Was it really only a couple of years ago that we were all overdosing on video art? One white-cube gallery after another was turning into a black box. Artists who had made their names with sculpture, installation, or painting were turning to video, and we began to balk at being asked to spend 10 minutes, or an hour, or 24, sitting on a floor in the dark watching something more likely to be insufferable or inscrutable than terrific—even though a generation nurtured on the boob tube was easily transfixed by anything that resembled television.
Anri Sala, the internationally hot young Albanian artist making his solo debut in New York this month, knows how to hold our attention. But his relatively simple single-channel videos use no installational theatrics, no virtuosic manipulations, no clever ploys. “We go to cinemas to escape,” he said in 2001. “We go to art spaces to confront something.” Sala’s straightforward approach comes as something of a shock. An early piece, Intervista—Finding the Words (1997), which involved a Soviet-era interview with his own mother, its missing soundtrack, and a disconnect between old meanings and new in the face of a new reality, was as political as it was personal. “When the system breaks down and the ideology disappears, the language becomes even grammatically incorrect,” notes the artist. Uomoduomo, at the 2001 Venice Biennale, which focused on an old man nodding off in church, negotiated an uneasy truce between consciousness and unconsciousness, transcendence and oblivion.
Sala didn’t paint the Tirana facades in Dammi i Colori (Give Me the Colors), in his current show. Others did, as part of an ongoing project initiated by Edi Rama, the city’s mayor and a former artist, who takes us on a tour—with English subtitles—past the oddly intense crazy quilts of saturated color that festoon the drab city’s decaying buildings. What at first seems an eerily schizoid imposition of formal modern decoration onto the wretched realities of a bleak post-apocalyptic place—crumbling walls, rummaging inhabitants, bare trees bleached by the glare of the artist’s headlights—reveals itself as a post-utopian project. “The city was dead. It looked like a body,” intones the mayor, who has pinned his hopes on this quixotic social experiment. “What are the colors doing to us?” Sound—deep, ambient, and urban—plays a unifying role in Sala’s video, as if underscoring the mayor’s words: “Color also has another role, it must bind together.”
Mixed Behavior, which reverberates with the roar of explosions, thunder, and throbbing music on a suspended monitor in a pitch-black room, offers a similar equation of festivity, destruction, and against-all-odds effort as a DJ alone on a rooftop works his decks under a tarp, illuminated by flashes of lightning and bursting fireworks. What looks and sounds like warfare—or a disco light show—is simply a battle against the elements on an anarchic New Year’s Eve.
Two other works, shot in Senegal, are even more directly about the migration of meaning and the futility of translation. Sala’s art slips between sound and image, voice and vision, the legible and the visible, the abstract and the social, belief and mistrust—eluding symbolism and interpretation. It’s about looking and listening. As the artist told me on the phone last week, “The formal things are pretty important, not because I’m attached to any formalism but because they’re things that bring image, not things that bring explanation. They’re things that you fail to translate or explain by words. I’m interested in when language fails to respond to the needs we have. That’s when the visual becomes important. Language already has a lot of power in the world, even more than sex.”