Adrian Paci’s work seems inseparable from his identity as a migrant. Yet the Albanian artist’s biography merely serves as a point of departure for videos., photographic works, and paintings that explore basic questions of human existence and the role of the artist. An entire floor is dedicated to him in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt. Achim Drucks asked Adrian Paci about the time he spent in Albania, his works, and his fascination for Pier Paolo Pasolini.
||A lone gangway stands on the runway. A group of people enters the picture; one by one they climb the metal steps, ready to board. Close-ups show the resigned, expectant, skeptical faces of those waiting. They could be from Mexico or any other Latin American country—migrants in search of a better life. Then, the camera slowly moves away from the group. Suddenly, it becomes clear that there’s no airplane here at all. The workers are apparently thronging for nothing, while other planes take off and land behind them.
Adrian Paci’s video Centro di Permanenza temporanea doesn’t end with this politically correct "punch line". At the end of the film, compassionate close-up views of people’s faces are juxtaposed with several images in long shot, an effect that creates a degree of distance. These show the crowded gangway from a variety of perspectives—as a huge sculpture and a symbol of uprootedness, or as a futile wait for a chance to seek happiness elsewhere. Paci addresses political and existential questions without neglecting the formal and aesthetic dimensions of his work. His visual language is both laconic and precise. The extended long shots at the end of the film make the event, or non-event as the case may be, seem artificial and stylized. By employing formal austerity in this way, Paci elevates the images to the status of metaphor—not only for a social reality, but also for the fundamental absurdity of human existence.
Made parallel to this five-minute video, which was filmed in 2007 on a Californian runway, were the two photographic works The Line and Centro di Permanenza temporanea in the Deutsche Bank Collection, which contain motifs from the film.
The theme of migration is inseparable from Paci’s work and personal biography. In 1997, he left his native Albania with his wife and two small daughters and settled in Milan. At the time, Albania was in a state of unrest bordering on civil war. The so-called "Lottery Uprising" led to a collapse of state order, followed by plundering on the part of marauding gangs. More than 1,000 people died. At the time, Paci was teaching at the University in Shkodra, a city with a longstanding Catholic tradition where he was born in 1969 as the son of a painter. He began his artistic training at the Art Academy in Tirana in 1987—two years after the death of Enver Hoxha, whose dictatorial, neo-Stalinist regime turned Albania into one of the most isolated nations in the world. Hoxha’s successor Ramiz Alia continued these policies until he was overthrown in 1990.
Censorship was everywhere; nowhere in Eastern Europe was cultural repression as pervasive as here. The only legitimate art style was a particularly heroic brand of Socialist Realism. "The regime saw art as an important instrument for propagating communist ideology," recalls Adrian Paci. "The art we were involved with while I was studying during the time of the regime was mainly in the tradition of figurative painting and sculpture. It began with the Renaissance and ended with Impressionism." Yet in secret, the students acquainted themselves with alternatives to the official state art. "The counter-models to the academic style of Socialist Realism were Picasso, Klee, Chagall, and so on. I remember the first exhibition in Albania to show abstract paintings. That was in the early nineties. It was like a kind of end point, and many people asked what should come next."
The new freedom that followed upon the end of dictatorship rule forced more people than just Paci to redefine the role art plays in society: "I think that the political and social transformation in Albania posed a huge dilemma for art: you were finally free to do and to say what you wanted, but at the same time all the points of reference had changed, and so the question of what to do with this freedom and how to build a discourse became crucial. Art was used, misused, and abused for many years in the name of its social role, so for many artists it was essential to stay inside the studio and give expression to their fantasies. I was doing half-abstract, half-metaphysical paintings at that time."
Emigrating to Italy led to yet another change in his work: "My desire to make video art was not connected to the choice of a particular medium per se," says Paci. "It was by chance that I overheard my daughter telling stories to her toys in which she mixed her fantasies and memories of the collapse of the state of Albania during the conflict of ’97. I was unable to paint these stories, and I was unable to make drawings of them. All I could do was record them on video in the most direct possible way."
In the video Albanian Stories, which was made immediately after the family’s arrival in Italy, Yolanda tells a contemporary fairy tale. Along with a rooster and a cow, "dark forces" and "international powers" also play a key role in the tale, while fire falls from the sky. In her story, the girl, who was three years old at the time, processes some of her recent experiences—which are typical for tens of thousands of children that were forced to leave their home country because of riots and civil war. But just as in Centro di Permanenza temporanea the fraught relationship between content and form makes for the special quality of the work, the effect of Albanian Stories is based on the discrepancy between the content of Yolanda’s fairy tale and the manner in which she tells it. There are no tears shed here, and the child is not being used to get a message across. Experiences that are traumatic to the core are narrated with a cheery smile; the story even has a happy end.
Paci’s video Believe me I am an artist is also based on personal experience. For a photographic work, he drew visa stamps on his daughters’ naked shoulders. The photographs seemed suspicious to the photo lab, and Paci was interrogated by the police on suspicion of child abuse. For the video, he replayed the situation and filmed it from the perspective of a surveillance camera. "What I found interesting in that story was the fact that as far as the police was concerned, I was simultaneously a foreigner in front of a citizen, an individual in front of a representative of the state, and an artist in front of his public. I was interested in exploring what happens when you are removed from a context that recognizes you as an artist. How can you define yourself when you leave this context? The fact that I had to explain my photographs to the police, the fact that my daughters were depicted in these photographs, and the fact that this dialogue was taking place in an office investigating sexual violence and abuse against minors—all this lent the story a more extreme and intriguing aspect. Yet it wasn’t a question of telling a story, but of using my experience to reflect on broader, more complex topics."
In his work, Paci’s personal experiences are always transformed into something universally applicable: “I was never interested in autobiography, and I didn’t want to describe my life in my works. What I found stimulating in the stories and what became the point of departure for my first videos was the fact that they were opening up ways of understanding the dynamics between universal questions like truth and fiction, the personal and the collective, trauma and storytelling, art and non-art and so on.”
The four-part photo series Back Home, which can be seen on Paci’s floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt, also has an autobiographical reference. “Emigrants often take pictures in front of important buildings in the cities they live in and send them to their families. I wanted to invert this by asking friends of mine to give me permission to take pictures in their houses in Albania. I used these pictures to paint four backdrops with the houses of four different families, and then I invited them to my studio to pose for a photograph in front of the painted house. In this way, the painting derives from a photograph and is then converted back into a photograph through this experience. I liked the whole process, and the final picture is only the last moment of this process.” With their painted backgrounds, the images are far more reminiscent of studio photographs of past decades in which the people posing for the portraits were immortalized in front of exotic backdrops or fantasy landscapes. In Paci’s work, the backgrounds in tones of beige and gray feel like fading memories. They are present, but the confident people standing before them demonstrate that they’ve arrived in their new homeland, their new life.
This strategy of taking an image from one medium and transposing it into another characterizes many of Paci’s works. Thus, his paintings and drawings from the series Passages (2007/09), Facade (2007), and The Wedding (since 2002) are based on private video footage. By taking individual moments out of the flux of images and "freezing" them, he lends them a presence that corresponds to the content of the images. They portray rituals in the broadest sense, for instance weddings: "We need rituals to handle our state of abandon and to organize our existence. Today, the consumer society we live in has done away with many of the old rituals and has forced us to become primarily engaged in the rituals of consuming. But I feel attracted to the richness of past rituals; they have a more genuine relation to the rhythms of life."
The series Passages from the Deutsche Bank Collection shows men shaking hands at a kind of greeting ceremony. "Shaking hands in itself is not a ritual, it’s a gesture that’s part of various different rituals. We find it at weddings and funerals, in ceremonies of agreement between different clans, or at the end of a conflict between individuals. It’s a gesture that includes the moment of congratulation or consolation, celebration or comfort. I like it because it’s a gesture that’s still part of our everyday life. To my mind, focusing on this moment is a way of isolating the gesture and keeping it open to all these different potentialities or possibilities."
Paci shares this interest with Pier Paolo Pasolini in rituals and visual formulas that have existed for as long as anyone can remember and that have survived over time. The Italian director repeatedly used motifs from painters like Giotto and Piero della Francesca in his films—motifs firmly anchored in the collective memory bank of cultural imagery. For his part, Paci painted stills from the director’s films for his installation Cappella Pasolini (2005) and the painting series Secondo Pasolini (Decameron) (2006) and Fiore delle mille e una notte (2008). He shares a preference for reduced and precisely composed images and large close-ups with Pasolini, who often worked with lay actors from the outskirts of Rome. This also goes for the video Turn on (2004), which portrays unemployed men at twilight sitting on the steps of the ruins of a post-war building on Shkodra’s central square. One by one they operate a generator to produce enough electricity to light up a light bulb. While the camera pulls back, the entire set of stairs slowly becomes visible together with the men hired for the project. The image, accompanied by the deafening sound of the generators but poetic nonetheless, on the one hand speaks of the sober fact that Albania’s dilapidated electrical system frequently breaks down. On the other hand, the final images of this absurd theater express a stoical optimism that lends great dignity to the deeply wrinkled men.
It’s this kind of physiognomy that seems to tell an entire life story that lends a particular kind of authenticity to the films of both Pasolini and Paci. "Art is fiction, we all know it, but often the codes of art can become boring", explains Paci. "Confronting reality with its authenticity is not a way to describe and to be "faithful" to it, but to derive something from its unexpected aspects. I agree with Pasolini when he says that he never finds nature natural. What I like is when the unexpected and authentic elements of reality enter into the codes of art language and transform them." Perhaps it’s this almost transcendental moment that unites the two artists—a combination of artificiality and frugality, poetry and politics that speaks to all. Paci’s works are parables on the conditio humana, which encompasses both an existential harshness and an adherence to hope.