Anri Sala's work has prompted numerous discussions as to whether he is a documentarian or a video artist, although Sala would argue that he is now firmly the latter. Just 30, the young Albanian can boast of an award-winning career as both, having won the prize for best documentary at the 2000 Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival as well as the Prix Gilles Dusein (2000) and the Young Artist Prize at the 2001 Venice Biennale. He has been nominated for the Hugo Boss and Marcel Duchamp prizes, and now the 2005 German National Gallery's prize for young art. In truth, it seems pointless to split Sala's output, which spans less than a decade, into an "early" documentary-style period and "later" video art. Moreover, his favored medium has always been the more modest digital camera, rather than 16mm film, and he continues to veer between short 2minute abstract pieces and 25-minute narrative works.
At Sala's solo show in Paris last spring, the daring installation had the effect of an all-encompassing experience rather than of a sequential stroll from one video to the next. Here was not the familiar sensation of being plunged into darkness, one video room at a time, periodically coming up for air and a quick burst of healing light before being dunked again into the flickering gloom of another booth. Instead, Sala devised a magical twilight encounter with his work in the Cordeliers convent in Paris, a place rich with architectural detail and historical associations. (The body of revolutionary writer Jean-Paul Marat lay in state there after his assassination, and it is also said to be the final resting place of Nostradamus.) Used by the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris while its own premises undergo renovation, the cavernous interior of the convent was left open and given over entirely to seven recent video pieces either projected directly onto walls or displayed on monitors. Sala also designed the installation at the show's second venue, Hamburg's Deichtorhallen, where he arranged the works in seven separate spaces in the gallery's vast, tunnel-like hall.
In both cases, the whole space was carefully maintained in a state of half-light or, as the French title of the show characterizes it, "Entre chien et loup" (literally "between dog and wolf"), to indicate that stage at dusk when perception and recognition break down. In the catalogue, the artist described his wish "to extend this moment of time that normally lasts 15 minutes to the whole time of the exhibition, hour after hour and day after day." He achieved that intention by partially covering the windows and painting the walls a deadening gray that sucked up the light.
Utter darkness dominates Ghostgames (2002), in which a handheld camera follows the dizzying trajectories of ghost crabs (so-called because of their translucent carapaces) as they scuttle up and down a beach at night, chased by young boys with flashlights. There is indeed a game concocted by the humans around the frantic movements of the crabs. As the creatures vainly try to flee the bright lights, the boys use intermittent flashes and beams to urge a crab through the legs of the opponent, which once or twice results in a hushed exclamation of "Goal." Neither the rules, the context of this particular beach in North Carolina, nor Sala's exhaustive research (with specialists in Chile, Taiwan and Australia) into behavioral patterns of crabs is at all vital to the work's appreciation. What is striking is the pared-down field of vision that Sala presents: only the occasional sweeping or blinking yellow spotlight disturbs the almost black screen. This rhythmic, strobelike light, which co-curator Laurence Bosse describes in the catalogue as producing "blindness and bedazzlement," is part of Sala's own sophisticated visual Morse code, and switches between realism and abstraction as quickly as between light and dark. The most intriguing moments of the more than 9-minute-long Ghostgames are those when the digital camera has been unable to focus, and all recognizable imagery disappears, leaving a grainy, gray haze--a poetic, painterly echo of Renaissance sfumato.
The 8-minute video Mixed Behavior (2003) pictures a DJ, his back to us, playing music from a rooftop, hampered by a plastic sheet keeping the rain off his records. In front of him, a New Year's Eve celebration of fireworks lights up the sky above Tirana, Albania's capital. The shadowy figure and night sky are all but indiscernible until a fire-work goes off, the timing of which seems controlled by the choice and rhythm of the music. It is Sala himself, not the DJ, who has digitally orchestrated the pyrotechnics display to slow or start at different points, perhaps the performative equivalent of Andreas Gursky manipulating his photographs on the computer. Within this hypnotic collage, there are hints of Sala's political concerns, as the colorful, booming explosions overhead differ little from the rocket bursts above the rooftops where journalists report from war-torn cities, including those once engulfed by the bloody Balkan wars. Although the political edge is more obvious in Sala's earliest works, especially those shot in Albania, it is rarely overt. Any firm meaning, political or otherwise, in his later efforts surfaces and then disintegrates in much the same way that the DJ mixes songs. Sound and imagery are similarly interchangeable; when one fades out, the other takes over.
Sala shifts between spoken languages as well. Born in 1974, he studied painting in Tirana and went on to film school in Lille. He lived and worked mainly in Paris for five years before moving to Berlin early in 2004. Some of his work highlights the impossibility of translation, just as entre chien et loup, with its suggestion of a threshold zone between the domestic and the wild, cannot be fully conveyed in another language--certainly not by the approximate title given to the English portion of the bilingual catalogue, "When the Night Calls it a Day." The title of the German edition, Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen--"where the fox and the hare say goodnight to each other," actually meaning "in the middle of nowhere"--was chosen by Sala himself because it, too, evokes animals as well as the expanse of the undivided gallery in Hamburg.
In longer films, such as the 26-minute Intervista--Finding the Words (1998), the theme of language is explicit, as is the political import. Here, the young Sala finds an old reel of film depicting his mother in the 1970s at a rally of young Albanian Communists, but the soundtrack has been lost. The camera follows him as he employs various tactics to restore the audio before turning to a school for deaf-mutes, where his mother's lip movements are read and transcribed as subtitles. Sala presents his mother with a tape of her on-camera interviews and the transcript. Her incredulity at her younger sells militant diatribe and idealistic babble ("Those aren't my words," she exclaims) lead her to believe that ultimately the words "say nothing" to her. She urges her son to "always question the truth."
Dealing with an absent soundtrack and subsequent enlightenment, Intervista conveys something of the strict censorship in Albania, which denied Sala any access to cinema during his youth. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, also a curator of the Paris show, Sala recalled, "You could find things sous le manteau," literally "under the coat" or on the black market, but "to see an illegal movie was practically impossible." The thread through Sala's work that alludes to Albania's recent history--from dictatorship to tentative democracy in 1991 and a botched revolution in 1997--suggests a superficially bustling but ultimately barren place. Videos such as Arena (2001) and Time after Time (2003) feature mangy or menacing animals in an uncivilized, unpeopled world. Missing Landscape (2001) offers a repetitious soccer match between Albanian boys in which the makeshift field is so primitive that they have to constantly chase the ball as it disappears down a sharp incline, as though the whole scene were about to slip off the edge of the earth. Blindfold (2002), a two-channel projection of a blinding sun reflecting off a pair of new and as yet unoccupied metal billboards in Tirana as crowds of potential consumers file by, seems to comment on the delayed arrival of big business in the capital.
"If I write about something that happened 15 years ago," says Sala, "it's much easier in Albanian. If I write down an idea that concerns me now or that I've had in the last few years it's probable I will write it in French, but there are no rules." Sala is not deterred by geographic boundaries, having made films all over the world, from Milan and Tirana to Tourcoing (France), North Carolina and now Iceland--although, strangely, never in Paris. But as he moves further into unknown territory, the works seem to become more abstract, and the narratives more obscure. The thoughts and words that cannot easily be translated between disparate languages and cultures turn into mere sounds, especially in Lakkat (2004), which was shot in Senegal. Enveloped in semidarkness, one of two African schoolboys hesitantly repeats unfamiliar words enunciated by his teacher in their native tongue, Wolof, alternating with the occasional stirrings of butterflies and moths on a fluorescent light.
Subtitles flashing at the foot of the screen reveal Sala's chosen text: an array of Wolof phrases and words describing varying shades between white and black as approximated in other languages. While the boy chants "Nuul, Bu nuul, Ku nuul kukk, Bu nuul kukk," the English titles read "Dark, a dark thing, a very dark thing, a very dark one." Because the Senegalese language has words akin to some in French, the subtitles in Paris corroborated many of the Senegalese sounds; toubab (meaning "European" or "white person" in Wolof) became toubib in French (slang for "doctor"), whereas the British version exhibited at London's Hauser & Wirth gallery translated toubab as "Whitey," losing the mimicry of sound but giving a more accurate interpretation.
Perhaps Sala intended to add this racial dimension to the work, casting himself or the viewer as a white outsider looking toward Africa as alien or "other." Or maybe the connection between "light" and "pale-skinned," for example, merely surfaced in the process of translating a child's recitation into French, English and German. Then again, perhaps Sala engineered this entire "gray" area. After all, the title word, lakkat, which in the French becomes charabia (gibberish) and in English "outlandish," more closely signifies "one whose native tongue is different from the language of the place where he is." In the absence of an absolute meaning, the rhythmic sound and captioning lend to the film a staccato, abstract poetry.
Since Intervista, Sala has moved toward using language and words for hypnotic repetition or as an allusive obstruction to clear meaning. However, the problem of words did not lead to an abandonment of narrative. In the 15-minute work titled Dammi i colori (Give Me the Paints), 2003, Sala returns to a semi-documentary style for an interview with his former mentor, the painter Edi Rama, now mayor of Tirana. Rama's utopian vision for the city involves covering the exteriors of many of the run-down apartment buildings with bold, bright shapes, transforming house painters into hard-edge abstractionists.
Apart from Dammi i colori, the half of Sala's production routinely described as "documentary" was not represented in the Paris-Hamburg show. The works that were on view brought to mind the self-deprecating Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard by Jorge Luis Borges in 1967-68, the audiotapes of which (much like the footage in Intervista) were thought lost for over 30 years and only recently found, transcribed and published. In a state of semi-blindness--Borges could only appreciate amorphous patches of yellow (a comparison with Sala's Ghostgames seems appropriate here)--the elderly writer described poetry as "word-music (or perhaps word-magic) of sense and sound," an apt description of Lakkat. And Sala could have been thinking of Borges when he said of his search for an apt translator for the passages of Lakkat, "I need to find someone who knows the art of making one word speak several times."
In the lectures, Borges discussed the futility of translation and advocated the immediacy of storytelling, though he did so in a groping, meandering style, perhaps because he gave the talks without any notes. Sala shares those preoccupations with the untranslatable and with immediacy, as achieved by digital footage, as well as a seemingly unedited approach, for his camera may dwell on unmoving or unremarkable scenes for long periods of time. Although it appears that the artist leaves in more than he takes out, Gregor Muir, a curator of the current Tate Modern show that includes Sala, argues that he actually is a very skilled editor who "entices our own observations" without imposing his vision. Sala's work represents a separate and specific reality, in which he may suggest the rules of the game or attempt a translation but never reveals the final score or discloses any answers to his riddles.
"Entre chien et loup," curated by Laurence Bosse, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Garimorth, was shown at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Arc [Mar. 25-May 16], and traveled to the Deichtorhallen Hamburg [May 14-Aug. 1]. It was accompanied by a 200-page illustrated catalogue with essays by the curators and other contributors. Sala had a solo show in London at Hauser & Wirth [June 3-July 17]. His work is included in "Time Zones: Recent Film and Video," curated by Jessica Morgan and Gregor Muir, Tate Modern, London [Oct. 6, 2004-Jan. 2, 2005]. Sala's first 35mm film, Now I see, commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago, is currently on view there [Oct. 21, 2004-Jan. 30, 2005]. His videos and photos were at Marian Goodman, New York [Oct. 12-Nov. 13].
Ossian Ward is a freelance art writer and editor based in London
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