Armando Lulaj’s Series of Devious Stratagems at the 56th Venice Biennale
With Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems, Armando Lulaj, accompanied by curator Marco Scotini, pursues an investigation into the shattered illusions of Cold War politics. The installation is Albanian contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale, introducing the difficult and divided past of Albania onto the world’s stage.
Through his ‘series of devious stratagems’, Armando Lulaj presents Albanian Trilogy as the ruins and failures of the ideal state, through a replaying of symbolic events that have come to define their character; exhuming from the cultural memory a series of highly illustrative, politically charged allegories that narrate the collapse of communist Albania. At the centre of both his allegories, and the pavilion, lays the enormous skeletal remains of a sperm whale; the biblical image of a monstrosity from the depth and the political personification of the state epitomised by Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.
Lulaj’s trilogy refers to three different appearances of the Leviathan in the political history of Cold War Albania. The first in the form of watchful paranoia and militaristic anxiety; spy planes, phantom submarines, and Albania’s strategic proximity between East and West. Second in the ideals represented through the appearances of Socialist architecture that continually surface as a metaphor for the political aspirations that created it; a tragic parody of optimism. The final level of power formulation comes in the form of propaganda and the almost religious devolution to the sovereign.
The catalog, published in conjunction with the pavilion, contains a series of short essays by curators and cultural historians, most notable among these is Boris Groys who chaired the committee for commissioning the pavilion. Marco Scotini’s contribution to the catalog however, briefly alludes to the extended metaphor of the whale. This essay will focus on a further explication of the image of the whale-leviathan that governs the poetic passage of the pavilion. I also intend to propose what moral or political sentiments can be inferred from Lulaj’s use of its remains.
Lulaj presents the formulation of history as defined by two fluctuating patterns of moments; the drive for a social utopia and the resulting catastrophe. The latter occurs durning moments of realisation; when one begins to see the shaky foundations on which the governing power has been founded, it then inevitably comes crashing to the ground. Time has the power to erase vigilance and memory; so this cycle is allowed to continue. It should then, come as no surprise that Lulaj’s work focuses so profoundly on memory, particularly social and cultural memory, as it reenacts and narrates the collapse of the supposed infallible state. Here Lulaj draws a comparison between Hobbes’ formation of an ideal state and the failed attempts of Communism to do the same. Throughout his narration appears the shadow of the whale, an image of the biblical Leviathan from the abyss that acts as silent witness to the progress of history, the personification of a state turned beast.
Still from It Wears As It Grows, 2011
Where faintest sunlight flee
Although Albania has participated in the Venice Biennale every year since 1999 the pavilion it is awarded remains only a relatively small space. However, this thin dark, gray sub-section of a room is perhaps the highlight of the entire worlds offerings to the Biennale this year. Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems presents what, at first glance, appears to be a provincial museum of cultural history. The installation ostensibly narrates Albania’s Cold War past and its troubled transition into its current state of neo-liberalism. However, at the nucleus of the installation lies the enormous skeleton of a sperm whale; the starved scaffolding of the Hobbesian Leviathan of state power echoing through the wet depths of eternity and into the present day. The Albanian Communist regime has been considered one of the cruelest in Europe and it is estimated that Enver Hoxha, its dictatorial Stalinist leader, was responsible for around 25,000 executions and sentenced tens of thousand to forced labour camps.1
The room of the pavilion, although small, has very purposefully been curated. The place is dimly lit, only a few chosen spotlights focus on the whale’s remains. The walls are colored a cold dark grey, a dismal drowning gloom, recalling the once skin of the whale and the depths from which it has come. The lighting, although ostensibly hazy to allow for the video projections to have their full effect as they are projected onto the walls, throws dark shadows onto the skeletal features. It is reminiscent of Tennyson’s description of the Kraken from the unfathomable depth; where there is no visibility and only ‘faintest sunlights flee about his sleepy sides’.2
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Like a Greek mythology Albanian Trilogy takes the form of a grand trilogy of films, recounting the frailty of mankind and a society haunted by memory and the inevitable failure of their attempts to control the world around them.3 The film cycle is a tragic comedy, a farce, an almost mythological satire of the failed aspirations of mankind. It is hard to judge how optimistic the installation as a whole is, certainly the deep emaciated shadows feel more haunting than affirming, their is a sense that you are entering the dark, claustrophobic depth of the whale’s territory. The only dictum is does perhaps contain is the suggestion to learn from ones mistakes, or perhaps it is just a reflection on the inability of mankind to do so.
The trilogy presents three films made over the last five years that exhume the past of Cold War Albania. It begins first with a work made in 2011; It Wears as it Grows. In the early 1960’s tensions between the Albanian government and the Soviet Union were at breaking point.4 Khrushchev was concerned over Albania’s growing alliance with China and on 26th May 1961 all Soviet submarines were withdrawn from Sazan, an island of the coast of Vlorë, where the Soviets had built a submarine base and chemical weapons plant. In 1963 what was thought to be a submarine was spotted off the coast of Patok. The Albanian Navy fired on the target only for their victim to be revealed as merely a Mediterranean sperm whale. It is the remains of this whale that feature as the focus of It Wears as it Grows and it is from this act that the main conceit of the leviathan begins.5
In the video the remains of the whale is disinterred from its rest in the Tirana Natural History Museum and paraded like the funeral procession evocative of a coffin carried atop the shoulders of pallbearers, to a new home. Through the streets of Tirana they walk and through the traces of Albania’s failed state, in silence.6 The image of the deteriorated body is echoed in the crumbling socialist architecture of the city and the collapse of the society it represented. Yet it is precisely these remains that concern Lulaj because the image of the whale becomes the incarnation of Thomas Hobbes’ ‘leviathan’ as the model of the ideal state. The decaying architecture and the whale skeleton refer then to the same collapse; that represented by the promises of communist Albania.
The journey culminates in reinterring the skeleton of the whale inside the skeleton architecture of the former mausoleum of Enver Hoxha. There is a suggestion that the surrogate burial chamber was, in fact, always intended for the whale. Further to drawing a comparison between the socialist architecture and the whale, Lulaj implies that Hoxha and the image of the whale-leviathan are equivalents; both images of state sovereignty and power, now both impotent skeletal remains.
Still from NEVER, 2012
It should be noted that although Lulaj’s videos document allegorical, and at times almost mythological, performances they are nevertheless informed by a real historic event. This is reinforced by the fact that along with his videos he has presented a fairly objective historical account of the event in question. In the most recent films he has made, and the last two of the trilogy, Lulaj has also included period footage relating to the specific event. By doing this he further entangles the factual past event with his allegorically weighted replaying of it.7
The second installment of the trilogy, his film NEVER 2012, contains Lulaj’s most explicit reference to the troubled post-war past of Albanian under Enver Hoxha. In 1968 five enormous letters, spelling out the first name of ENVER, were formed from painted rocks on the side of Mount Shpirag. The act was carried out by the Albanian People’s Army in an act of reverence to the sovereignty of their leader. There the letters remained until the Democratic Party came to power in 1992 under Sali Berisha. On the orders of the new leadership the letters were to be destroyed and the name wiped from the mountain. However, after failed attempts to remove them with explosives resulted in the destruction of two houses in the below village, and the attempt to burn the paint off succeeded in nothing more than the accidental burning alive of two soldiers, the letters were left to be covered by nature over the years.
Although the film begins with evidently contemporary footage, Lulaj’s use of period images continually throws one back in time to the Cold War and to when the word was first painted and still fresh. As the film begins a man is shown looking through a measuring device with the landscape of Albania as a backdrop. Each time he looks through the instrument the film cuts to footage from the 1960’s, as though he were using the device to look back through time.
The contemporary footage, filmed by Lulaj, shows men working on the mountain measuring and spraying the ground with white paint in carefully placed locations.8 At times the film flits back to images from the Cold War period showing fighter pilots flying over the mountain, the sign ENVER visible through their window and an image of the dictator within their cockpit.
The men on the mountain work into the fall of night and when the sun again rises the camera is placed not with the workers on the mountain but at a distance in order to show the fruits of their labour. It is here that one realizes that the man actually has in fact been looking back for traces of the past, and as he worked perhaps had personal memories of it within his mind. The old inscription ENVER has been resurrected, its traces found and repainted as NEVER.
Aside from the literal anagram of Enver, the word ‘never’ has multiple symbolic connotations. Grammatically the word is versatile; as an adverb with no verb to modify its application has an open interpretation. Its use of the english language supports the inference that the word acts as a negation of Enver and replacing it with the idiom ‘never again’. One villager, Sheme Filja, remarks “when the army attacked them [the original painted word ENVER] with napalm, fire and flames, the letters almost disappeared. We could still make them out, but a stranger couldn't spot them".9
It would seem that the psychological scars of Hoxha’s regime could not so easily be removed with more violence, more military organization, and more instructions from authority figures. While the assumption is that ‘never’ is a negation of ‘Enver’ what it shows, in the use of the same rocks, letters, and placement is in fact that the legacy of Hoxha’s regime is still very much present, if only, as Filja alludes, buried in the collective mind.10 The man’s implied memories, shown through Lulaj’s careful intersection of Cold War footage, shows the specter of Hoxha more clearly.
This reading of NEVER corresponds better with Lulja’s work as a whole. Rather than being a bit of anti-propaganda meant to moralize one on the troubled events of the past it instead shifts the reading of the word ‘never’ into the difficulties of cultural memory. Ostensibly an order, ‘never’ floats subversively and indeterminately between ‘never forget’ and ‘never again’; between the permanence of tragic history and possible redemptive hope. Never will you be liberated from history, never shall you try to repeat it. But of course here Lulaj is in a sense repeating history, and does so throughout his Albanian Trilogy.
In the final chapter of the trilogy, Recapitulation 2015, Lulaj’s use of parody becomes more apparent. The work takes as its political reference point an American jet trainer aircraft that invaded Albanian airspace in December 1957. The pilot, Major Howard J. Curran, was forced to land and taken into custody by Albanian authorities. After two weeks of interrogation he was subsequently released due to diplomatic pressure on the part of the United States. However, like a souvenir, the plane remained on Albanian soil to rust.
In Recapitulation the remains of the aircraft are detached from its terrestrial bindings and suspended above the city by two cranes. ‘For one short while one gets the image of the hanging carcass of the plane not knowing how to relate to it’.11 By floating the plane in the air Lulaj’s superficial intentions seem to be to allow it once again