Anri Sala, Oct. 12-Nov. 13, 2004, at Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
In the past few years, the young Albanian-born video and film artist Anri Sala has been racking up awards and exhibitions. He is a standout in the Tate Moderns first exhibition devoted to film and video, "Time Zones," on view through Jan. 2, 2005, and, over the summer, had his first solo museum show in Germany, at the Hamburg Deichtorhallen. His work has been featured in the past two Venice Biennales, and he has a new video currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.
A handful of Salas recent videos, along with 15 black and white photographs from the 1992 series "A Thousand Windows", "The World of the Insane", depicting men reading newspapers or standing around newsstands in Tirana, Albania, are currently on view at Marian Goodman Gallery in his first New York solo show.
In the video Dammi I Colori (Give me color) (2003), first shown last year at the Venice Biennales "Utopia Station," Salas camera pans along the streets of Tirana, contrasting the dusty, torn up roads with apartment buildings that have been painted in bright primary colors, a project of Tiranas mayor, Edi Rama, a former artist. In a voiceover (subtitled in English), Rama explains how he thought painting the building facades would give some hope to Tiranas citizens, who are still suffering the effects of the citys turbulent conversion from Communism to democracy.
The shots of the buildings, Ramas soothing voice, and the ambient street sounds would have provided an absorbing enough artwork, but, as though inspired by the vibrant hues of the buildings, Sala looks for other bursts of color in the otherwise drab city, from a child in an orange Halloween mask to a splatter of yellow paint on a curb. Sala, who lives and works in Paris, has said of his native city "Each time Im trying to find and follow the oddity of the place." He flirts with documentary in Dammi I Colori, but the piece cant be neatly pigeonholed into that genre its a poetic meditation on Tirana, and on the utopian, if rather quixotic, vision of its mayor.
Unfortunately, the gallerys presentation of this piece isnt ideal, as a loud sound from the video in a neighboring gallery Untitled (2004), which records a boat trip through the mangroves in Senegal, includes the roaring of the boats motor -- interferes from time to time.
Down the hall is the masterfully made video Mixed Behaviour (2003), which is for the most part a stationary shot of a DJ spinning records on a rooftop during a New Years Eve fireworks display in Tirana. Its raining, and the DJ, filmed from behind against the backdrop of other rooftops and the fireworks overhead, takes shelter under the plastic tarp protecting his decks. Sala makes use of the many aural and visual elements here in an investigation of the complex interplay between sound and image. At once one hears the tattoo of the rain on the tarp, the tarps crunching as the DJ ducks beneath it, the explosions of the fireworks (which could refer to Tiranas violent political upheavals) and the music. Visually, the burst of color in the sky, and the hazily silhouetted buildings provide a romantic effect. It is unclear whom this DJ is attempting to entertain with his music; no revelers are visible. At times he seems to take his cues from the fireworks display, and it is tempting to think that his performance is a kind of homage to the city.
Unlike Dammi I Colori, Mixed Behaviour was shown to its best advantage, on a smallish monitor suspended from the ceiling of a darkened room. With neither aural nor visual interference, the work can begin to resemble a painting, a tableau as rich in color and atmospheric effect as one of John Constables late views of Salisbury Cathedral, or Whistlers image of fireworks over Londons Cremorne Gardens.
The video Làk-kat features two Senegalese boys saying the words for dark and light in the African language Wolof, which is gradually being replaced by French. While the Wolof words for a wide spectrum of colors and their effects have already been lost, the words for shades of black and white, in terms of skin, remain in use. (One of the boys is repeatedly told to say the word for "shimmer" but he cannot pronounce it, and instead says the similar-sounding word for "supper.") The video alternates between a shot of the kids speaking the words and a shot of a group of butterflies clinging to a bare fluorescent bulb, silhouetted against its harsh light. Salas work is rich in metaphor, and here the butterflies, with their multihued wings, seem to stand in for the colors now inexpressible in the Wolof tongue.
This is Làk-kats American version the subtitles are translations of the Wolof words into American vernacular, courtesy of cultural theorist Homi Bhabha. (The British version of the video was shown at Hauser & Wirths London gallery over the summer, and the German version at the Deichtorhallen.)
In its focus on language, the piece recalls Salas 1998 video Intervista, in which he recreated, from old television footage, an interview his mother gave in the 1970s as a leader of Albanias Communist youth alliance. Sala is interested in how language is used to define movements (in the case of Communist jargon) and history (in terms of the fading of the Wolof language).
Salas work investigates cultural and political issues, but it is never preachy or polemical. His primary concern has always seemed to be with form, and with exploiting his medium to best effect; he is one of the most talented artists working in video these days. Whatever points his works have to make are results of the esthetic punch they pack. After all, as Archibald MacLeish once pointed out, "a poem should not mean / but be."
SARAH DOUGLAS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.