Anri Sala

Johnen + Schöttle

Anri Sala’s video Byrek, 2000—named after a traditional Albanian salted pastry—shows the hands and forearms of an elderly woman kneading a batch of dough with the precise motions of a much-practiced routine. She rolls the dough out until it is very thin; it occupies nearly the whole screen. She then fills it with cheese, meat, and spinach, rolls it into a spiral shape, and finally places it inside a round baking pan. The camera follows this procedure from a single angle, only occasionally turning toward the window as an airplane makes its track across the sky. The woman’s wordless, ritual-like action is accompanied by the banging of kitchen utensils and disturbed only by the engine noise of the approaching and disappearing airplanes.

The Tiranë-born Sala first drew international attention with his video installation Intervista—Finding the Words, 1998, in “After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe” (Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1999–2000), and at Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana with the short film Nocturnes, 1999. Like those works, Byrek is concerned with the question of cultural identity and the relationship between the past and memory. But while Intervista focused on the layering of official and personal histories—or, more precisely, on the discrepancy between the sanctioned portrayal of Albania, which was run dong Stalinist lines under Enver Hoxha until 1985, and the reconstruction of this image by the artist’s mother—Byrek approaches the theme from a more intimate perspective. The pastry that lends its name to the work seems to function for Sala like Proust’s madeleine—as a trigger of memories.

The video is projected onto a paper screen on which a handwritten letter from Sala’s grandmother has been reproduced. Visible through the projected images, the letter contains, among other things, instructions for making byrek. A text by Sala projected on a facing column explains the role the weekly baking and eating of the pastry played in his family when he was a child, and how the ritual of the common meal gradually dissolved as first his sister and then he went to study abroad. In the video, this theme of departure is underlined by the motif of the airplane.

Sala counters the emotional and narrative aspect of the texts with the video’s simple, almost severe form: The nearly static camera, the slow pace evocative of a different time, and the simple, precisely staged images make it clear that he is concerned less with biographical reappraisal than with a model of memory that aims to turn individual, apparently unimportant details and images into something productive—even though, or precisely because, they threaten to slip into such stereotypes as the traditional image of a woman providing her family with food. The fact that the woman we see is not Sala’s grandmother but an Albanian woman who emigrated to Brussels forty years ago underscores the moment of reconstruction, or projection, that is as inherent in the process of personal memory as in the imagining of cultural identity. The latter may be found in Sala’s installation only as displacement or transition, just as the relationship between language and image (or even of language to itself) is always mediated and thus permeated with distance.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.