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PRINT January 2004

Hamza Walker on Adrian Paci

IN THE PAST YEAR, THE BALKANS HAVE BEEN THE subject of three major group exhibitions in Europe: “In Search of Balkania” at the Neue Galerie Graz, Austria; “Blood and Honey” at Sammlung Essl Kunst der Gegenwart, Vienna; and “In the Gorges of the Balkans” at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. From what I could glean during a brief visit to the region last summer, this sudden glut of exposure has made many young artists there self-conscious and not a little resentful at having become fashionable en masse. And it brought new urgency to questions as to how—not to mention if—a sense of national belonging could be transcended. Between the Scylla of exoticism and the Charybdis of collective identity (a particularly dubious notion in that part of the world), returning to one’s roots was a difficult option to entertain, as regionalism had become terrain ripe for exploitation rather than for healthy exploration.

Adrian Paci’s work was a staple in all three of the Balkans shows. Since 1997 he has produced twelve video-based works, the majority of which openly investigate his status as an Albanian émigré living in Italy. Paci’s story, however, is hardly unique. The conflict in Kosovo intensified what was already a steady stream of refugees fleeing general hardship. Paci became interested in exploring his circumstances only after observing his three-year-old daughter Jolanda reciting a series of improvised fairy tales, prompting him to pick up the video camera. The result was Albanian Stories, 1997, a seven-minute video that has since been widely exhibited in Europe, perhaps most prominently at Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana in 2000.

Seated squarely before the camera, Paci’s darling daughter meanders through a series of tales about a cat, a cow, and a rooster. The patronizing, feel-good sense one gets from indulging a child’s endearingly convoluted narrative evaporates when Jolanda hails the arrival of “international forces” to whom the main characters in her story are grateful for rescuing them from the “dark forces.” The allusion to the situation in Kosovo is startlingly clear, and its gravity is inversely proportional to her innocence. Whereas the conditions of exile specific to the Balkans are only one of numerous examples that together form a global narrative of displacement, the last place one would want to find proof of that narrative’s universal character is in a fairy tale made up by a child.

Paci’s daughters seem at home with what for their father was a state of rootlessness. Jolanda would be featured in another video, A Real Game, 1999, in which she is interviewed about her parents’ circumstances before and after leaving Albania. Her younger sister, Tea, three years old at the time of filming, would appear in Apparizione, 2000, an installation in which a children’s folk song is recited in call-and-response fashion by Tea and a group of aging relatives from Albania, who appear on opposing video projections. But why stop at the familial when Apparizione links generations through its transmission of a folkloric remnant of some greater collective memory?

As for roots, Paci’s generation must negotiate between a nostalgia for Communism—“Ostalgie,” as the Germans call it—and the very things Communism disavowed, such as the biographical and folkloric. In Vajtojca (The Weeper), 2002, Paci has chosen to explore the latter, cleverly predicating the video on his own death. After giving a professional weeper a cursory summary of his life, he lies corpselike while she weaves an arrestingly beautiful lament on his behalf. The performance ends when Paci sits upright and gives her a hug and a handshake for a job well done. The sudden introduction of a Balkan allegretto, however, retroactively casts the piece as slapstick. Paci rises from the dead, not as an artist, but as Roberto Benigni, whose film Life Is Beautiful required a large dose of schmaltz to carry off its shameless mixing of humor and Holocaust. The Weeper, on the other hand, manages to be sentimental without being ironic or cloying, simply by knowing how to place a maraschino cherry on a quiver of emotion centuries deep.

Hamza Walker is director of education at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, where he most recently organized “New Video, New Europe,” on view through February 22.