The last few days, Tirana and Durrës hosted the Mediterranea 18 Young Artists Biennale under the title “History + Conflict + Dream + Failure = HOME.” In spite of the title, which suggests at least some form of critical inspection or introspection (how else could we know we failed?), the concept of the Mediterranea Biennale, written by artistic director Driant Zeneli was openly apolitical:
For once, art should not be made only for criticism or provocation, but rather, it should be made with the task of recycling (instead of proposing) new alternatives.
It was apolitical insofar as it assumed that any art addressing the status quo critically would be “only […] criticism or provocation.” We know very well that dismissing something as “only” this or that is in fact one of the most important ideological moves in the toolkit of authoritarian politics: “This is only a failed protest of the opposition.” “This is only a provocation by those that don’t want freedom.” And so on.
Instead Zeneli proposes a “recycling [of] new alternatives.” This is indeed best interpreted as a praise of the artistic and political status quo, in which “new alternatives” are nothing but repackaged “old solutions.” Just like the “new alternative” of Macron will turn out to be the most hopeless recycling of eurocentric bureaucracy we’ll ever see.
In short, the concept of the Mediterranea Biennale showed the direct influence of the Ministry of Culture, for whom any art that does not concern a facade or a lot of colors is a threat to the fragile figure of the Doodler-in-Chief.
Anyhow, in order to make sure that “230 international contemporary young artists” indeed spend their time on dutifully “recycling new alternatives” you better have a very tight organization. There should be back-to-back events with carefully selected panels and participants, no time to wander around in the city, and 24h partying. To suppress criticism effectively, even if only for a couple of days, a well-oiled propaganda and entertainment machine needs to be in place.
Unsurprisingly, the organization was a total mess. A boat with the Italian “bosses” of the Biennale invaded from Bari, offering a healthy dose of neo-colonialism from the outset. Edi Rama canceled last-minute his opening speech. Groups of “volunteers” herded the artists close to stage so that “it would look good on the photograph.” Events were cancelled or barely announced. Exotic locations such as the villa of the former dictator or the Shtëpia e Gjetheve only hosted events in their gardens, remaining closed to the public and artists. Public institutions hosting exhibitions opened and closed at will.
But all of this left artists free to encounter each other and especially local Albanian artists. Their message was something like this: Welcome to Albania, we’re very sorry that your work has been appropriated by the government in an attempt to artwash its socially and culturally destructive policies. Let’s have a drink and talk politics.
And actually, those parts of the Biennale that weren’t time-sensitive, namely the visual arts exhibitions curated by Maja Ćirić, showed a remarkable coherence and contained quite a number of interesting and valuable works. The concept of the Biennale is such that part of the artists is not selected by the curator, but by private galleries and investors in the Biennale. But even though some of these works were rather miserable, Ćirić has been able to counterpoint these “obligatory” contributions with stimulating, critical, and provocative work by a great selection of young and promising artists.
The National Gallery of Arts, whose permanent collection has undergone a fresh reshuffle after Rama’s private curator Erzen Shkololli raided the premises to decorate part of Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel, hosted the Biennale on its third floor. The first work that you encounter is Vasilis Alexandrou’s “History,” a series of inflatable latex tubes spelling out the title. Although the work claims to be open to “multiple readings,” the fun part is obviously to pump up the letters till they explode. It seems someone else already tried that, because the flabby tubes of history refused to take in any more air.
There was also new work of Iva Lulashi under the title “Eroticommunism.” Commenting on the perverse aspect of recycling of Albanian socialist-realist imagery in contemporary art contexts (such as Documenta, but also the Albanian Pavilion of Leonard Qylafi in the upcoming Venice Biennial), she interspersed repaintings of photographs and movie stills with pornographic material. The difference is often hard to spot. Lek Gjeloshi, who won the Ardhje prize in 2016, presented four small, intimate animations drawn on his smart phone, again showing his instinct for poetic images.
Across the hall, on the opposite wall, there was a collage of Italian artists Martin Errichiello and Filippo Menichetti titled “In Fourth Person,” a visual exploration of labor issues in Calabria. The fourth person, a theoretical concept elaborated by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, proposes a zone of indistinction between the first (“I”) and third (“he/she/it”) person, blurring the lines between self and other, interiority and exteriority. The collage itself is impressive and well-balanced, mixing video, painting, (found) photography, and graphics into a convincing whole.
The entrance hall to the National History Museum features another inflatable, which could be boosted via Twitter. The lack of air inside provided a nice metaphor for the rather deflated atmosphere of the entire event. Arguably the strongest work of the entire visual arts exhibition, however, was the work of Slobodan Stošić, positioned squarely at the entrance of the ground-floor exhibition space, which could be reached through the courtyard.
Stošić’s work is titled “Nothing Will Happen to You. You’ll Be a Very Happy Citizen.” The two sentences were lifted (“recycled,” if you will) from an answer that Edi Rama gave to Albanian curator Eriola Pira when she critically interrogated him during an event at Marian Goodman Gallery last year in New York. Stošić unpacks this short quote, with its implicit threat, into a huge pencil-drawn mind map detailing the historical, artistic, and political implications of Rama’s appropriation of artistic discourse and the “culture” of the contemporary art world as a facade behind which he is a rather vulgar, talentless, and power-hungry politician. What is especially important in the work is that makes explicit the contemporary art network that lends Rama’s “artisthood” credibility: artists such as Philippe Parreno, Liam Gillick, Anri Sala, Thomas Demand, and Rirkrit Tiravanija ought to be held responsible for indulging the whims of an autocrat.
It is a pity that the installation is only temporary, and will be lost once the Biennale closes (today), because it forms one of the most thoughtful and, indeed, provocative responses from the realm of contemporary art against its own pathetic excesses. It shows that even Zeneli’s empty phrase of “recycling new alternatives” hosts unsuspected (and probably unwanted) critical potential.
The title of Stošić’s work is also what links the exhibition in the National Historical Museum with the works in the former Yugoslav Embassy, where it is repeated in even larger lettering on the ground floor. Especially the positioning of Sead Kazanxhiu’s work “The Floor Is Yours,” a pulpit made from barbed wire is nice. Directed toward the Ministry of Education, diagonally across the Rruga e Durrësit, one is taken by the desire that all politicians currently campaigning for the “elections” would be forced to use such a contraption, as only the beginning of a proper punishment for their sins against the public good.
Ćirić is to be applauded for making the best out of a situation that must have been a nightmare to work in. Her decision to refuse to share the stage with the organizers and Minister of Culture Kumbaro at the opening ceremony is therefore also the correct one. In an environment that was openly hostile to criticism and denied its own political embeddedness, Ćirić and the young artists that she curated have managed to produce a though-provoking and intelligent series of exhibitions that successfully resisted the appropriative gesture of the government. I am happy that I was there to witness it.
Today is the last day of the Mediterranea Biennale. Other work of Slobodan Stošić is currently on display at Tirana Art Lab in the exhibition “Double Feature 06” until June 3.