Prize-winning Albanian video, installation and photographic artist Anri Sala was born in isolationist, still-communist Albania in 1974. He currently lives in Berlin, and has been widely exhibited internationally.

The Marian Goodman Gallery in London describes his oeuvre as: “transformative, time-based works … constructed through multiple relationships between image, architecture and sound …” So what does this art-speak actually mean?

The 2003 video installation Dammi i Colori (Give me the Colours) takes as its subject matter changes introduced under Edi Rama, a central figure in 21st century Albanian politics. He was Mayor of the capital, Tirana, when the video was filmed, and is currently the Albanian PM.

I know more about Albanian politics than most people living outside the Balkans, due to the nature of my day job. But I had no idea until today that Rama used to be a painter, and actually flat-shared with Sala in Paris.

A bit of background: Albania came close to civil conflict in 1997, following the collapse of pyramid investment schemes. The country has, of course, opened up significantly since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and has been on the path to reform, but it still has a long way to go before it is likely to fulfil its goal of European Union membership.

Under Rama’s leadership, and as part of a programme of urban regeneration, in the early 2000s the city’s buildings were painted in vivid colours (presumably as a less costly alternative to an expensive construction project). Dammi i Colori pans through the streets of Tirana, while Mayor Rama explains what it involves and his desire to see the capital transformed from ‘a city where you are doomed to live by fate [to] a city where you choose to live’.

The film’s title references an aria from Puccini’s 1900 opera Tosca, sung by an artist working on a portrait of Mary Magdalene (while reflecting on his lover Tosca). The title can, thus, at a stretch, be interpreted as reflecting Rama’s ambitions for the city, as it sought to recover from instability and the past unrest that had resulted in significant damage to the capital.

Tate Modern quotes Sala: “I wanted to show images from a place where speaking of utopia is actually impossible, and therefore utopian. I chose the notion of hope instead of utopia. I focused on the idea of bringing hope in a place where there is no hope … It is about dealing with the reality where the luxury of time and money is missing.”

Having lived through the rapid period of change that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in early 1990s, Sala’s work is, as neatly put it, preoccupied with “capturing disappearance in progress“. (And he’s not above mining an influential friendship to do so.)

Jumping forward 10 years, Sala’s punningly titled work Ravel Ravel Unravel, shown at the Venice Biennale, explored not only a piece of music, but the unintended act of asynchronicity. It was inspired by Ravel’s 1930 piano concerto, Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, which was commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (elder brother of the famous philosopher), who had lost his right arm in World War I.

Sala separately filmed two expert pianists performing the left-handed work, their right hands remaining still. Both films were then screened, simultaneously, in a single room under the title Ravel Ravel. The walls of the gallery were treated, to dampen any echoes, so that minor discrepancies between the two performances were thrown into relief. Sala felt that the performances “paradoxically create an ‘other’ space”, quite apart from the two individual video performances.

Another two rooms, titled simply Unravel, featured a French DJ as she attempted to sync two vinyl recordings of the performances. The film in the first room of the two was silent, focusing only on her face, while the other room allowed visitors to the gallery to both hear and see her actions.

Other works have used fireworks and informal DJ sets, and one was produced in co-operation with the rock band Franz Ferdinand. But music isn’t always central to Sala’s work.

Whizzing back in time to 2002, No Barragán, No Cry (below) is a photographic work created in response to the former Mexican home of the late architect Luis Barragán. On the roof terrace there had been a wooden sculpture of a horse, mounted on a plinth, but the contents of the house had been disrupted after Barragán’s death.

Sala notes that “the thing I most remembered was the thing that was no longer there.” So, yes, Sala grabbed himself a horse, and briefly balanced it on the plinth. This image disturbs me, and although Sala claims the horse was not harmed in any way I can only image it was put through something of a stressful ordeal. Animal welfare issues aside, however, the artist’s obsession with “capturing disappearance” remains evident.

No Barragán, No Cry (2002, colour photo)

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