April 20, 2011

moving pictures

While in Montréal, we always set aside a chunk of time to spend at the contemporary art museum, which, after a decade of visits, has never disappointed. This time around we were in the city while the exhibitions were being changed, leaving just one exhibit to view for one last week, a collection of films & installations by Albanian artist Anri Sala.

I remembered seeing a photograph by Sala on the cover of FlashArt years ago, a graceful yet perplexing shot of what appeared to be a live horse with a flowing mane & tail set on top of a steel pedestal in the middle of a stark cement roof-top courtyard. Although finding itself in a very unnatural & what one would imagine uncomfortable situation, the horse does not appear to be panicked or in pain, but looks listlessly out somewhere stage-left, as if quietly pondering its situation.

Besides bringing to mind the obvious questions as to how Sala staged such a piece & wondering what the horse is feeling, one also is struck by the accepted notions of what makes something art, in this case displaying a living creature on a pedestal in the fashion of a sculpture or object. The improbability of a horse on top of a city building is surprising & incongruous, as though a living element was incorporated into the city's architecture.

no barragan no cry by Anri Sala

Sala seems very interested in the intersection of culture, progress & nature. Another incredibly moving piece involving a horse, entitled Time after Timeshows the emaciated creature standing on a highway in a city, seemingly trapped against a road barrier. The camera pulls slowly in & out of focus as traffic speeds by & the horse raises one leg in a feeble attempt to react. It's as though the neglected beast is not recognized as a living being, rendered obsolete by the motorized vehicles that have replaced it.The utterly hopeless feeling as the starving creature stands immobilized, while no one stops to help it & the camera remains in place, is absolutely wrenching. 

still from Time after Time by Anri Sala

While moving house as a film student in the 90s, shortly after the fall of the Communist regime, Sala came across an old film reel of his mother giving a speech & interview as a leader of Albania's Communist Youth Alliance. The film did not contain a soundtrack, so the meaning of the speech & interview were lost. Intervista is a documentary by the young Sala as he interviews his Mother, the sound recorder who was present at the filming & some elder Communist leaders who had been imprisoned by Hoxha in an attempt to recover the content of the film, but the sound is not to be found & neither can remember any specifics.

still from Intervista by Anri Sala

Sala finally brings the film to a school for the deaf, where a woman helps him transcribe his mother's speech by reading her lips. The utter disbelief & subsequent disgust his mother feels when she sees her younger self speaking in a scripted & unnatural way about her youthful political ideals & beliefs is moving, & leads to more in-depth thought about memory, political & humanistic ideals, personal expression, patriotism & family.

Still from Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc & Sala's Intervista, respectively
When Sala's camera frames his mother's face in a close-up, I was reminded of Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, when Falconetti's beautiful & expressive face is captured pondering & ultimately refusing to recant her views before her accusers, knowing it means she will be burned at stake. Sala's mother likewise does not recant, but expresses her youthful hope & ideologies to her son, an interested & empathetic questioner, while trying to recall & explain them to herself.

Give me the colors, a film narrated by the mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, wends through the streets of the battle-torn city as people paint the façades of delapidated high-rise buildings bright colors & go about their daily lives. Surreally brilliant & enterprising, Rama's social experiment, Return to Identity, straddles the area between hope & abject desperation, as he strives to realize Tirana as a city where people are not doomed to live by fate, but as a place where people would choose to live . "What are the colors doing to us?" he asks, as we see people navigating the makeshift bridges that span torn up streets & abandoned cars.

I don't think the colors have practical, historical or cultural significance for Albanians, like the Swedish Falu red or Greek lime whitewash, but rather were chosen by Rama, who is also an artist, for their psychological possibilities. Transforming the drab, grey Soviet buildings that sprang up around the city into a large canvas, it was a civic project that got Tiranian citizens involved in re-vitalizing & re-claiming their city.

These are personal musings on just a few of the works that were on display; I think we spent as much time taking in this one exhibition as we have when the whole museum has been open. This was Sala's first major exhibition in North America, & while far-reaching & very well done, represents just a small portion of his works. One can only hope it is just the beginning of more to come.

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