November 18, 2017

Travel Essay from Tirana, Albania

Entering Tirana with a cab, I’m looking for the houses that were painted by Edi Rama, the former artist mayor of Tirana who’s now Albania’s prime minister. That’s how I know about Tirana in the first place, by seeing Anri Sala’s video interview with the mayor about his project. “That was about ten years ago,” Genti Gjikola, curator of the National Gallery of Arts tells me, “It’s mostly gone.”  Later I’m introduced to the artist Alban Hajdinaj, who made a critical video piece about the mayor turning the houses into his art work. In the video a woman is looking outside the window in these houses, as if she’s looking at a colorful cinema screen that doesn’t move. There was no remote control to switch channels. In the end, time was the only remedy. 

The Rosemarie Trockel show looks great in the spaces of the socialist architecture of the National Gallery of Arts. The museum was built in the 1970s. Next door is an example of 1930s fascist architecture of what used to be the grand Hotel Dajti. Genti tells me that in 2009 the Tirana Biennial took place in these hotel rooms. Now it’s waiting to be renovated and turned into a bank. In Tirana, there seems to be a bank at every corner.

A bit further on the road is the new Skanderbeg Square, designed by the Brussels architecture office 51N4E, using stones from all over Albania as a national symbol of some sort. Standing on the square the Dajti Mountain can be seen in the east. In a sidestreet I buy colorful knitted socks as souvenirs.

Nobody knows what to do with the Pyramid of Tirana, also known as the Enver Hoxha Mausoleum. It’s such a enormously ugly concrete thing that it’s fascinating. I walk past it on my way from the hotel to the National Gallery. Its future is uncertain: some want it gone, whereas others want it to stay as a reminder. Next to the National Gallery is another reminder: one of the 750,000 bunkers that Hoxha built to protect the country from invasion. 

In the evening my friend Ulli Groetz, who curated the Rosemarie Trockel show in Tirana, takes me for dinner in an area of the city that during the communist era was concealed from public view. It was called Blloku or “the Block”. Today it’s a trendy neighborhood and when we tell Genti later about our little trip, he cringes his nose and takes us to a bar in front of the Gallery of the Art Academy. 

The stoplight in Tirana is particular. Not only the light turns red but also the pole is illuminated. “We see the red light as a challenge”, Genti tells me while we’re crossing the street. The more visible a stop sign is, the more one tries to defy it. 

There’s a short esplanade next to the museum, and that’s where we go for coffee. The coffee is excellent in Tirana. Ulli says it’s because of Turkish influence. We sit outside, as most cafés have terraces to the street side. It’s the end of October and it’s a pleasant 20 degrees. 

It’s pomegranate time in Tirana. There’re yellow and red pomegranates. The yellow ones are rather bitter whereas the red ones are sweet.  On my flight to Tirana I laughed with the woman next to me who told me she brought pumpkins from Germany to bring for her Albanian family. But going back to Germany, I stuff my suitcases full with pomegranates.

The press conference of the Rosemarie Trockel show takes place in the beautiful library of the museum. It has wooden furniture and big windows that are mirrored on the outside. Why were socialist architects so fond of mirroring glass? The mirror seems such a narcissistic thing. I go outside and take a selfie with palm trees in the background and I put it on Instagram. Once you put a human figure in a landscape, so an artist told me, it automatically dominates the view.

After the press conference, Genti brings Ulli and me to Gallery & Art Space Zeta, run by Valentina Koca. There’s not a lot of art infrastructure in Tirana. No gallery system to speak of. Valentina opened her space ten years ago and it’s still running, which is quite an achievement. Koca introduces us to three artists: Matilda Odobashi, Alketa Ramaj and Ledia Kostandini. Ledia just published a coloring book for adults. One image is called “façade outfit”, which consist of a house fully dressed by laundry. It’s common sight in Tirana, she says. 

Having coffee with Valentina Koca

Universities of Arts are everywhere the same. The creative buzz seems to turn even the most neo-classicist fascist architecture into something alternative. I’m giving a workshop about Berlin art life. Upon entering the auditorium filled with about 80 students, I realize that this is not going to be a workshop. The students seem to be eager to enter the international art world, while the perspectives in Albania as an artist are meager. Afterwards we do portfolio viewing. I expected many artists to work with the country’s turbulent history but this is not the case. The topics and approaches are very much international. And none of the students has trouble speaking English. They do so fluently. 

There’s a lot of excitement going on for the opening of the Rosemarie Trockel show at the National Gallery in the evening. The President himself and the Minister of Culture are going to make an appearance at the opening. I have the last word, after the president, the minister of culture, the German ambassador, and the museum’s director. But when I finally come to the content of the exhibition, I see at least half of the camera men turning away. Ulli is so nice to photograph my minute of fame before the press loses its patience. The next day Genti shows my picture in the newspaper. He says the exhibition was front news. 

November 12, 2017

Sunday Common des Famous Dumm Talk

"It makes no sense", laughs the artist who's carrying the hat.

“It uses the strategies of contemporary art but it’s not contemporary art,” so the gallerist.

“When my eyes are open, it’s more about me,” the artist explains why she keeps her eyes closed in the video.

“If I put myself physically in nature, could I become more natural?” the landscape artist asks.

“If you put a human being in a landscape, it takes over the view.” the other landscape artist says.

Helsinki design, waiting for snow
At the museum bookstore there’s newly decorated Andy Warhol table. I ask P. why he didn’t pick Warhol’s Philosophy book. P. explains his sales strategy at the bookstore. They don’t mix the light with the more heavyweight literature. It’s unlikely that the same person buys a gadget and also a book on philosophy. “You make me feel unique,” I say. 

“Are you in the program?” I’m asked several times at the video night of Phd students of Helsinki’s Aalto University. After a while it starts sounding like an institute of psychiatry. 

On the mirror of the Helsinki Art Museum women's bathroom is written “You don’t know how beautiful you are.” I wondered if this is gendered so I sneak into the men's bathroom to check the mirror but it carries the same sentence. I feel like the gender police. 

November 4, 2017

Weather and Art Report from Iceland

I landed in Iceland with WOW-Air. The captain announced that we arrived twenty minutes ahead of time.

In the WOW-Air magazine they warned tourists not to write their name in moss and not to hunt sheep. 

It was the end of September and 11 degrees in Iceland. “It’s still two digits kind of weather,” it was said to me optimistically. 

The weather was stormy. It was Irma but somebody told me that in Iceland they’re always at the end of the hurricane. 

For the first time, a cocktail party was thrown in my honor, as a visiting curator from Berlin. It was from 5 till 7pm on a Saturday, a perfect timing to transition into the evening. We had wonderful stirred dry martinis, followed by sushi, and we finished it off with whipped cream. 

“It’s magic mushroom time,” so an artist at the party: “If you see some young people covered with hoodies next to the road, that’s what they're searching for.” 

Finally I made it to the Blue Lagoon. Blue Lagoon employees took a picture of me while swimming. It was a free service and they asked my permission to do so, but I hope they’ll never release the photo publicly because I look like a red shrimp in blue water. 

I was standing outside in the rain waiting for the bus to the Blue Lagoon. Other people followed my example. “You’re a natural leader!” somebody told me. That kind of made me feel proud. 

Magnús Pálsson told me about an art work he had once made with key holes. It had been a long time ago and he couldn’t remember what they had been for. Finally, we figured out that ghosts use keyholes to move from one space to another. 

“Well, you know about fish,” my hostess told me while getting ready to cook.

They serve free coffee at the Reykjavik Contemporary Art Museum. The coffee is always excellent in Iceland. At the museum you can sip your coffee with a view on the harbour  It almost helped me to recuperate from the overdose of melancholy that artist Ragnar Kjartansson purposefully served us, wasn’t it for the rainbow that suddenly appeared. 

I went to see the newly renovated Marshall building for art spaces. Olafur Eliasson is also settled there, but his space is easy to avoid. Mylo, the Living Art Museum, is on the first floor and Kling og bang gallery on the second. A collective made an interactive show about Thomas Mann Magic Mountain at Mylo and at Kling og Bang there was a discussion about the ongoing shows of Emily Wardill and Jóhannes Atli Hinriksson. I always feel that the Icelandic art community is more out of the box, not minding so much putting each other in categories. You can move from this to that and try it out, whereas in Berlin it seems like you have to stay in your lane.

I was reading Magnús Pálsson's catalogue, which has a great interview with the artist. Here just a few of its pearls:

Do you believe in the ida that every bit of information is present everywhere and can be tapped even in a secluded situation?

"There is this huge bank of information that you can have access to and, yes, even more if you are isolated. No i shouldn't say that - but it's your antenna that counts." 

Maybe you just have to keep an area of yourself where there are no likes and no dislikes, a bigger area.

"You always have to try to eliminate taste, and that creates these surprises and distasteful things."

[...] It [art] keeps us  .... basically it keeps us occupied, it keeps us out of mischief and in that sense it is very good, it keeps our minds on things that are healthy for us.

Do you really believe in this?

"I don't believe in it."

Do you think that going beyond the bounds of taste has become stronger in later works?

"I think it's been there all along. I would like to be more terrible than I am. I would like to be terrible and distasteful and drunk and banal, but I don't quite know how to handle it. I would like to imitate folk art, this attitude of loving art, of non-ambition and just the pure love of creating art."

You are so good at having an office and keeping it orderly, you have some sensitivity related to the post office.

"I often call myself an office artist."