Sometimes—albeit rarely—formal propositions can be politically influential. When the two meet, it’s a beautiful intersection. And Albanian artist, Anri Sala, loves intersections: the intersections of language, syntax, history, and cultural memory, to be specific. His primary medium is film, but his work encompasses a larger range to include performance and installation. Anri Sala is the winner of the 2011 Absolut Art Award, given each year in Sweden to an artist of significant merit. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Sala to discuss his recent work. But first, let’s backtrack; after all, Sala’s work plays with time. His films and videos in the late ’90s and early ’00s were more documentary and historical and borrowed less from cinematic techniques than his current work. The first work I saw was entitled Dammi i Colori (Give me the colors, 2003), now on display at Tate Modern in London. This 15-minute video piece reflects on the transformation of Tirana, Albania, complete with a conversation with Tirana’s mayor, Edi Rama. Taxiing around the city, Rama discusses politics, art, and social issues as we slowly notice how each building is uniquely colored, hand-painted. When Rama took office in 2000 he undertook the project of getting residents to paint the city. Tirana’s post-Communist period might be described as one of the worst or best in terms of urban development. Buildings sprang up without planning and public areas were variously co-opted, often giving way to neglect. Alternatively, one could say that the city became a living organism whose evolution continues apace.
The central thesis of Dammi i Colori is that the transformation of the scrim and surface of reality transforms that reality. This is no mere paint job. Color is an activating agent that carries emotional weight. In a gallery, our experience of color is frontal, one-on-one. And as the scale shifts so does the experience. Repainting a city replicates this sensation on a massive scale. As Sala documents this phenomenon, he asks us to consider an urban revitalization project as an embrace of individual and collective participation, one that can alter our perception of the world. Ultimately, this film captures a sense of radical democracy. We understand that it was the people of the city who transformed this space, not a machine or group of contractors, irrespective of taste, functionality, or the dialectics of private versus public space. The referent is itself, a sign pointing to its own creation as an aesthetic-political act. This is change made visible.
Sala’s most impressive work to date might be his 44-minute film entitled 1395 Days Without Red, which was made in collaboration with ejla Kamerić. The Siege of Sarajevo, which began in 1992 and ended in 1996, was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, during which Serbian forces embarked on a campaign of incessant violence against the city’s inhabitants. Every school, home, and street crossing was under threat of attack. Throughout this period, residents were advised to not wear bright colors, specifically red, for fear of the snipers lurking in the surrounding hills. To draw the slightest attention to oneself was to become an easy target. Kamerić and Anri Sala’s film revisits this history, not through narrative, dialogue, or documentary, but only through music and sound.
The film charts the path of a young woman, played by Spanish actress Maribel Verdú, making her way through the emptied streets. At each corner she finds a group of people waiting for what would seem to be a safe time to cross. Timing is everything. And each crossing is a dash to the other side. Verdú’s heavy breathing, nervous humming, and quick trot are contrasted with segments of the Sarajevo String Quartet gathering to play in the public library, another proof that art still thrives under even the worst of conditions. Careful to stay away from windows, the group plays intently on its piece. This is not a fictional ploy: Vedran Smailović, known as the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” was photographed solemnly playing in wrecked buildings in 1992.
The film uses aerial perspectives and wide-angle still frames to situate us in the environment, but most of the time the camera walks side-by-side with Verdú’s character, involving us as participants, temporarily hostages in the city. As a meditation on the emotional states of those captive inhabitants of Sarajevo some 17 years ago, the narrative personalizes collective memory of anxiety and tension through the lens of a specific individual.
Sala’s themes are often intense and are not easy to sit with. When he’s at his best, he allows a narrative to unfold in an open-ended way. And when he pokes holes in the scrim of reality, he opens up historical memory, and thus the present, in a way that makes us feel that anything is possible. And cynicism aside, it is.