A ghostly vision of a horse stands alone, surrounded by busy traffic and restless dogs. The glimpses of light that surround the silhouetted image form the only indication that time hasn’t been frozen, that this image isn’t petrified. Caught in a fixed state of violence and agitation, Time After Time (2003) pictures life on the edge of Anri Sala’s hometown of Tirana and sets the scene at the entrance to this exhibition in his adopted Paris. Strangely, ‘When Night Calls it a Day’, hosted at the Covent of Cordeliers – the medieval temporary home of Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris – subjected the viewer to a largely different set of circumstances from Sala’s previous work, emphasizing a recent shift from the structure of documentary to a more open scenario. His latest five films present slight narratives from Tirana and other locations, all of which are set at the moment of twilight.
A lot has been said about Dammi i colori (2003), which was shown at last year’s Venice Biennale. This film documents the repainting of a housing block in Tirana in a bright geometric pattern, a renovation ordered by the mayor of the city. Sala quotes Liam Gillick in the film’s credits. Apparently Gillick had asked if the buildings in Sala’s film were real. It’s curious what this may say about the illusory style of Sala’s filmmaking, Gillick’s politicization of Modernist sculpture, or about architecture using the language of Modernism both in Western countries and those close to economic collapse. In poverty-stricken Albania the issues that Sala’s work begs are more polarized and stark, taking on a wholly different and real set of circumstances.
Sala’s reputation over the last few years has been largely based on this context – the currency of his Albanian identity and his works’ indirect response to the political and economic upheaval in that country since the late 1990s. Obviously when such films are commissioned or shown in wealthier countries, the adoption of sociological and political rhetoric can quite easily collapse into a form of tourism. The fact that Sala’s work has endured this is perhaps due to the fact that the work in Paris presents a move towards something more reduced and emptied of meaning; to something in favour of a more open form of game playing – itself a response to those seeking to over determine his practice as wholly about his origins.
This comes across in the playful Ghostgames (2002), which is set on a North Carolina beach in total darkness. Here two figures tease an agile crab, chasing it aimlessly, periodically blurting out orders to each other. At a certain moment a score tally is legible and we immediately recognize the scene as a game of football. The crab is steered via flashlights between goalposts on each side of the beach, its phantom-like presence, or reflection, in danger of being swallowed whole by the tide as it laps at the shore. By contrast Làkkat (2004) is more traditionally poetic in form – shot in Senegal, it takes its cue from the Wolof language and sees children repeating words that refer to light and dark. Within the traditional ‘black cube’ and the convent’s medieval architecture, this work uses the musicality of language to show the deceptiveness of dark and light to good effect.
By far the most visceral work in the exhibition was Mixed Behaviour (2003). This film features a lonely DJ improvising and interacting with fireworks in Tirana on New Year’s Eve. Situated on a roof terrace, his decks are protected from the rain by a simple plastic sheet. It’s easy to experience a butterfly-inducing rush of adrenalin and vertigo in front of this work – the whole panorama of the Tirana skyline being flattened into a shallow but spectacular depth – and an overwhelming melancholy at the sheer futility of its enterprise. Exploding as they do in the middle distance, fireworks represent an explicitly artificial form of the sublime. In a different sense, the real beauty, or even the incomprehensible thing about Mixed Behaviour, combined with its awkward optimism, is the DJ’s single-handed attempt to compete with and simulate the sheer delirious volume of the night’s pyrotechnics.
Questions about the films in this exhibition may come from the symbolic and fictive nature of Sala’s work; he consistently disrupts his own use of loaded personal experience and reconstructs histories through a documentary film language stripped of narrative structures. The real sting in the tail is the openness of his production process, which still manages effectively to bisect current forms of political and social reality with an honesty and poetic conviction.