The Leviathan Metaphor
Armando Lulaj’s Series of Devious Stratagems at the 56th Venice Biennale
Introduction 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 ‘The Kraken’
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 to fulfill its purpose and to fly about the city in the form of a resurrection. The hanging plane is a tragic comedy; a mocking parody of its function. The hanging plane instead resembles a heavy presence, a metaphorical weight; very much lifeless, not a resurrection but an exhumation. As the plane hangs and swings limply in the air, the Islamic call to prayer, the Adhan, can be heard from the city below, almost as if in reverence to the plane as a kind of deity or perhaps a sacrifice; an act of appeasement.12 Curator Edi Muka, in his essay for the catalog of Albanian Trilogy called ‘The Poetic Violence of Decay’, draws a similar parallel between the plane as an object of worship and a prisoner of war. Like a paraded captive or public execution the plane was originally used as a bit of pro-Albanian propaganda, showing their triumph over the Americans.13 However, the pathetic image of the disintegrating plane hoisted into the air now seems to be a reference to both the failure of that regime and Lulaj’s exhumation and ‘recapitulation’ of the past. In the room of the pavilion the length of one wall contains a row of books that lay open on the first page, showing a single image of a single whale’s vertebra transposed on the frontispiece.14 The installation of the books, Lulaj’s The 71 Oeuvres, run parallel to the opposite whale skeleton, mirroring its form. The books in question are Enver Hoxha’s ‘works’ that chart the changing ‘alliances, ruptures and political rivalries’ of his regime. The image that Lulaj’s intervention covers is that of Hoxha’s face. A icon of state power is replaced and reproduced in the metaphor of the remains of the whale; a bloated beast wasted to ossified remains. Through the sustained metaphor of the whale Hoxha is bound to Hobbes’ ‘leviathan’ and the spectral remains of a deceased past; the failed desire for state power, condensed into three narratives of military anxiety.
Still from Recapitulation, 2015
Bones of Contention Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 work Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, uses the biblical image of a sea monster from the Old Testament to represent the ultimate Sovereign power. The work concerns by what legitimacy a commonwealth may govern men, and the form that its sovereignty should take in order to accommodate the desire of its subjects. Leviathan argues that civil peace is best established by a commonwealth ruled by a sovereign power who is granted absolute rule in return for the absolute security of the state. Hobbes’ political formulation of the autocracy of a sovereign is noticeably similar to the one found under Hoxha in Cold War Albania, as well as the hypocrisy of a supposed commonwealth with a sovereign leader.15 The reference to the biblical leviathan is significant, however it is often misinterpreted that the power of the leviathan is analogous to the authority of the state, whereas the conceit is much more complex than this. Perhaps the most obvious relationship between the beast of the leviathan and the omnipotency needed to tame it is made in chapter 41 of the book of Job. God compares his power to that of mortal men, showing that the beast that threatens Job is easily pacified under God’s authority; “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook? or his tongue with a cord which lettest down?”.16 The passage illustrates a battle between chaos and destruction, in the form of a sea monster, and a creator god who imposes order. Ultimately it deals with the relationship of power with the subjects of the society it governs, making the argument that the state is established by the people for the benefit of those who inhabit it.17 Although Lulaj may be referring specifically to Albania’s social history, it is easy to see the particular troubled past of Albanian as a microcosm of the failing of the Soviet Union. The principle of commonwealth in Hobbes finds a parallel in the principle of Communism. Most notably in Leviathan’s famous frontispiece. The etching, made by Abraham Bosse, shows at its centre the principle of sovereign authority; a figurehead whose is constituted from the society he represents; a literal body politic. It is this beast that is named ‘leviathan’.18 The parallel Lulaj draws between Hobbes Leviathan and Albanian communist history is the failure to construct a social utopia. Although Hobbes formulated it, in Albanian Trilogy what one is left with is only the failed remains. Lulaj’s work for the pavilion The 71 Oeuvres shows a use of the leviathan on the frontispiece, only this time on 71 of Hoxha’s Works. The face of Hoxha has been concealed, each with a single image of the whale’s backbone; the fundamental structural support of the beast. Both the people from Bosse’s etching, and Hoxha, have been transposed with the bones of the leviathan. In the work their is a certain amount of ambiguity as to whether they are being replaced, or if they and the skeletal remains of the leviathan are in fact completely analogous. However, it should be kept in mind that Lulaj’s analogy between the whale and Hoxha is more complex than simply the dead whale being a proxy Hoxha. Hobbes’ biblical reference is tempting here to interpret the dead whale in another way. In the book of Job the leviathan (or sea monster as it is often interpreted) is used as an intermediary to display the power and strength of God who naturally represents the hypothetically ideal and highest form of authority. Job on the other hand, represents those who must be subjugated by such a power, who must surrender and capitulate. In doing so Job is granted God’s favor and, like a citizen of Hobbes’ commonwealth, allowed to live in security. In a similar way to Hobbes, the leviathan in Albanian Trilogy appears an an elaborate conceit, an extended metaphor for the totalitarian ideals, construction, subsequent failure, and remains of Albania’s communist past. The image of the whale appears as a hidden motif, a disguised emblem that resonates throughout the entire trilogy. Its reappearance throughout all three films suggests a past which has not yet passed. In NEVER, the shifting peaks of waves, the rhythm of vertebra, the ‘mountainous mass’ of the whale are all reflected in the geology of Mount Shpirag. Again in Recapitulation the ‘biological carcass of the whale appears to survive in the mechanical carcass’ of the resurrected American spy plane.19 Wherever Hoxha’s state exposes itself the image of the whale-leviathan again appears. The conceit of Hobbes’ leviathan continues in Lulaj’s protraction of it. On the surface, the main intention of the whale skeleton appears to reflect the departed Enver Hoxha; the skeletal remains being an overt reference to the failure of his state.20 However, it is here where the sophistication of Lulaj’s extended metaphor begins to be shown. Both Hobbes and Hoxha conceived of the elements needed for a ideal state and through the image of the emaciated leviathan the failure of Hoxha’s is shown. In the darkness of the pavilion and the morbid gaunt whale corpse one reflects on the bodies left from Hoxha’s state purges and executions, and on the austerity imposed upon its subjects. The beast of the leviathan becomes an obsolescence; an impotent monster reduced to extinct remains as if on display in a museum.21 One may rightly ask why Lulaj should want to exhume a past he never experienced. Having been born in 1980 he never lived in Cold War Albania under the height of Hoxha’s regime and therefore what he is doing is not a form of reviving memory, rather it is disinterring the past. In his use of parody, repetition, and replaying of past events, Lulaj shows that the legacy of the past at all times pervades into the present. If, as Marx said, history repeats itself ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’ the inevitable repetition of social history and misfortune is by virtue of the capriciousness of mankind.22 The humiliation that the fool has been fooled twice by the same trick has a somewhat absurd and blackly satirical character; as through repetition were the justice and mockery of the inattentive individual. It is for this reason that Lulaj replays past events in forms of parody. Although the whale in the pavilion is dead its biblical reference threatens a kind of resurrection. The whale is perhaps dead but the potential for the leviathan lives on. It appears as though the leviathan has not be slain but that it has, once again, sunk back into its depths; as in Tennyson’s description of the kraken, ‘there hath he lain for ages and will lie...Then once by men and angels to be seen, In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die’.23 The final lines of Tennyson’s poem give a perfect summation of the metaphor, and perhaps warning, of the whale skeleton in Albanian Trilogy. This particular whale points to a particular incarnation of the leviathan, i.e. Hoxha’s Albania. However, as in the bible, the leviathan represents a primeval cosmic creature of disorder. It is not then a beast that can be slain, it exists within the potential of a society, only to be roused when ‘fire shall heat the deep’.24 As defined in Hobbes, the leviathan appears from the desire to create a social ideal. With Lulaj the aspiration for an ideal state of order turns back into the biblical beast of chaos. The leviathan cannot be so easily killed as the whale can because it is not something external; as shown by Bosse, it is made from the people. The final lines of Tennyson read that ‘on the surface he [shall] die’; and on the surface only, for he threatens to return, as in the first line, from ‘below the thunders of the upper deep’ and thus the cycle of Marx’s farce continues.
Abraham Bosse Leviathan Frontispiece, 1651
Conclusion Towards the end of Hoxha’s regime Albania became one of the most isolated countries in Europe and suffered terribly from low living standards and poor economic growth. It is particularly interesting that Lulaj’s installation should be displayed at the Venice Biennale and therefore on a particularly European world stage. The pavilion intentionally exposes the painful past of Albania. It is also assumed that the majority of visitors to the pavilion will be unaware of the intricacies of Albania’s communist past and so the pavilion’s implications are wider than pertaining particularly to Albania but rather the failure of any constructed state. The sense of death that invades the room, and the strange violent mouth of the whale skeleton, act as a subtle reference and elegy for those victims of Hoxha’s ideals. Although the whale is dead, and its power now impotent, it remains a threatening image. The anatomy of the whale’s skeleton does not overtly resemble the shape of the living whale. Therefore the carcass resembles a monster, with open jaw exposing its teeth to the viewer; threatening to swallow you like Jonah. In another symbolic performance the whale skeleton has been shipped across the length of the Adriatic, it once home, to its now temporarily residence in Venice; it is a symbolic act that shows Albania moving towards the west and carrying with it its past.25 The 56th Biennale in question was curated by Okwui Enwezor, titled All the World’s Futures. The title has particular resonance with the themes of the Albanian pavilion not least because Enwezor included a reading of Das Kapital from beginning to end on loop throughout the six and a half month run of the Biennale. In his Biennale Albanian Trilogy is but a chapter narrating both Enwezor’s ‘age of anxiety’ theme and the problem of a dark past intruding into ones construction the future.26 Therefore, the bones of Lulaj’s whale, and the symbol of the leviathan, threaten to reappear in the ‘world’s futures’.
1 Mejdini, F., (2016) Killing People 'Pained' Enver Hoxha, Widow Says. [Internet] Available from: <http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/widow-of-albanian-dictator-gives-an-on-air-farewell-02-09-2016> [Accessed 10 February 2016]
2 Available in Gray, R., (1994) The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Wordsworth Editions, p. 36
3 I am think here specifically of the Orestia of Aeschylus, and the trilogy of forms that the furies take in ‘The Eumenides’; the last of the Orestia plays.
4 Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator throughout the Cold War, was not a supporter of Khrushchev. This, as well as Albania’s increasing diplomatic relations with China, resulted in a distancing between the Soviets and the Albanian government and a decrease in Soviet aid to the country. In December of 1961 the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Albania. For a short chronology of Albanian history throughout the Cold War, and Hoxha’s relationship with Khrushchev; in particular Hoxha’s support of China at an international Communist conference in Moscow in November 1960.
5 It is the actual remains of this whale that that are included in the pavilion, however the one used for It Wears as it Grows was a replica. The use of the real whale for the pavilion seems significant, it allows the viewer to have a direct connection to the object and its history; something that is not possible just with the use of video.
6 The ‘extras’ that Lulaj employed to carry the great skeleton were all from the local area of Tirana. However, they took turns in carrying the object and therefore the people alternate form shot to shot. The implication of this being, aside of mere logistical difficulties, that the porters are a representation of the wider society they represent; they are the both the mourners and, literal, supporters of the whale. Scotini, M., (2015) ‘Cinema and Performance’ by Jonida Gashi in Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems. Sternberg Press p. 177-195
7 The subtitles Lulaj uses to narrate the videos are presented in English, presumably this is done because it is the most commonly used language across Europe and therefore the majority of the visitors to Venice will be able to read it. However, the catalog for the pavilion is printed in both English and Albanian.