National Gallery of Arts (GKA) director Erzen Shkolloli is attempting to push a court case against Albanian artist Armando Lulaj, who represented the country at the 2015 Venice Biennial, for “threats” and “intimidation.” Shkolloli became director of the GKA in January, after he had proven himself a loyal ally by curating a show in Rama’s private gallery at the Prime Ministry, the now largely defunct Center for Openness and Dialogue.
The origin of the terror of Shkolloli, who is the former director the National Gallery in Kosovo and curatorial advisor to documenta 14, is a work by Lulaj that in many ways can be seen as a sequel and commentary on the work “Large Glass,” which was included in 2015 exhibition “SiO2 – The Reason of Fragility,” curated by VestAndPage in the GKA in the context of the Onufri Prize, Albania’s most important contemporary arts prize (until it was recently canceled by the Rama government).
“The Large Glass,” whose title is a reference to the work of Marcel Duchamp, consists of a large bulletproof piece of glass mounted on a steel holder, similar to those used by heads of state to protect them against assassination. The work addressed not only issues of “transparency,” at some point in vogue as political catch phrase, but also the violence and paranoia engrained in Albanian politics and exemplified by the figure of Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Lulaj is no stranger to controversy. In 2001, Lulaj was expelled from the Florence Academy of Fine Arts for presenting provocative piece as his 2nd year middle term exam. His work was then noted by a well-known curator at the time, Pier Luigi Tazzi, the co-curator of documenta 9 in 1992. So Lulaj’s career began with an institutional expulsion and the institution has aways been a matter of analysis and criticism in his work.
The work that so terrorized Shkolloli – so much so that he refused to talk with the artist face to face – is called “Bullet in an Envelope.” The work, a collaboration between Lulaj and Marcel Duchamp, consists of an envelope containing purposefully mistakes, including a pun on Lulaj’s own name as Luaj (meaning “to play”), the intentionally misspelled address Jordan Mijsa nr. 3.,1.,3, which refers both to the art college on that street, and the Jordan Misja penitentiary 313. The envelope included a bullet-shaped metal object that the artist had found one year ago walking on the streets of Tirana, near the GKA, and a letter drafted in invisible ink, signed by Lulaj containing the message: “The price of this art piece is estimated by the author to be twice the projected value of the museum’s contemporary art collection.”
Lulaj mailed the envelope express to the GKA on November 29, and on the same day published the work on the website of the DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art, after which Gazeta Shqiptare culture journalist Fatmira Nikolla published an article on the work. The concept statement on the website includes the following paragraph:
In these times of unclear democracy and a total control of the state over art, on this historical day of the liberation of the country from Nazi-fascism, which coincides with the 44th anniversary of the inauguration of this building, I sent the institution a little piece of reality.
In other words, the entire context and nature of the work acts against the facile and malicious interpretation as threat. Both the statement of the artist on the website and the GSh article contextualize it as artistic gesture. Moreover, the work exhibited by Lulaj only a few years ago in the GKA deals with very similar themes – but all of this went completely over Shkololli’s head.
The following reconstruction of the events is based on an email exchange with the artist.
“Envelope with Bullet” arrived at the GKA on Monday December 3, and the next day Lulaj was summoned to the police commissariat 1. There he was confronted by the fact that Shkololli, accompanied by a lawyer, wanted to press charges against him. At the same time, Shkololli refused an invitation of the police chief to have a face-to-face conversation with Lulaj. A curious statement for the director of an institution that has exhibited Lulaj’s work multiple times!
Lulaj gave a declaration to the police, explaining the work.
I explained to the police officer that, the real art piece in here is not the object, the envelope, the traces and Mr. Duchamp, but the experience we are going through. The denunciation, the prosecutor, the Director, and his legal representative, and of course you, the police, are part of an art work, that I cannot control anymore. The confrontation lies between an art piece and the state with all his mechanisms, and I am ready to explore anything the state will put me through. Only by doing this, they will give evidence, once again, about the violent reality that has forced us to live in this society. The piece wanted to capture the real violence we are living in and I wanted to be sincere with the audience, and the only way to accomplish that was to fake a bullet in an envelope. I’m so sorry this is being challenged first of all by an art institution, by the GKA that I really care about.
According to Lulaj, the police chief, together with a second police officer, tried to dissuade Shkololli, explaining the work. Lulaj quotes him:
Look, this is an art piece, not a threat. The artist has put his name on it, his address, his telephone number, fingerprints, and everything else. Look at the name, he wrote LUAJ not LULAJ on the envelope!
Shkololli refused the explanation, stating it was not a work of art but simply a threat. In spite of several more back-and-forths, Shkololli refused to budge, and refused to have a conversation with Lulaj.
So the rather ironic end result was a situation in which an acclaimed contemporary art curator refused to see Lulaj’s “Bullet in an Envelope” as a work of art, while the police chief could not possibly see it as a threat. As Lulaj stated: “It is beautiful that to the police this was a piece of art and to the director just an act of terror.”
As a result, Shkololli has pressed charges for threat and intimidation, while Lulaj’s declaration contains an explanation of the work, its contents, and meanings. The case has now been forwarded to the Prosecution, where “Armando Luaj” and “Marcel Duchamp” (sic!) will be called upon to defend their work against the charges lodged by Shkololli.
Lulaj suspects that Shkololli’s eagerness to push the case has a political motive:
I was waiting for Shkololli’s phone call. I had the impression he is a very careful bureaucrat and a bright curator able to read the reality in which we are living, the space of a gallery, and moreover any work of art, mine included. Strangely enough Shkololli seemed under a lot of pressure. He didn’t want to meet, have a chat in front of the police officers, but pushed through the denunciation. Since I have no conflicts with him or the institution, his behavior was very suspicious to the police. Anyways, I really have to thank Shkololli a lot for completing my art work.
Exit has reached out to Shkololli and the GKA for comments, asking for a corroboration of the events described by Lulaj and the reasons for denouncing the art work. The GKA refused to answer any of Exit’s questions, instead providing boilerplate bureaucratic language:
On December 3, 2018 at the National Gallery of Arts has arrived through the postal services an envelope from the citizen Armando Luaj. The specialist from the protocol office, after opening the envelope, identified an object in the shape of a bullet placed in a transparent paper. For this reason, the envelope was closed again, and the institutions has filed a report at the police on December 4. The police is currently investigating the case.