THE ITALIAN REGION OF PUGLIA is where the eighteenth edition of the Mediterranea Young Artists Biennale kicked off, its theme a perennial and problematic formula: “History + Conflict + Dream + Failure = Home.” The shows and performances, in Tirana and Durrës, Albania, present the work of 230 young artists and performers, aged eighteen to thirty-four, from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean diaspora. It is fitting that the biennial is located this time in Albania, a nascent country with an elusive national identity.
The biennial’s inaugural conference took place on the periphery of Bari at the Teatro Kismet, where politicians and curators held court in Juan Sandoval Medellín and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s 2009 installation Mar Mediterraneo: Sedie Love Difference, a congregation of sixty blue-and-green chairs composed to reflect the fluctuating form of the Mediterranean seacoast. The unruly proceedings began with numerous appreciative expressions of the organization of the nomadic biennial, which launched in Barcelona in 1985 and is now sponsored by the Biennale des Jeunes Créateurs de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (BJCEM) network, comprising fifty-nine members from twenty-one countries. Considering his artistic manifesto, Pistoletto concluded hopefully, “Now we will go from democracy, which has never succeeded, to demopraxia”—that is, a human society cohered not by religion or nationhood but by nature and spirituality and the potential commons of art.
A performance of Alessandro Leogrande and Admir Shkurtaj’s opera Katër i Radës: Il naufragio followed, recounting the tragic sinking of the eponymous vessel in 1997 after a collision with an Italian navy ship attempting a blockade, and ending with a haunting installation of the victims’ dripping-wet garments. The incident, a symptom of a second wave of emigration from Albania in the wake of a pyramid-scheme scandal, speaks to the reality of a new government that is just the old corrupt order dressed up in different clothes.
Among more than one hundred other artists, a jovial posse of Brits—Sadegh Aleahmad, Conor Rogers, Toby Campion, Ant Hamlyn, and Jamal Sterrett—roamed around the theater, beers in hand, enjoying the day. Thus the mood was set for our overnight ferry crossing to Albania, following a raucous buffet feast. As our ship pulled away from the dock, I sat on deck with Greek Cypriots Marina Makris, Elena Kallinikou, and Dimitris Chimonas, who would perform the paranoiac parable The Dust Is Expected to Retreat by Tomorrow dressed in swimwear in an empty pool in central Tirana, and with Francesca Greco, a performer from Taranto who sings traditional songs in the Griko dialect at funerals. Our journey proceeded with a discussion about ideas of home and with the musicians in attendance playing boisterous approximations of the tarantella into the wee hours as everyone else danced.
After a bus ride from the coast, serenaded by Italian music, that afternoon brought the official inauguration of Mediterranea 18 in Tirana’s Parku Rinia. The casual ceremony commenced late, and by that time Prime Minister Edi Rama had already come and gone. He clearly had better things to do: The previous week brought a brawl in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia parliament over the formation of a new government including ethnic Albanians, and at home Rama had yet to resolve a boycott by the opposition Democratic Party, which objected to measures vetting out corruption toward entry into the EU, leading to the forced election of a new president.
We began our tour of the exhibition venues at the National Gallery of Art, in front of which the chairs of Mar Mediterraneo seemed to have magically appeared and arranged themselves in formation. Many of the works—installed on the top floor of the modernist building, past displays of social realist art (some already spirited away to Athens for Documenta 14)—were attempts to reconcile daily life with the fluctuating narratives of historic events. El Montassir Abdessamad’s photos of the Moroccan landscape endeavor to reframe its cartography, while Iva Lulashi’s paintings conflate porn with Communist propaganda. Conor Rogers transforms quotidian industrial objects into precious works of art with miniature paintings of household scenes.
Next to the museum lie the ruins of Hotel Dajti, once the most luxurious hotel in the Balkans and the site of the fourth, and final, Tirana International Contemporary Art Biennial (TICAB) in 2009. Walking to the Italian Cultural Institute, we found the facade adorned with Ettore Favini’s striking Mirupafshim (Goodbye), 2017, a sail composed of red-dyed underwear thst the artist collected from Albanians living in Italy. “Some people did not even go home when they heard there was a boat leaving for Italy,” Favini explained, referring to the cargo ship Vlora, overloaded with as many as twenty thousand people and commandeered to the port of Bari in August 1991. “Many of them swam to shore and arrived dressed only in underwear, like comic-book heroes.” Artist Valentina Bonizzi added, “Nobody is really acknowledging the current flight of Italians seeking jobs in Albania.” I found, in fact, that the way to communicate in Albania was in Italian.
From there the mosque’s call to prayer bade us to a nearby 1970s bunker, called Bunk’Art 2, adjacent to one of many government buildings constructed by the Italian Fascists. We lost ourselves while meandering in underground tunnels before discovering, in a dank dead end, Gilad Ratman’s video The Boggyman, 2008, an amateur video selfie taken by a devotee of mud immersion, a cult the artist became involved in after meeting adherents around the globe. “The secret is not to resist, to relax your body and let your legs float to the surface, and then it is easy to get out,” he instructed. “The impossibility of emerging from quicksand is a myth.”
The show at the former embassy of Yugoslavia, a structure symbolizing a broken nation of fractured factions, was about the failure of an idealized state. For sale, the pale-pink building was like a Miami version of a Venetian Gothic palace. “The thought that came to my mind on entering the former embassy, stripped of any appliance—no floor, no ceiling, no doors, nothing: This is what the embassy of a nonexistent country must look like,” curator Sergio Edelsztein said. In fact, Driant Zeneli, the biennial’s artistic director, recounted that “the cleaning ladies went there thinking they would meet the ambassador.” The only thing left was a grand piano turned on its side, which seemed to be a sculpture in the show. Theodoulos Polyviou’s Radiator is a pristine simulation of the object, except two of its pipes are united by a single knot—aesthetically beautiful but fatal to its proper function. On the terrace was Sead Kazanxhiu’s The Floor Is Yours, 2016, a lectern fashioned from barbed wire, as if the wire were left behind from the constantly morphing borders of the Balkan region.
Over dinner with a group of Italian and Albanian curators and writers, Zeneli suggested that the biennial was more of a “happening.” A few artists, Egyptians and Tunisians, were not granted visas to come via Italy. The artworks, films, and performances that converged in Tirana evoke the various and never-ending migratory paths and journeys that have shaped our cultures, rendering the guests, curators, and artists—many of them already refugees living outside their native countries—as immigrants floating through history.
The National History Museum had the air of a time capsule, its lobby enlivened with contemporary works such as Ant Hamlyn’s The Boost Project, 2015–17, a giant inflatable orb expanded by Facebook “likes.” Three videos by Vangjush Vëllahu document Abkhazia, Varosha, and Agdam, places caught in the middle of ethnic or national border conflicts, two of which become ghost towns. In the exhibition hall, many works were about negotiating tradition within contemporary society. In Youssef Ouchra’s video Daqa El Marrakchia the mystical rhythm played by a tambourine is corrupted by the sound of coins in its belly, symbolizing the disruption of tourism and globalization. “A curator from the West might have exoticized the Albanian context,” said the Serbian curator Maja Ćirić, pointing to the power struggle involved in producing knowledge about the complex region. “Since the fall of Communism, it has been foreign curators like Harald Szeemann and René Block who have organized art exhibitions of Balkan artists.”
On my last evening I headed to the gargantuan Pyramid, which was constructed as a monument to former dictator Enver Hoxha and since renamed in honor of persecuted activist Pjetër Arbnori, and which currently serves as a skate ramp and graffiti canvas, as well as a cultural venue. Discovering that a concert by the Jerusalem-based band El Container was delayed, I headed to the restaurant that served as the meeting point, passing by the freshly painted mural “Home” by Greek street artist Cacao Rocks. Iraqi artist Mahmood Hachim told me that he had just met the Palestinian musicians on the ferry and then recounted how he ended up living in France after being badly beaten and imprisoned by government officials over the content of his artwork. “It still hurts every day, but I am okay now. I can deal with the pain.”
We repaired to Komiteti, a funky café full of Communist memorabilia, with a diverse group of artists to pass the time, drinking what is variously called raki, grappa, pálenka, šnops, or arak, depending on where you come from. The real failure in the pursuit of happiness, it seemed, is the lack of freedom to build a home unfettered by the constraints of identity and conflict. The night continued with one and all rocking to El Container inside the Pyramid, with the Lebanese performer Lynn Kodeih leading the fray into the night.