Albanian contemporary artist Anri Sala predominately works through the medium of video to tell rich narrative-driven stories concerning the relationship between people and place.
Taking a conceptual approach to such complex topics can often mean that messages are lost or obscured through the desire for artistry, putting subjects in the back seat rather than having them at the forefront. Sala has found a balance that allows him to tell these stories in an accessible and immersive manner.
Walking into his ‘Take Over’ video installation at ARoS in Aarhus is a revelatory and discordant experience, a sensorial glimpse into stories that are often misunderstood. To put it plainly, he uses the medium to its full effect, integrating the multimedia aspect of film in a way that contributes to the story itself, before we even begin to consider what is happening before us.
This particular piece, played out on two screens crossed over, invite the audience to walk around it, participating in the event. The story it tells is of the duality of nationalism, weaving in an autobiographical tale of his own birth, upbringing and education in Albania.
Two anthems are being played out here, France’s iconic Marseillaise and the Internationale - the former being a tale of the French Republic, the latter a left-wing score later used by the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet Union. In the videos, a pianist plays a rendition of the songs before leaving his piano with the song continuing to play in his absence.
It poses important questions. How much of national identity is performed? How much becomes innate in people who grow up under a certain regime. Strikingly, the nationalism as played out in music here is a bit of both, something people can play along with, yet that will continue to move without them. A temporal moment can quickly become a static and permanent one when backed by institutions with enough power.
For Sala, growing up in Communist Albania, up until the creation of the piece in 2017, a time when his country are now democratically led and applying for membership to the European Union, nationalism has inevitably imprinted the artist with the sense of duality that is on display here. Nationalism manifests as music, as is so commonly the case, giving various regimes a cohesiveness whereby its followers can nucleate.
When presented in Prishtina, Kosovo, Stacion’s official text considered the evolving nature of these songs thusly, “Both anthems have undergone major changes in their political connotations: from revolution, restoration, socialism, resistance and patriotism, to additional associations with colonization and oppression in the second half of the twentieth century…”
Examining closely the flux nature of these songs, Sala considers what nationalism means now and what it has meant in the past. Albania is a particularly strong example of a country whose past can be illustrated by these songs, despite their French origins, but is not the only one. Rarely are national narratives the fixed product that they are marketed as at any particular contemporary time, rather, the concept contains a succession of ‘present times’ that can be interpreted in a cyclical manner.
Through repetition of the video, this point becomes clear. It is a never-ending loop, one that contains many ebbs and flows. The ‘symbolic significance’ of these tracks could hardly have varied more wildly. The songs themselves are nothing without the people who play them, sing along with them and perform according to their meanings at that moment.
This is but one example of Sala’s incalculable grasp of the medium of film, an entry point into his oeuvre. In music, like in art, there is a participatory kinship felt. Just like identity itself, whether national, international or any other multiplicity of community ties. Albania’s past, as runs parallel to these songs, are incredibly complex tales. Under Sala’s eyes, the presentation of these songs become a magical space where we as an audience are given the imperative to explore our own relationship to the ideas on show.
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