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Variations on a theme
Global Terroir
La belle revue in print
2022 – Oran and Algiers
2021 – Lagos
2020 – Tirana
2019 – Beirut
2018 – Cape Town
2017 – Bangkok
2016 – Porto
2015 – Malmö

(Counter-)Heritage and Contemporary Art in Tirana

by Raino Isto

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Global contemporary art is increasingly engaged with the questions raised by architectural heritage in urban spaces, as artists seek to understand how the built environment can both reinforce and undermine legacies of imperial repression, authoritarian regimentation, and neoliberal privatization. Tirana is no exception to this cultural trend. Since becoming the administrative capital of Albania in the 1920s, the city’s urban fabric has been made and remade by successive regimes. The interwar monarchy of Zog I, the ensuing occupation by fascist Italy, Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship, and post-socialist democracy have all left their mark on Tirana as a cultural ensemble. Despite the lack of robustly articulated local art histories, the question of ‘heritage’ in Tirana has become an important one for contemporary artists working in the city. The relationships between Ottoman-era, fascist-era, socialist-era, and capitalist-era architectures and urban planning in an increasingly densely populated city have provided a rich fabric of controversies and possible points of ideological intercession for younger generations of artists.

This essay—without any claim to being exhaustive—examines works by artists who have approached Tirana and its conflicting histories through interactions with sculptural and architectural objects ranging from the massive to the marginal. Their works reveal the city as an uneasy spatio-temporal constellation oscillating between meaningful structures of narrative and ambiguous oblivion. It is fruitful to conceptualize how contemporary artists have engaged with architectural and monumental structures in Tirana through the lens of what architectural historian Andrew Herscher calls “counter-heritage.”1 Counter-heritage is not the immediate dialectical inverse of modernity, those non-modern objects subject to museification as cherished ‘heritage.’ Rather, counter-heritage constitutes those remnants of the past that are singled out precisely to be eliminated and forgotten, often because they represent values or histories that stand in stark contrast to current dominant political ideologies. In Southeastern Europe, both Ottoman-era and socialist-era architectures have functioned as counter-heritage, at different historical moments (and in the case of Albania, fascist-era urbanism also plays a similar role).

The current Albanian state’s approach to the architecture of previous historical eras seems to be one of neglect, and sometimes of outright erasure, treating specific areas of the capital city (including its historic center) as undesirable reminders of authoritarian repression that must be removed or radically transformed. A case in point is Skanderbeg Square, Tirana’s central plaza. The square was initially part of the Italian plan for the capital, and it continued to play a major role in public manifestations during the socialist period. In 2008, during current Prime Minister Edi Rama’s stint as mayor of Tirana, the Belgian architecture firm 51N4E developed a project for restructuring the square. In collaboration with artist Anri Sala, 51N4E proposed the creation of a void within the city, clearing away landscaping and structures to create a vast square palimpsest (with a slight pyramidal rise) at the heart of the city. This project was finally completed in 2017, as part of Rama’s national “Urban Renaissance” campaign, and it may be considered emblematic of the official approach to architecture and public space in the country: it aims to begin again ex nihilo out of a de-historicized (or post-historical) urban void.

Skanderbeg Square’s pyramidal structure (a gradual 3% grade to a central apex) cannot help but call to mind—even if the reference is never made explicit—the city’s much more famous pyramid, the former Museum of Enver Hoxha. Constructed after the communist dictator’s death in 1985, the museum was inaugurated in 1988 along Tirana’s central boulevard, to the southeast of Skanderbeg Square. This massive structure became, after the end of socialism in Albania in 1991, a contested symbol of the country’s recent past; it was vandalized and gutted. Plans to demolish or completely transform the Pyramid (as it became known) circulated, particularly in the early 2010s. In response to these plans, artists Stefano Romano2 and architect Eri Çobo carried out a performance entitled HISTŒRI removing in 2012. After climbing to the building’s peak, they unrolled a long white sheet bearing the word HISTERI along one of its slanting surfaces. Video documentation of the performance also captures the participation of several Roma children who took an interest in the process. The title of the intervention plays with the one-letter difference between the Albanian words for “history” and “hysteria” (histeri), marking the conflicted character of historical consciousness (and the ways that Albanian history itself is often treated as a pathology by postsocialist state discourses).

While Romano and Çobo focused their intervention on one of the most visually imposing structures in the city, other artists have addressed counter-heritage objects positioned in more marginal zones. For example, in May of 2016, artist Nada Prlja organized a workshop entitled Humane Communism as part of an exhibition held at the independent art space Tirana Art Lab (TAL).3 The workshop was part of the artist’s broader project Subversion to Red, and involved the participants “show[ing] love and care toward … old socialist monuments … by daydreaming together of a system” that would provide an alternative to “the cruelty” of neoliberal capitalism.4 The workshop took place behind the National Gallery of the Arts, where—in a gravel parking lot—a collection of bronze statues and busts have gradually accumulated since 1991. The sculptures include two statues of Stalin, one of Lenin, one of the Partisan heroine Liri Gero, and a stone bust of Enver Hoxha, covered by a tarp. Placed partially out of view behind the museum, the statues occupied a curiously liminal space, somewhere between neglect and the intentionality of a sculpture park. During the course of the hybrid workshop and performance, participants embraced the statues and huddled next to them, taking shelter beneath their oversized coats, mimicking their poses, and reacting to their frozen movements.

As part of the same exhibition at TAL, artist Nikolin Bujari took a very different approach to the oblivion that surrounds so many socialist-era objects. Bujari created a replica of a particular lapidar (the Albanian term for architectonic monuments commemorating the Partisan resistance) dedicated to the communist youth leader Qemal Stafa (one of the founders of the Albanian Communist Party in 1941), which is located adjacent to one of Tirana’s open-air markets. Bujari’s copy of the memorial, titled A Monument for a Monument, is composed of lightweight materials, clearly hollow, and devoid of any commemorative text. Its manifest blankness occupies a middle ground between actions like Prlja’s (which actively seeks to recover socialist culture as a heritage) and state iconoclastic projects that demolish such monuments entirely. A copy that lacks the narrative richness of the original, Bujari’s lapidar is an attempt to hold open history as an empty sign, to hold on to the future as something unwritten while still pointing to the past as a source of possibilities.5

One of the most salient recent controversies over architectural heritage has unfolded surrounding the proposed destruction of the National Theater in Tirana. The Albanian government plans to demolish the theater and replace it with a new structure (designed by the firm of well-known Danish architect Bjarke Ingels). Originally constructed between 1939 and 1943, during the period of fascist occupation in Albania, the theater building (and state efforts to destroy it) has superseded the Pyramid as the symbolic locus of concerns over the erasure of history in contemporary Albania. While current Albanian political leaders (and the Tirana municipality) consider the building to lack any serious aesthetic or historical merit, a group of activists, artists, and concerned citizens collectively known as the Alliance for the National Theater’s Protection began organizing demonstrations in front of the building in early 2018. They protest not only the removal of an important part of the city’s past, but also the privatization of a large swath of public space that the project will produce.

The uncertainty surrounding the fate of the National Theater is succinctly reflected in a painting by Tirana-based artist Eros Dibra, The Fall of Monuments. Part of Dibra’s series “Unlived Memories” (inspired by photographs of Albania taken in the decades before the artist’s birth),6 his painting of the theater is based on one of the original drawings for the project produced by Italian architects in the late 1930s. Like Bujari, Dibra emphasizes vagueness, imaging the theater through a veneer of indeterminacy, suggesting that historical clarity can never be fully achieved. The blurred lines of the building, partially masked behind daubs of pink and flesh tones, represent the site as one where memory congeals around absence as much as presence.

On September 11, 2018, visual anthropologists Arba Bekteshi and Kailey Rocker approached the potential destruction of the theater in a different way. Bekteshi7 and Rocker created three flyers that imitate the format of public death notifications affixed to the walls of buildings and electric posts in specific areas of the city, where citizens learn about the scheduling of memorial services for deceased persons. The flyers that the anthropologists affixed to a number of walls around Tirana (including the sloping surfaces of the Pyramid) announced the death of three structures—Qemal Stafa Stadium, the Tirana Castle, and the National Theater—and listed the date of the next Parliamentary Debate on the issue of the theater as the date for memorial services. While Dibra’s painting ponders architectural heritage as a zone of epistemological doubt about the purview of memory and artistic creativity, Bekteshi and Rocker’s action seeks to mobilize mourning as a social practice that leads back to political participation. As Tirana, its inhabitants, and its political leaders navigate what will be preserved as heritage and what will be rejected as counter-heritage, both approaches seem necessary.

Interactions between artistic practices and urban heritage (and counter-heritage) will only become more crucial as Albania deepens its political, ideological, and economic ties to contemporary Europe. Artists, critics, and curators would do well to critically assess what kinds of structures, networks, and objects are embraced as part of Tirana’s new identity, and which ones are erased, suppressed, or forgotten. Because in these configurations of preservation and oblivion, future historians will also find a map of Tirana as a site of social conflict, collective agency, and counter-memory.

Author bio: Raino Isto is an art historian, curator, and artist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is an editor at ARTMargins Online, an instructor at Mott Community College, and a founding member of the Laboratory for Albanian Art and Culture (LACA). He received his PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2019. His work has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Third Text, Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, International Labor and Working-Class History, and The Getty Research Journal. He is currently at work on a book about Albanian Socialist Realism in the context of the global Cold War.

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