Despite the deep constitutional crisis in which his country has sunk, Prime Minister Edi Rama did find the time to visit one of his long-time supporters in the international art scene, the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist has been instrumental in launching Rama’s own career as an artist, and has over the years failed to understand the actual politics that have supported it.
Prime Minister Rama was invited by Obrist to the Convoco! Forum in Salzburg, and given the opportunity, no doubt much desired, to speak to an audience largely ignorant of the internal politics of Albania. Obrist much obliged by asking Rama to once again trot out his own origin story, which has become extravagant and divorced from the truth over the years.
As may be read (with appropriate measures of disbelief), Prime Minister Rama now appears to claim in front of international audiences that the December revolts against the communist dictatorship started in the Academy of Arts (where he was a teacher), and were planned to coincide with the anniversary of the death of John Lennon (sic!):
“During the change of the regime everything started in the Academy of Arts. It took one year from ’89 to ’90, and during that year in the Academy of Arts things moved and created an environment from which then everything blew. And the day of blowing was the tenth anniversary of the death of John Lennon, which was the reason to have the first music party in a public space, where people could share forbidden music together. Afterwards I continued to live between art and politics, not as a politician but as a citizen that was interested to say. So somehow I became a professional trouble maker.”
All of this is a bad trip. Nearly all accounts of the student protests of December 1990 locate the origin of the protests in Student City and a loose group of university students from the engineering, economy, and natural sciences departments, who subsequently had little influence on the creation of the post-dictatorship political landscape.
By contrast, Prime Minister Edi Rama came from a family at the top of the food chain of the dictatorship, his father being the most important sculptor of the dictatorship. Rama himself was absent during the onset of the December protests, out of the country with permission of the regime.
Rama also skips over the fact that as a former member of a “Blloku” family he was able to secure a scholarship to Paris, where he lived as an art student, completely divorced from Albanian political reality until in 1998 after the death of his father he was offered the Ministry of Culture by then (former communist) PS prime minister Fatos Nano – not based on his status as “professional trouble maker,” but because of his trustworthy family history.
Carsten Höller’s “Triple Mushroom” as Neo-Socialist Realist Work
Naturally, Obrist fails to correct any of these blatant untruths provided to an audience that Rama knows will accept his word without too much hesitation. Instead, Obrist invites Rama to speak about the Center for Openness and Dialogue, which at the moment no longer exists as a separate entity has been folded into the Co-Governance Agency, an opaque party-political organization dealing “directly” with citizens’ complaints, and the fate of Carsten Höller’s “Triple Mushroom.”
“It’s a great story,” Obrist assures the audience with a smile.
“We have also discussions there [in the COD], and I said that protestors can come and use it for free to set the[ir] case and if they want, I can come, ministers can go to discuss with them. But, you know, protestors have a problem with discussing, because if they discuss they are not protestors anymore.”
Apart from this utterly disingenuous way to portray people often pleading for their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a political and oligarchic class that expropriates with impunity and destroys with the full license of Rama’s government, this claim is pure propaganda. It is true that Prime Minister Rama has invited protestors to “join” him at the COD, but this has in fact never happened. First of all, because Rama usually leaves the capital when large protests – whether by students, the opposition, or civil society – are held. And when, on a rare occasion, the Prime Minister does allow himself to discuss issues directly with protestors, this is done by video conference, not face to face.
But he continues about art, Obrist’s “great story”:
“We had some very generous contributions from Thomas Demand, who practically was the artist that opened the center, we had a beautiful show of his work. We had a Philippe Parreno donation, one of the beautiful marquees in the entrance of the Prime Minister building, which was very controversial and still is. My opponent friends want to break it, but until now it has survived. But the mushroom of Carsten that was put in the garden didn’t survive the assault of the protestors, because they broke it. They broke it, and of course it was a sad moment.
It was sad but it was also difficult to explain to Carsten that it was not an esthetical protest, it was a political protest against me not against the mushroom. They couldn’t get me, they got the mushroom so the mushroom was broken. I was very happy when Carsten called me after a month and said, I have a great idea, because I said to him we have to do it again. He said, we’ll do it again but we’ll do it 25% higher, so that whoever will touch it will know that it will come back higher. This will prevent people for harming the mushroom, but if they harm the mushroom just grows.”
Indeed, Obrist was right that this story was “great.” It is a great story because it shows the way in which those artists involved in the so-called “relational esthetics” movement, such as Carsten Höller, have become completely complicit into a form of monumentality that reminds us of nothing else but the excesses of socialist realist aesthetics, in which size represented political force.
Remember, for example, the disproportionate sculptures topping the Nazi German and Soviet pavilions during the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. And closer to home, art critics Kujtim Buza and Kleanth Dedi complained in Zëri i Popullit in 1971 that Albanian socialist realist monument were caught in a race to get ever higher:
“The mindless erection of lapidars, as high as possible, cut from the earth high into the sky, to be an absolute, columnal lapidar rising upward – this has gone too far and has become a negative criterion […].”
With the idea of a “growing mushroom,” Höller has “mindlessly” reformulated the original ideology behind the Albanian socialist realist monument, namely that it grows together with the progress of the dictatorship of the people.
This was precisely the point made in Esat Ibro’s amazing documentary Lapidari (1985).
In the present case, however, it is not the dictatorship of the people, but the autocracy of Edi Rama that is signified by the height of the monument. Thus Höller’s work has taken on a new meaning: Rama has become literally “high on mushrooms.” (No offense to mushrooms or psilocybin consumers intended.)
We perhaps have to thank this unwitting artist for providing such a wonderful, tangible image for the Albanian political reality.