Anri Sala

View of “Two Films,” 2012, Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit.

“Two Films,” Anri Sala’s current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, features Dammi I Colori (Give Me the Colors), 2003, which is set in Tiriana, Albania, and documents the way color shapes a city devastated by decades of political, social, and economic upheaval, and the Long Sorrow, 2005, which features a saxophone player suspended from a window in Berlin, improvising various compositions over a vast urban landscape. The Berlin-based Albanian artist will represent France at the 2013 Venice Biennale. His Detroit exhibition is on view through December 30.

WHAT HAPPENS IN A FILM AND WHAT HAPPENS OUTSIDE OF IT, the relation of the foreground to the background, is of great interest to me. The moment people step into the projection space, they bring the background of their particular city, within its specific moment, to the work. As a work can be exhibited many times, as the two films here have, the historical context of each is in constant flux—its time stamp is always moving.

What I like about free jazz, a central part of the Long Sorrow, is that it’s constantly trying to escape its time stamp—when a piece is scored you know in advance that there is a specific composition of time and music. Here, there is a free jazz, which is to say that the musician, Jemeel Moondoc, is responding to the situation with his saxophone, each moment guessing and inventing the moment after. In a way, then, there is a conceptual contradiction—this is the essence of the film—in recording and by definition time-coding the music that is actually surfacing, whose tempo, melody, or structure, blowing within this instrument, are impossible to anticipate.

The saxophone is a very beautiful instrument, especially its body with its keys and the bell; in the film, however, I wanted to focus on where the mouthpiece meets the lips, where breathing becomes music before music becomes air. The relation of time and tempo to one’s breath is fundamental—these come together to create syntax, a structure that exists before music but which has to take music into account. I’m very interested in this idea of what is in the breath and what is in the score. For example, in 1395 Days Without Red, a film I made in collaboration with Liria Begeja, based on a project I did with Šejla Kamerić and Ari Benjamin Meyers, we hear the breath of a woman, a musician on her way to rehearsal. The film takes place during the siege of Sarajevo. As she runs across major crossings of the city, which was extremely dangerous as people were constantly being shot by snipers in these places, she rehearses Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony in her head and the running impacts her breath, which impacts the music she is humming. Here, breathing connects to both time and space—it gives us air and time, which brings us further in space. The danger within the city influences the way she moves and breathes, which influences the way she hums music. When contemporary, dramatic events crisscross with the city’s architecture, they influence the tempo of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony. This is how different forms of syntax correlate and break within a film—the splintering of one layer of syntax leads to the splintering of the next.

In Tirana, where I filmed Dammi i colori, the system of values in the city changed dramatically after going from a communist regime and a dictatorship to a democracy. For example, everyone wanted to expand their homes because during the communist period, they had to make do with whatever quarters they were given. Common space reminded them too much of the past; people reacted to the former government’s premium on community by focusing on improving their private spaces, often without care to how changes of the interior affected the exterior—it was like a city was imploding. Walls were pushed out from the inside of apartments to turn balconies into extra rooms. Additional balconies were often constructed for these new rooms, and then suddenly the lampposts of the city were shooting through the balcony—the city was expanding in a kind of full anarchy. As the political system broke down, the syntax of architecture ruptured.

When what constructs an ideological message changes so suddenly that language and physical spaces do not have the capacity to hide or evolve with the transformation, the syntax breaks. In Detroit, syntax has broken in an almost opposite way—due to economic crisis, people are leaving the city, and homes have been and still are being foreclosed upon. The houses are still there but there is a shrinking force happening.