It was a common ploy in his early years as Prime Minister: to combine an official foreign trip with opening an exhibition with his own art. In 2015, he opened his exhibition “Calendar Blossoms” at the Jao Tsung-I Academy in Hong Kong, while officially attending the Hong Kong–Albania Trade & Investment Forum. In 2016, he opened a show in Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, conveniently in the same period as the UN General Assembly.
Lately, however, Rama’s art exhibitions are no longer nice PR opportunities for a novice Prime Minister. His recent exhibitions increasingly appear to offer him an escape from politics, and no longer have a political “add-on.” They have become simply shows by a mid-career artist that happens to be a politician of a peripheral European country. His most recent exhibition at calier | gebauer in Berlin is a case in point.
A soft-ball interview with Die Zeit provides us with valuable insight into how his attitude to art has changed over the last few years.
Just to refresh our memory: In 2014, during a keynote lecture at the Creative Time Summit in Stockholm, Rama described the project that continues to define his entire artistic profile, the painting of the Tirana façades in the early 2000s, as follows:
“It was 1998 and I settled into this new life. I imagined I buried the painter in me. But then two years later I stood for elections for Major of Tirana. And I won, and I saw a city facing so many challenges. In front of us such high expectations of my campaign. That is when I felt my political impulse, the desire to offer people a better future, fused with my artistic impulse. I oversaw a plan to splash brightly colored paints on drab and soulless buildings in the city’s main entrance roads. To me it was political action with colors. Not with words, either with legislation. […] So these colors did make them feel better about the place where they lived and it made them see possibilities in a space where there appears to be no space. It made them see that change could come in different ways, in spite of the city budget, being nothing comma something.”
In other words, Rama claimed that his art work sprung from a “political impulse,” to create a “political action with colors.” As he claims further on, both art and politics want to “make the world a better place”:
“But through the years as mayor that I understood, and as party leader and as prime minister, I became quite sure that politics at its best is a worthy and meaningful activity which makes the world a better place. And art does the same, in different ways. I have been so happy to be in a position to bring the two together.”
Rama’s positive, if somewhat naive, attitude toward the powers of art enraptured the audience, mesmerized at the view of an artist who became Prime Minister. Now fast forward 5 years to Rama’s recent interview with Die Zeit.
Journalist Swantje Karich, perhaps hoping to record a similarly pleasant vista, asked: “As mayor you have let the grey houses in Tirana, destroyed by war [sic!], be painted in different colors, to give the people hope. From far away we got the rare impression that art could change society, even improve it. Do you still believe that? Is an artist indeed a better politician?” Rama’s reply was curt:
“Art cannot change much. Perhaps I’d go as far to say: nothing at all.”
When Karich responds with a bit of a surprise, Rama partially backtracks his statement, but the core remains. Art cannot change anything. This is complete reversal of the positive vistas he sketched 5 years ago, and which still grace his official press releases, including quotations from relational esthetics pope Hans Ulrich Obrist: “Art is not separate from politics in [Rama’s] view, but coextensive with it.” Seen in the light of Rama’s interview, all of these claims are now basically nonsense. Art cannot change nothing at all.
This raises the immediate question as to why Rama continues to make art, indeed, why he continues to claim that he will leave politics to one day fully devote himself to art (most recently in an interview with court jester Ermal Mamaqi). Why would he choose to do so, if the entire premise on which he made his first and career-defining work has turned out to be false? Karich asks again: “So do art works have a sociopolitical function?,” a reasonable question to ask to someone who claimed that art is a “meaningful activity which makes the world a better place.” But Rama again says:
“No. Artists simply offer another world. One is in another condition, experiences relief. Creating art means to live in a world and simultaneously having the possibility to travel to another without moving at all.”
It is clear from this answer that Rama – at this moment in his career – wants art to be anything but political. He wants his art not to be contaminated with politics, because how could he withdraw from politics into his concrete bunker studio in Surrel, if art has a sociopolitical impact? It seems as if he feels that his political career, soaked as it is in corruption, nepotism, and crime, risks wasting his “true calling.”
Karich then asks, quite reasonably, whether art is in that case a form of “healthy escapism.” Because that is precisely how Rama describes his new view of art: “to live in a world and simultaneously having the possibility to travel to another without moving at all.” Rama then reformulates his idea:
“This has nothing to do with escapism. Because you don’t completely clear out, you don’t flee. One is briefly gone and returns as a richer human being – with experiences, feelings.”
This is how other people would describe taking drugs. It may not be “escapism” in a strict sense, but it is definitely a way to experience an alternative reality. The drugs metaphor for art then also allows us to understand Rama’s repetitive, obsessive production of constantly similar art works, which fail to show any form of insight, new idea, or development – just the same doodles, hundreds, thousands of them.
Rama’s large experiment with sociopolitically relevant art, his façades project, has turned out – in his own evaluation – a failure. What the art world is left with – and which it continues to exhibit in the vain hope that Albania will yet become an “artist-run country” – are the products of a politician in the most literal sense physically addicted to his art: he needs it to keep the a semblance of sanity and composure.
As Rama claims himself in the invitation to his Berlin exhibition:
“I began to understand that my subconscious was being helped or fed by my hand to stay calm while my conscious had to focus on demanding topics and help me avoid mistakes of misjudgment through shallow concentration. […] Knowing this, later I deliberately took time to be alone and draw when difficult political decisions had to be made, the calm my hands could teach my head was vital.”
This is not art, nor is it escapism – this is art therapy. There is nothing wrong with art therapy, and in fact, it can be helpful for many. I am sure it is helpful for Prime Minister Rama, too.
The question to the art world is: how many products from art therapy sessions are actually found in galleries and museums? Indeed very few. That producing art may be therapeutic is beyond discussion – but if it’s nothing more than that, if it fails to reflect on its social, political, and cultural context, is it really meaningful for anyone else except its maker? The answer is undoubtedly no.