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Mother Country

The video work of Anri Sala

How can the links between personal experience and social reality be traced? In his new video work Anri Sala seeks an answer by exploring the possibilities of the documentary image.

His widely acclaimed work Intervista (Finding the Words) (1998) is a video essay on the recent history of Albania, based on a biographical story. Its opening sequence recounts how Sala discovered a reel of television footage in an old cardboard box. The footage turned out to be a document from the time when his mother, as a young woman, was engaged in the youth movement of the Socialist Party. Some images show her shaking hands with Enver Hoxha, the head of state, on the podium of a party congress. In another sequence she is giving an interview to a TV journalist. The sound, however, was missing, so Sala travelled to Tirana, where he talked to the interviewer and his cameraman, and managed to reconstruct the missing speech with the help of a deaf-mute lipreader. Confronted many years later with her own words, Sala's mother was taken aback by her ideological rhetoric. Yet, although she distanced herself from her language, she refused to reject her belief in socialism or the experience of being engaged in a political movement.

Sala describes an odyssey back to a symbolic point of origin: his mother's past. However, this journey does not lead to the reconciliation of his identity; there is no catharsis. On the contrary, the film ends in aporia. The history of the socialist regime, the personal memories of his mother and the story Sala researched for his video are shown to be intimately connected. Yet their relationship cannot be easily unravelled. The missing words are found but the case is not closed.

On a formal level it is fascinating to see how Sala appropriates the device of filmic narrative in Intervista. In a rough yet highly efficient way he employs a simple plot as a means to introduce the viewer to an intricate social, political and historical scenario. By using the story as a central thread he effortlessly stitches together an otherwise completely heterogeneous texture of images and information. Moreover, Sala subtly plays on the logics of different media formats. Several key sequences in the work, including the discovery of the film and the arrival at the family flat in Tirana, are clearly staged. These elements of fiction put the documentary footage of Sala's conversations with his mother into a different perspective. The authenticity of these images is no longer at stake since it is clear from the fictionalized context that their status is primarily symbolic, even more so as Sala's interviews with his mother mirror historical interviews on socialist TV. Through this coup Sala frames his own position: his search for truth, the film suggests, can only result in asking a different set of questions - when the progress of history amounts to the symbolic shift from one political language to another.

Finally, but very importantly, the narrative of the video is disrupted from time to time by short digressions. In the middle of an interview the camera suddenly pans across the architecture of the adjacent buildings visible through the window. A momentary lapse in the plot, this image gives you a strange sense of place - a feeling that the houses will still be there, untouched, when the camera is switched off and the film is over.

These sudden detours that offer a short glimpse of the 'real', of the silent existence of places and people, are the main subject of a series of videos. Arena (2001), for example, comprises only location shots of a site whose function cannot clearly be identified. Long corridors with glass walls open on to a lawn upon which stray dogs rest lethargically. Repeated faint animal noises of an exotic nature are audible. Time runs empty in this place outside the social world. In Missing Landscape (2001) the scenario of boys playing football is rendered with a similar atmosphere. The game takes place on a rubble-strewn field in front of a scenic backdrop of snow-covered mountains, somewhere outside time on the edge of the world. The game could go on forever. This strange sense of timelessness also characterizes Uomo Duomo (Man Cathedral, 2000). In this video loop an old man can be seen dozing on a bench in a dimly lit cathedral. With his head sunk forward on to his chest he seems on the verge of falling over, only to regain his balance in the last moment - an old and fragile body caught in a continuous state of suspense within the circular timeframe of a loop. In these pieces Sala touches the bedrock of experience. A level of the real on which, unmoved by the turbulence of history and society, time passes, bodies age and life continues.

An apparently timeless ritual also constitutes the point of departure for the installation Byrek (2000). A video projection depicts an old woman preparing a traditional Albanian puff-pastry, the byrek. The camera focuses on her hands and arms, which perform repetitive gestures over a kitchen table as she produces stuffed rolls from thin layers of dough and arranges them in a spiral on a baking tray. The sound of aeroplanes repeatedly disturbs this self-contained performance; swiftly the camera moves to the window and scans the sky, only to return to the woman some seconds later. In the installation, a facsimile of a letter from Sala's grandmother is printed directly on the projection screen. In it she explains the recipe for the byrek. A text by Sala is presented as a separate slide projection: he describes how his grandmother always made the pastry and continued to do so even after he and his sister moved abroad; that she recently stopped baking because she was getting too old (which means that the woman in the video is not the grandmother and the kitchen is not in the family home but somewhere else altogether). Like the sleeping stray dogs, the boys playing football and the dozing old man, the preparation of food represents a level of reality that could not be more basic. Yet in Byrek Sala makes it clear that this moment of the real is lost. The making of the dish has become a part of his imagination, a fantasy of belonging, which in turn can only be reconstructed in symbolic form - in letters, recipes and the restaging of the baking ritual by someone else, somewhere else.

In Promises (2001) Sala continues his exploration of the interdependencies between the symbolic quality of ritual and the reality of personal experiences. To contextualize this work it seems necessary to refer to recent political developments in Albania. In 1997 the country's financial system collapsed due to the insolvency of the major investment and holding companies. An estimated two thirds of the population lost their entire savings. As the government appeared complicit in the nefarious activities that led to the bankruptcies, the country was plunged into chaos. In the ensuing unrest military arms depots were looted and the weapons distributed among the people. With the country on the brink of civil war, armed struggle and Mafia crime became everyday occurrences. The author Edi Muka comments: 'Albania looked like a Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone, filmed with a neo-Realist nightmare atmosphere, in which everybody turned into a potential pistolero ...' 1 Promises should be seen against this backdrop. Sala asks four young men to intone the Al Capone quote 'Nobody puts a price on my head and lives' in front of the camera. The first three manage to deliver it with more or less sufficient coolness in their voice. The last cannot. All four guys look sympathetic and ill-suited to the role of tough gangster type. The film, however, makes it clear that their travesty is not a joke - given the current situation in Albania, the male role model of the macho criminal has come to be the norm, and to adopt it is a necessary survival strategy.

So on what level of reality does the structure of the political inscribe itself when living under authoritarian regimes, during times of civil unrest, or under the diasporic conditions of migration? In his video work Anri Sala uses documentary images to describe the different layers of a reality marked by the political and to highlight the many ruptures and inconsistencies that occur between them. He finds traces of the political in the symbolic: the formulaic language of ideological rhetoric; in the words used to describe reality and the codes of behaviour that allow one to cope with it; and in the imaginary - the effigy of a political leader, the image of a young revolutionary, the icon of a tough gangster, the fantasy of home associated with the baking of a certain dish. Finally, he delineates a proto-political level of the real in the silent specificity of places, people and passing time. None of these realities can be fully mapped on to the other. There is not one political reality and not one homogenous image that is able to encompass it. Yet there is the trajectory of personal experience, which cuts through its different dimensions. And to turn this experience into stories and images is precisely what Sala does.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his most recent writing, is available from Sternberg Press.

Issue 67

First published in Issue 67

May 2002
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