, retrace and trace, re-trace the outlines of a geography and a history that they have inherited, and that they will enact.

The image is thus a powerful one, and it crystallises many an issue, although these can ultimately be reduced to a dual problematic. On the one side, the hands, their modest story, posit a reflection on his story/History via fiction, the fiction of memory (it being clearly established that this kind documentary genre is a fiction or, if we prefer, an arbitrary construction or one shaped by certain necessities having to do with images and sounds…). And by the fiction of memory, we should understand the (re)construction of a memory of which the reminiscences of Anri Sala's mother in Intervista is one of the modes, the remembering of what she said that day long ago, a remembrance that cannot in fact believe what it is saying, that cannot believe it could have said such things at the time: they do not re-member her; but also the return of the hopes and enthusiasms, whether real or feigned, of the repressed subjectivity of a whole generation: that is what comes back in this film with, in the background, the cinema, silent. [4] For the story takes on three intertwining meanings: family history or anecdotes, the fictive story or narrative (muthos) and, rooted in it, History. These three meanings undermine each other, are each replayed in the others. At bottom, whether in this film or others, we see that what is at issue in Sala's work is both History and the category of the real, a question that is intrinsic to the documentary as a genre. Thus the silent archive footage paradoxically takes upon itself both “real”, “historical” witness, which is always liable to be manipulated, to be fictionalised, while, chiasmatically, it is caught up in the world of fiction, in the silent cinema of which it is the metaphor and metonym, but also the fiction of memory put in place by Sala (the first shots show the false/real discovery of the 16 mm film – which finally is none other than the film seen by the spectator – at the bottom of a box: the event is identified with the world of archives, of the junk room or attic, and the film will unfold these dormant recollections and memories; whether through the fiction instituted here, oscillating between true and false (the truth of falseness and the falseness of truth), archival images and today's city – in a word, in the juxtaposition and collapsing of elements, disjunctive conjunction, the discordance and dialogue of different times… The fiction of memory also certainly refers, to the young soldier entangled in the chiasma of the prestated forgetting; hands (re)construct his memory, superimposed over his voice, somehow speaking or counter-speaking the voice, just as we have seen in the case of the woman making the byrek, (re)constructing memory, shared empirical, ideological or imaginary places. Through action, the manipulation of images, what is played out is this fiction of memory –fiction, as the mode of its accession, of its creation.

But at the same time the translation, or evaluation of the voice of History plunges us into a paradox: the mute speaks, [5] both because it assesses and transcribes the “real voice” that has been lost in time (which may be only the voice or voices of revenants), and because it is that other, forgotten language: what the voice represses, obviates and diverts, what it forgets paradoxically calls it back; these two voices merge, interlace… It is this disjunction, and this conjunctive disjunction, that is echoed in Sala's work. For if the voice had forgotten its body, if the legible had repressed the visible, then that im-memory remains enciphered, encoded, and haunts the body of the letter and that of the voice; the underlying issue is what we might call the blindness of the letter, which is characteristic of Western logocentrism. We can refer here to the analyses of Jacques Derrida, to Leroi Gourhan's text Le Geste et la parole, and to the heterogeneity in the relation between the line and the letter noted by Jean-François Lyotard in Discours, figure, a relation which is reversed in the “figural letter” of the aforementioned projected text of Byrek – so that the voice sees, recovers its sight and memory. 

© Alexandre Costanzo, 2000     



[1] This is a term whose metaphorical resonance we will often have in mind here. The purpose here is not to articulate art and geography and to retrace their genealogy so as to propose a concept, but to lay down a few stepping stones by dismantling the fantasy.

[2] I take the liberty here of referring readers to my short essay dealing essentially with this work of Anri Sala's, “Donc: attention”, to be published in the catalogue for his exhibition at the De Appel Foundation, Amsterdam, in which I established or adumbrated the questions dealt with here. This reference should make it unnecessary to repeat or reproduce analyses that back up my argument here. This applies throughout this text.

[3] It might be a good idea to give a brief summary of the film here. It shows an encounter between two men, two experiences. There is no relationship: the two men cross paths only as a result of the parallel editing and accelerating rhythm.

These two realities are interlinked by tracking shots along the facades, sliding from one window to another, thereby positing the neighbourly relation between these two experiences. The join between the two realities is made at the end of the film – when the comfort and care of morning follows the dark night – where a footbridge serves as a metaphor of the link between them. Here, the voice over of one man is chiasmatically interlocked with the shot of the other (from the footbridge, the camera follows the man with the fish with his dog, then the soldier walking on the same footbridge, seen from a viewpoint that could be the other man's). To sum up: the film posits the collapsing of two realities within an asymptotic identification, via related motifs: the screen, insomnia, the sharing of the same solitude and anxieties, of cohabitation with ghosts or fish (ghosts of images) and, finally, a seemingly insignificant daylight meeting which closes the film or, on the contrary, opens it, since one of the first images is already a close-up of the man with the fish followed by his dog. This ambiguity makes the film into a kind of endless turning that never comes full circle, replaying the worlds of the two characters locked into their cyclical, destined worlds; the brutal cutting-off of the film, which reveals both too much and too little, contributes to this status.

[4] The paradoxes of the formula have been analysed by Michel Chion (I refer to his article in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 330), as has the overly simple division of the history of cinema into two halves (a judgement of Solomon): silent and talkies. In its place he proposes the concept of a deaf cinema (the onto-technological apparatus of cinema being unable to hear voices, or render them). He thus takes up Bresson's position when he stated that his characters do talk, but “in the void”: indeed we see their lips moving, pronouncing words that do not all reach us, like traces of text through the intertitles: the resonance of the void. It is this discrepancy, at the same time as the metaphorisation of the “deaf cinema”, that the deaf-mutes of Intervista introduce, as does the film that Anri Sala finds at the beginning of Intervista, which is mutilated, confined to silence, having lost its voice.

[5] Among other works, we could refer here to Abel Gance's 1917 masterpiece, Mater Dolorosa, which plays out the scene that I have tried to bring to light in Sala's work. I include this reference to point up a double echo, to propose the beginning of an audible dialogue between these works and to extend the problematic highlighted here, since Abel Gance's work in fact feeds my argument from within both as a reflection by and on the cinematograph and as an articulation of the aquatic element defined in Nocturnes (with the role played by the aquarium in the memorable scene described here, or by the tears as “lachrymal images” reactualising this scene and entering into a complex dialogue with it). Here is what happens: a naked child is about to take his bath and, while the servant gets it ready, climbs up onto a nearby table with an aquarium on: he gets into the fish tank and proceeds to take his bath with the fish. The scene is intended to be comic, an image of perfect happiness. Naturally, the aquarium is another living screen, another spectacle within the spectacle, like a film of the film in which a character enters by going from one screen into or to another; the screen therefore doubles up, fits into another, is invaginated. And the scene is itself doubled up because through the window – that other screen, that other frame – we see the parents watching the scene and kissing; they can be seen through a transparent curtain, another veil-canvas-hymen… The sequence articulates love as a mirror of film history with these duplications of the screen, of the mirrored spectacle, of the room/spectator or room/screen relation. But this sequence also expresses something else in the form of the fish, because they are metaphors of the world of muteness, of silence or mutism (as in Nocturnes, there is no real silence: silence is what distresses the man with the fish, but in our fantasies we envision this world as a world of silence, “echoing” the mute voice of Intervista): the mutism of the fish announces another silence which structures Gance's film, of which it is the touchstone or agent (actant): that of the confrontation between the spouses: “silence against silence” “says” the intertitle – that of the husband who hides a child he believes to be illegitimate and of the wife who cannot, because of her pact with a dead man, reveal the identity of the man she loved and whom she killed: the former aims to use silence to make the latter, who is sworn to silence, talk.). Now, this is the paradox of this cinema with which Gance confronts us, since the silence structuring the narrative line and guaranteeing its representational logic, the silence of the film, also replays the silence of the silent movies: the voice that is condemned to silence, not only by the dramatic situation but also by the medium; this then is the paradox of silent movies since the double internal barrier is presented, as is the silent cinematograph replaying/replayed as an invaginated agent (actant) subtending the entire (internal and external) structure; this is the (blind) meaning of this poetics of silence actualising the transition or the encounter between (to couch the argument in terms of Jacques Rancière's systematisation) representational logic and aesthetic logic.

   
 
sponsors support about
 
TRANS>copyright 2003
designed by