Albanian Trilogy: Armando Lulaj at the Venice Biennale
The prolepsis is a figure of speech in which the speaker raises an objection to his own argument and immediately answers in order to anticipate future responses. In the Medieval world – and more precisely in Christianity – this figure of speech was used to reinforce the continuity of the discourse between Old and New Testament. I have hinted to the rhetorical figure of prolepsis because in this article I would like to take under consideration the existing temporality in Armando Lulaj’s work for the Albanian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, which seeks for the existing relations among representations of the past in the Albanian society.
Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems is a project by Armando Lulaj, curated by Marco Scotini. The project is a single narrative corpus articulated over three distinct moments. Within the Pavilion, beside the video trilogy, Lulaj has articulated his own Wunderkammer trying to show the remains of the memory of Albanian Socialism. The curatorial project digs up the memories of socialist Albanian society – as wanted by its “Father,” dictator Enver Hoxha – and talks about the demons of Albania’s past. All this, condensed in a historical narration that borrows the tools of a deconstructed visual representation. Armando Lulaj has approached the recent history of his country by building a counter-narrative historiography grounded on images’ evocative power. The iconological values of Lulaj’s narration are structured upon fragments of the Albanian dictatorship. These remains emerge from the country’s recent past and are recalled to a contemporary audience’s mind within a physical relocation process.
The moving of the body (the skeleton) of a Mediterranean sperm whale from the Natural History Museum of Tirana to Enver Hoxha’s Mausoleum in Tirana, also known as “Piramida,” is the subject of It Wears As It Grows (2011), the first video chapter of Lulaj’s Albanian trilogy. The story of the whale narrated in Lulaj’s video is connected to Albania’s history. Indeed on May 25, 1959, at the height of the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev visited Albania to discuss the Soviet Union’s plans to arm Enver Hoxha’s state of submarines and warships and position long and medium-range missiles along the Albanian coast, in order to counter the U.S. missile bases installed in Italy for the sake of controlling the Mediterranean sea. In 1963, after the break in relations with the USSR, the Albanian navy, in paranoid fear of enemy attack, sighted an object that repeatedly appeared and disappeared at the surface of the sea off the coast of Patok. Believing it to be a submarine, they shot at it. The object turned out to be a cachalot (Physeter macrocephalus), the Mediterranean sperm whale. After being recovered, the whale’s remains were displayed in the Museum of Natural History in Tirana. The structure of the video is quite simple and linear: the skeleton of the whale passes through the streets of Tirana, raised on the shoulders of a group of people, simulating a parade. Lulaj stresses, through a serious of lockdown shots, the residual socialist architecture of Tirana.
In the video the skeleton is passing, at the same time, through the physical space of the contemporary capital of Albania, and through the traces of socialism. The structure of the video is quite simple and linear: the skeleton of the whale passes though the streets of Tirana, raised on the shoulders of a group of people, simulating a parade. The journey ends up in the main room of the Hoxha Mausoleum, and from there it is relocated in the Albanian Pavilion in Venice, in the “no-man’ s land” of the Venice Biennale. The journey of the whale gives us the opportunity to seek what is behind Lulaj’s narration. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, few figures like the whale are able to cross space and time, putting different social and political eras in connection. We could assume that the icon of the whale is a rhetorical prolepsis because thanks to it we can link past and present of Albanian society. Marco Scotini, curator of the Albanian Pavilion, in his essay The Science of the Whales: Narratives of Power and the Invention of the Enemy, stressed how “The whale is the mythical animal of the abyss that comes from the outside, beyond territorial boundaries: from an unlimited beyond, [...] that by definition evades the domination of men, bound to the land.” [M. Scotini (ed.), Armando Lulaj, Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015, p. 12.]
Scotini recalls the literary saga of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick; or the saga of the Whale, with the main character obsessed with the idea of a threat coming from the deep. In the same way of Ahab, the Albanian Navy, obsessed with the Western enemy, never stopped to plumb the national coast. The re-narration of the Mediterranean sperm whale’s murder is actually a way to underline the failure of Hoxha’s dystopia. Lulaj brings out the ghost of that whale by trying to revive history in a dig-up operation. This time the whale pukes, like in the myth of Jonah, what is left of Hoxha’s power. Lulaj guides us into the city of Tirana, and the whale this time lands within the heart of the paternalistic representation of the dictator.
Albanian trilogy is symptomatically a bridge between old and new Albania. The main characters of the Pavilion are the objects. Each video tells us a story by excavating pieces of a dead Albania. The whale (It Wears As It Grows), the mountain (NEVER) and the airplane (Recapitulation) become tools. Lulaj turns objects coming from the past into images, and through the iconographic process he makes it possible for the collapse of Hoxha’s system to surface, and for the history hidden into the fragments – or, if we want, coming from the abyss – to be told.
Armando Lulaj: Albanian Trilogy, curated by Marco Scotini, is on view at the Albanian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale – at the Arsenale, Venice through November 22, 2015