II. Orientation, This
Anri Sala discusses the choreograpy of perception in time and space.
Exhibition view of “Anri Sala” at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2011, with Doldrums (2008) in foreground and the two-channel video projection After Three Minutes (2007) in background. Photo Guy L’Heureux, collection of the Media Centre, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.
ART iT: We were just discussing Albania in the 1990s when parts of society there followed the law of the streets, and how your video Promises (2001) deals with young men being tugged between the desire to emulate gangster culture on the one hand, and to push beyond the limitations of machismo on the other. This reminds me of the way you’ve recently started installing your works such that they alternately phase on and off across the exhibition space, as in the exhibition “Purchase Not by Moonlight,” held in 2008 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. The complex dynamic you achieved among the different works becomes a metaphor for group dynamics and individual displays of sympathy with or withdrawal from the group mentality.
AS: Yes, I think that’s there. The idea behind the phasing of the installation is to let a third person – the audience – create their own position between the different works. We often find ourselves in the position of being a third point between difference references, between weak and strong, mainstream and periphery.
In that sense the phasing is related in another way to the same period of life in Albania in the 1990s, in terms of rupture: rupture in meaning, rupture in syntax, rupture in narrative, rupture in beliefs. Of course, I am able to call it “rupture” because, having lived in a place like France where there has been more relative stability over the past decades, I have an understanding of continuity that I can use to compare with the situation in Albania. But for the generation who came after me, who were born in what we call the transition period, how do they know that rupture is not its own continuity? In order to see that your rupture is not everybody’s rupture, you have to step inside someone else’s continuity.
There is a lot of this in the process of how I think and experience things. In setting up the exhibitions I strive for continuity in the overall timeline but there are ruptures that happen at a given time or in a given part of the gallery, where one work switches on or off and the viewer is led in a new direction. But I also include an underlying cohesive element, like the orchestration of sound, so that concurrently everything is held together.
There is a project I did two years ago, Why the Lion Roars (2009), for which different films were projected in a cinema corresponding to shifts in temperature. The weather became the editor of the film program. Some days when the weather was constant there would be more continuity, but on other days, when the weather moved further into a new season, for example, there would be bigger rifts in the different films that were projected. This kind of rupture created new meanings and narratives, sometimes more articulated and sometimes less so through the collage of films. I also worked out a rule based on conventional viewing habits, whereby if the same temperature recurred within the space of 90 minutes then the same film would pick up where it left off, but if the same temperature recurred at, say, the start and the end of the day – which is quite common – then the film would start over from the beginning. I was trying to find a balance between the pleasures and frustrations one has in the surprise of rupture and of finding continuity again.
Top: Color photograph from Why the Lion Roars (2009), 41 x 52 cm. © Anri Sala, courtesy the artist and Chantal Crousel, Paris. Bottom: Installation view of publication (foreground) and digital prints (background) from Why the Lion Roars at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, 2011. Photo © 2011 Kazuo Fukunaga.
ART iT: Regarding your orchestration of works across an exhibition space, is this articulation of the continuities and ruptures in your own practice something that has become possible only now that you have accumulated enough material over the course of your career?
AS: Obviously over time I can articulate more in the relations between the works. At first you can only advance from work to work, but then there’s a point where you begin to find articulation in the gaps between each work, not only in what each work expresses on its own. Of course it also has to do with the singularities of the exhibition space, and the budget, and knowing better the syntax of making exhibitions. When I’m producing a new work I get very wrapped up in its internal logic. In making a film, I will follow a strict film practice, but then once it’s done I place it into a landscape of different works and I switch to more of a sculptural practice.
I think every work can be thought of in sound terms as having both high and low frequencies, with the high frequency corresponding to meaning and content, and the low frequency corresponding to more ambient, but no less significant, characteristics. Like many other artists I am frustrated that in group exhibitions my works are often included on the basis of their high frequencies: what they shout. When I do my own exhibitions I try to articulate my works – metaphorically speaking – based on their low frequencies, but also literally in the case of the Doldrums (2008) installation, in which standing snare drums respond to the low frequencies of the soundtracks of the other works on view. I look for alternative connections between my works by turning what seems to be the background into the foreground.
I explored this further in a project I did with my friend, the Albanian politician and former practicing artist Edi Rama, called Inversion – Creating Space Where There Appears to be None (2010). The project was based on Edi’s practice of doodling on email printouts and other political documents that he happens to have at hand during meetings. Swapping foreground and background necessarily changes perspective, which we all know, but what I found interesting aside from the visual qualities of Edi’s drawings is that they show how the foreground of the eye does not always match the foreground of the mind. Edi’s eye and hand may be concentrated on the drawing on the paper, but the background of the drawing, which is the political text, is at the foreground of his mind. Exploring this gap between the foreground of the mind and the foreground of the eye was the main emphasis of the project.
Top: Installation view of Inversion – Creating Space Where There Appears to be None (2010) at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2011. Bottom: Exhibition view of “Anri Sala” at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2011, with the single-channel projection Answer Me (2008) visible at right and Doldrum (2008) visible at left. Both: Photo Guy L’Heureux, collection of the Media Centre, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.
ART iT: And of course politics constantly switches between background and foreground: the social injustices in Tunisia were in the background of world consciousness until the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire.
AS: Exactly. And this background incident – not incident, because it was a real political act – might never have come to the foreground if other people also in the background were not ready to amplify that political act across different contexts. My starting point for the Edi Rama project was this painting by Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (c 1648). The title of the painting is beautiful because it’s not just indicating a man, it’s indicating a landscape with a man. The man is only one part of the landscape, all the more so when you consider the view from the citadel in the background, which is the foreground of the political system: the man would not be seen.
The project developed from a conversation about how the history of painting would be if we swapped background and foreground, as well as how politics in general is conceived as the relation between center and periphery, and how the system of values that are dictated from centers such as Brussels or Washington get corrupted by the time they reach the periphery. Then when you have people on the periphery who are committed to giving real meaning to those same values, it’s the politicians in Brussels or Washington who care more about whether the message arrived in the correct syntax or not, as opposed to whether it actually delivered the right content.
Exhibition view of “Anri Sala” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, 2011,
with Doldrums (2008) in foreground and digital prints from
Why the Lion Roars (2009) in background. Photo © 2011 Kazuo Fukunaga.
ART iT: You’ve spoken about high and low frequencies, foreground and background, and syntax. Is it this conceptual language that informs your attraction to music? Are you interested in music because it is so syntactical in the way it’s performed and appreciated, or does music predate your interest in syntax?
AS: I think it’s both. I find music is an interesting way to share a narrative, because it carries the low and the high frequencies together, both literally and figuratively. The content of high frequencies is more related to memory, while the ambience of low frequencies is about experience. For example, melodies are usually in mid-high frequencies, but if you go to a concert, what you cannot translate the next day when you talk to your friends is the low frequencies, what you felt in your body.
Sound and music have this in a much more interesting and broad way than language, which I feel is necessarily based in high frequencies because you are able to say it again and again and again; language is not an experience, it’s already a translation of experience. Music is both at the same time, in the way maybe that Intervista or Dammi i colori are documentaries in becoming, or documentaries that will never become.
To put it simply, I’m interested in setting up, recording, directing these situations in which emotions go through the unspeakable, in things that cannot be summarized in a narration the next day, something that has to be experienced one-to-one. Few of my films ever have iconic images that encapsulate the whole material. I like to make works that must be experienced as a whole. It’s this lack of efficiency that, for me, advances the articulation even further.
Anri Sala is the subject of solo exhibitions at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, through December 11, and the Serpentine Gallery, London, through November 20. An exhibition at Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Tokyo, was held from October 14 to November 10.
Anri Sala: In and Out of Articulation