Adrian Paci is an internationally acclaimed Albanian artist. He has exhibited his works in several Galleries and museums around the world, such us the Jeu de Paume, Paris; P.S.1, New York; Contemporary Arts Museums, Houston; Kunsthaus, Zurich; Maxxi, Rome; Tate Modern, London, and Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. He has participated at the Biennials of Venice, Sydney, Lyon and Thessaloniki. At the Pavilion of Contemporary Art in Milan (PAC), he is currently showing the exhibition “Vite in Transito”, edited by Paola Nicolin and Alessandro Rabottini which is being held until January 6, 2014. In addition to a wide variety od art works done since in the midd-nineties, he is also exhibiting for the first time in Italy the new video work called “The Column”. This work shows a ship on which a group of Chinese workers transforms a block of marble into a column.
A conversation with Adrian Paci about his country (Albania), his exhibition at Pac and the techniques he uses in his work
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Part 3 of 3
Laura Mazza: We are at the PAC, the Pavilion of Contemporary Art in Milan, where the exhibition of Adrian Paci is being held until January 6, 2014. Could you tell us something about yourself to get started?
Adrian Paci: First, let’s start with the name, which you have pronounced well, which is in fact Adrian “Pazi” and not “Paci” as everyone knows me; now I also introduce myself as “Paci” because it is so much simpler.
I was born in Albania where I studied art and painting and attended the Academy. Since ’97 I have been living in Milan.
LM: Having studied art in a specific historical period in Albania, under the dictatorship, where it was only possible to study fine arts, a certain type of art propaganda for the regime, has this somehow affected what you do now? Has it influenced the way you express yourself?
AP: Yes, I would say yes. Eventually, all of our experiences influence us, condition us, becoming obstacles or are driven into the things that we do and after 22 years of living in Albania in that atmosphere, that information, the propaganda, the kind of relationships, that kind of education, obviously they have left their traces. On one account, we can accept these experiences as cues to direct our path, then on the otherside, one can choose to deny, delete them.
I must say that there was a period, when I had finished the Academy, which also coincided with the end of the regime in Albania, that I had a great desire to give up that experience; I really wanted to delete it. Now, perhaps, I remember that kind of experience with a much more peaceful outlook, trying to take what good I have learned in that school. However, it was a classical education, that in many ways came back to be very useful, also in my practice today.
LM: With regard to the art, the way it was under the regime and how it is viewed now, it was only recently that Edi Rama, who is an artist, was elected as Prime Minister. Have Albanians already seen changes? As the mayor of Tirana he completed important projects, he dismantled illegal constructions, while the students of the Academy were engaged in the painting of the facades of the buildings, to put a face to art in Albania.
AP: I know him because he was my professor at the Academy and I appreciate his many qualities. Now his job as Prime Minister is a bit different from the mayor, as well as the needs of Albania are different now than when he was mayor. Albania now needs a structural reform, not so much flashy signs; those were fine before when he just did the decorative facades of buildings in Tirana. Now we need to reform the State, the justice system, the economy, the health care system, so we need to work very hard. Surely the creativity of an artist can help, but it is not enough: we also need the weight of a statesman and he must demonstrate this stature.
LM: But also there is the opportunity to make Albania a country that peaks in art, it could be like Berlin, having its own charm. Reborn from its ashes, from the communist regime in which almost all the attempts of expression were repressed, where there was only one kind of art. It was, I would say, “monochromatic” as a country: the possibility of being able to make something completely opposite can be a beautiful reality.
AP: I don’t think you could turn Albania into a new Berlin because we are talking about two very different realities: copying Berlin serves nothing, but make Albania an attractive country to the creativity of the contemporary world, and think it is one of the necessities and also a possibility, to which that country can aspire. The fact that an artist is Prime Minister makes this aspiration possible.
LM: Let us now talk about the exhibition. The title is “Vite in transito” (Lives in transit): obviously, the first thing that comes to mind given the relevance of this period is immigration. What exactly do you mean by “transit”, with the word “transit”?
AP: The “transit” is a much more profound concept. Obviously, the record slams us in the face of painful situations, with all their immediacy and with all their drama and then we cannot pretend not to see them. But the idea of a transit is an idea that has to do with the state of being, with its continuous evolution and with the situation of the language itself. It is not just a state of being, but also the way in which we express ourselves: in continuous transformation, ever-changing and even more so about the art that has now opened its borders, its boundaries. In short, the language of art is a language that is always enriched by different experiences that pass from one situation to another, and in my practice this component is present. In my work, transit is not only that of the subject, but also that of language, the way in which my work develops. But in these steps, there is however, vitality. For this title “Lives in transit” we looked to express this concept well and we have adopted it for the exhibition.
LM: Then in the arts there isn’t this presence of territorial boundaries as in politics, the art is free to circulate, it has no impositions, it is not seen in a different way because it comes from a different country.
AP: The art brings with it all the limitations and contradictions of the world in which it was born, but obviously, it tries to overcome these, but on the one hand traces of these limits remain, as well as the attempt to overcome them. Think of an international art, free, without borders. I think it’s a little utopian vision, almost fantastic, not linked to the reality of things. The arts are the artists and the artists are born in a place where they grow-up, where they see certain things, surrounded by certain situations and where they use certain materials: therefore, they bring with them the experience of their land. But I would avoid this image of arts, seen as something freely traveling from one country to another, changing identities so easily, lightly, playfully, creatively, without bringing with them what is the suffering of their own land. Not suffering in a sentimental sense, but just the fatigue of the land, the connection with the territory. If we think of a free thing that exceeds all boundaries, that will stop at nothing, that meets and incorporates within itself all things, then that which we’re thinking about is the financial capital, it is not art. Finances travel freely, incorporating and unifying different things, because with money you can buy potatoes, securities on the stock market, you can even buy islands. The art originates from a very specific place, in a specific context to which it also bears witness.
LM: Thinking of the work “Home to go” in which you are represented with this roof on your back, a roof upside down, it would seem the weight of the house, the weight of the roots: the roots of a person can be both a resource and a limit, what do you see in this? A person must move, shift, and then (how about) that relationship, the bond with his land? And how does it all influence him?
AP: It’s a necessary, but also contradictory relationship. A relationship that is not made only of resources, but also of limitations; and thanks to these limitations, the potentials, and the possibilities then arises. In fact, the roof of the house that I bring on my back is reversed, upside down: it takes almost the appearance of wings, two wings that carry you away, but also a travel backpack. At the same time, it tries to make you fly, but also crushes you with its weight. Just as the roots are important, so it is impossible to remain anchored in one place when the world calls for a continuous transformation, a continuous shift. And then you live in this tension, this contradiction, but where there are potentials that should be sought and expressed.
LM: In your case almost all your artistic expressions are linked to your origins, to what you have left there and what you have brought with you here.
AP: Yes, but I never wanted it to become an autobiographical fact, I never wanted to talk about my origins as something belonging only to me: I speak of our roots because my roots are also yours. Every man has ties, and these ties can nourish him, as well as also hinder him.
LM: With regard to the condition of the migrant, I’m thinking about “Centro di Permanenza Temporanea” (Center of Temporary Stay) where there are many people who are waiting to be transferred elsewhere, on the stairs of an aircraft that is not there. It’s almost as if the condition of the migrant was that, while moving across geographical boundaries, he remains stationary, anchored to what is, to what was, failing to integrate perhaps because of a policy that does not know how to interpret the social changes taking place now.
AP: Yes, it is a key to understanding that comes from work, considering all that you were talking about before, it is a context of great relevance: the issue of immigration, the tragedy of Lampedusa in Italy and the various situations that are around us. That, however, to be in this state of transit, where the object of the transit, the transit instrument, becomes a place to stay: this here is a much more universal human condition, to live and stay on the threshold. Consider the thresholds not only as a place of transit, but space in which to live.
LM: A sort of “limbo”…
AP: This limbo, this liminal state, the place from which you are already gone, but you have still not arrived. “Home to go” utilizes some elements and some realities that recall an immediate social context like that of the migrant, but in a certain sense it also opens up a wider reflection of the human condition of existence.
LM: Still speaking of movement, your last work is “The Column”, where you can see a block of marble taken from a quarry in China that was transported on a ship and within this, becoming part of both the ship and the workers who worked on it; it was transformed into a column of western style. What is the person on the voyage involved in? What is transformed? Is it an enrichment or a distortion? In this case, a block of marble becomes a column and is enriched in some way, it becomes a form of art, but also the marble itself is a valuable material. So, the voyage in this way changes the person?
AP: Yes, you’re emphasizing a metaphorical aspect of the work, as if I saw a person in the marble and it is not that there is not, but we are also talking about a business process and a state of movement in a global world. Getting back to your metaphorical interpretation, it is true that the marble in its transformation gains something and loses something. This process comes separated from its connection to the mountain, it is removed, rolled, put into a ship, and its journey is started. They begin to cut it, break it, as if to destroy it. Much of the video does not contain anything but this continuous cutting and breaking of the monolithic block, and then at the end, a column with its ornaments, with the classic beauty contained in its measures and its roundness is obtained. Obviously in this process something is gained and some thing is lost, it’s the price you pay for the transformation. The video does not only offer this interpretation, in fact, the story attracted me because of its multiple interpretations. Because we can put together the theme of the work, the nature of the displacement of cultural models and physical movement of things through a piece of marble that becomes a cultural expression. It brings together the presence of the stone, the water, the iron of the ship as well as the faces, the gestures and the noises produced by the workers. It offers the opportunity to have a Western model produced by a group of Chinese sculptors: something very contemporary that binds it to the themes of today’s world, but with something old that connects it to the action of the stone, the marble, but also to the cultural models that come from the past. Here, all of these elements enter, coexist and pulsate inside the story. What I have tried to do is to make them present in my work, in the video, without letting them become didactic, forced: eventually there is the story of this block of marble, which suggests multiple interpretations while performing.
LM: Thinking about the dynamics of time: the production of the work takes place at sea during transport of it to where it will be placed; the work is done at sea as if there was not enough time to do everything, as if everything were to happen immediately. Rather than working on site and then transporting it, you get to work on a ship in the middle of the sea.
AP: There are ship factories where the goods are produced during transport and this work of mine is inspired by these facts as a first insight, then it develops independently from the mere idea of production. The practice of ship factories exists just inside the logic of capitalism, where there is the want to match the time of manufacture with the transportation time.
LM: There are not only videos in your work: you practically utilize all the possible techniques. You use photography, painting, sculpture, videos: what I wanted to understand is, based on what did you choose the techniques, what is it that drives you to use one with respect to the other?
AP: There is an important moment in this step. I studied painting, and up to ’97 I only painted. I began to use the video not because I wanted to make video art nor because I wanted to enrich my practice with a new technique, but because I wanted to answer a thing with the most appropriate means that the thing required to be addressed and this was with video. So, the first video was born, “Albanian Stories”. From that moment the use of a medium that I did not know has presented me with a problem of using the medium itself, not regarding the process of elaboration, but the encounter with the necessary thing, with the medium (videos). In other words: between you and what you choose to watch, to relate to, to investigate, there is a space. That space must be filled with the necessary medium. And so often in my work, the choice of a technique depends on this need. Then of course in artistic practice, in meeting with the medium, which has its potential, there is a desire to work in a certain way, a desire to investigate it in a certain way, and also point out certain possibilities that the medium itself has. But I have always been careful not to fall into it with a “taste” of mannerism. And also regarding the use of various techniques, I’ve never seen it as a kind of technical virtuosity, because I do not do sculptures just because I am a good sculptor, I do not do photography because I am a good photographer, I do videos not because I’m a good video artist, but because in this story of the column I could not tell it with the paintings, but I needed the video.
LM: So, from what part you want to recount?
AP: I start from a meeting. It was a meeting that gave rise to a desire for action because of the things it might have suggested. And so it was also when I met Pasolini: I saw paintings in those scenes, and then painting was the only way to implement this interpretation, this stimulus. It does not come with either the desire to comment on Pasolini or to analyze Pasolini nor to tell others that I’m good at painting, nor of how good I am at mixing colors. But it was born as a desire to implement the pictorial stimulation I received from a frame of a film by Pasolini and this narrative stimulus, which is not filmic narration, has the potential to become a pictorial action: so, these works were born. Then obviously working with the medium, which is not neutral but has also its identity, in my work I try to keep it as a necessary tool but still respecting it for what it really is.
LM: Just talking about Pasolini, my curiosity is how did you encounter the work of Pasolini and how did you approach it?
AP: While in Albania I did not know Pasolini, I encountered him while watching one of his films, “The Gospel according to Matthew.” And there I was just amazed at this ability to tell a story that we all know: it was not the strangeness of the story nor the originality of the story, but the ability to tell it in a fresh way, while containing a freshness in this ancient memory. That is not the contemporary style, not the style to be contemporary, but it is the freshness of the contemporary look. In charge of this ancient memory there is a pictorial component, and I think this makes it very vital, very strong. It is not a matter of curiosity to me to see Pasolini as an intellectual or to see Pasolini as a poet or an artist, but seeing with his eyes and feel it like if it were mine. Watching with him the things that he watched and then you see a potential painting.
LM: Are there different techniques that you study before making a work? Do you think in advance about what you want to communicate or what you want to make?
AP: No, when I made my first video I did not know how to push “play”: they gave me a video camera in hand and taught me how to push “record”. Now I know something more, but I do not know much, that’s why I don’t think I am a video artist or a photographer or a sculptor.
LM: And among all these techniques which is the one that you feel closest to?
AP: The painting remains the closest to me, because it necessitates a further gesture from the beholder, because the painting is more a matter of look, or that of building the image, the gesture of touching a surface that involves a relationship that’s a bit more intimate.
LM: What are your future plans after this exhibition?
AP: I am planning a number of exhibitions that engages me a lot more, because for me to do a show is like creating a work: you put your work in relationship with each other and with the space, you think about a specific audience, a specific context where these jobs are going and then obviously, there is a whole lot of thinking, a certain kind of rhythm, a certain type of processing, a certain type of relationship that is created. However, I must tell the truth: after these exhibitions, I do feel the need to engage in work, and for the moment, perhaps because of the fatigue of this project in China, “The Column,” which as you can imagine has been very complex, I feel the need to go into the studio to make drawings, paintings. But I have ideas about new videos that I would like to do, but these ideas I would like to keep a little inside of me, work them out inside of me, before I start the process of creation. Right now I’m drawing and painting, I am realizing that I want to have an exhibition of paintings in the gallery: I haven’t done an exhibition of paintings for the past 15 years.
LM: I am still curious, since you talked about it, it came to my mind: how long it took to complete the work “The Column”?
AP: The trip on the ship lasted more than three weeks, 24 days to be exact; and then there was the part of the quarry with three days of shooting; 5 years of preparation for me to refine the idea internally; and then, definitely a year and a half of concentrated work on the project itself.
LM: So in the end there is a great satisfaction in being able to see a completed job that required so much time?
AP: I must say that when I saw the column arrived in Paris and being discharged from the truck with a crane in the park next to the Jeu de Paume, I thought to myself “we made it!”
Special thanks to Garvin Cummings for editing the English subtitiles.
Special thanks to the Pac of Milan for allowing this conversation to take place in their space and to Garvin Cummings for editing the English translation.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Kaufmann Repetto Gallery, Milan.