Anri Sala

There is something soothing and even soporific about repetition; it is, after all, the foundation not only of lullabies but also of certain hypnotic techniques. Sometimes, however, the monotony of repetition becomes irritating, unbearable, indeed, eventually torturous. The Paris-based Albanian artist Anri Sala is an expert in creating mesmerizing forms of repetition that produce strange states of mind, but he never goes so far as to cause pain. In the film Uomoduomo, 2001, which won the Young Artist Prize at the 2001 Venice Biennale, an old man in a Milan cathedral is drowsing away. His head drops for a second, then jolts back through a natural reflex, then falls again, then jolts back, over and over again, his spastic in-between state extending benignly to the viewer, who is slowly lulled into a similarly sleepy condition.

Sala’s recent show at the Couvent des Cordeliers, organized by Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and curated by Laurence Bossé, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Julia Garimorth, included a number of more recent films that also explore repetition—in physical, linguistic, and perhaps political manifestations. All were displayed in low-lit galleries, a kind of twilight that the French call entre chien et loup (between dog and wolf), which is also, appropriately, the title of the show. Since the majority of the works were shot at night, Sala’s idea was to project darkness into a twilight zone rather than the usual light onto darkness. In this ambivalent visual environment, you don’t quite know what you see, and you soon accept the “possibility of being wrong and also of being taken for someone else,” as Sala describes in the exhibition catalogue.

Entre chien et loup is also apt for its reference to animals, which are abundantly present in Sala’s recent works. Crabs, stray dogs, and butterflies all appear, along with an old, pathetic horse that stands alone on the side of a Tirana motorway in time after time, 2003, its body illuminated only by the headlights of passing cars. Again, it’s very difficult to discern what exactly is going on: There is no explanation as to how the pitiful creature ended up in this predicament. Perhaps it was left behind, perhaps it escaped the slaughterhouse, who knows? It just stands there, repeatedly lifting its hind leg in a heartbreaking gesture of self-defense. A similarly visceral automatism can be found in Ghostgames, 2002, which follows the paths of crabs “chased” by flashlights as they scramble along a nocturnal North Carolina shoreline. It’s easy to view this scene as a political allegory about territorial power and surveillance, but Sala is never so explicit. His work precludes grand theories to focus instead on the visually concrete, as philosopher Jacques Rancière has noted: “At the heart of all of Anri Sala’s films, including those that touch most on political issues and tend to documentary form, the same question lurks. A formal one for some, and yet it is the most profound, also in a way the most political. What is it that we see?”

In some cases, for instance in Mixed Behavior, 2003, that question is a particularly vexing one. What we do know: A DJ is alone on a roof or terrace, performing in heavy rain, hiding beneath some kind of tarp. The music is festive, and so are the fireworks that, despite the weather, explode in the sky in sync with the beat. But where is the audience? Why doesn’t he give up? There’s plenty to see here, but the visual clues just don’t add up; instead of a coherent narrative, we’re left with still more questions. In Làkkat, 2004, similarly, there is clearly some kind of wordplay going on, but its ultimate objective remains unclear. Shot in Senegal, the film shows three children repeating words in Wolof: “Xees, Xees, Xees, Xees pecc, Xees pecc, Xees pecc . . . ” Their eyes shine, but their faces are barely visible in the dark; a few flies gravitate to a neon tube, the scene’s only light source. The exercise continues: “Xees pecc, Xees pecc, Xees pecc . . . ” The words stand for light and dark, I’ve learned—evidence, perhaps, of a will to conceptual clarity hiding behind the linguistic repetition compulsion. But this takes us nowhere; the darkness remains.

In Dammi i colori (Give Me the Colors), 2003, finally, the old tension between political power and aesthetics provides both the starting point and the very subject matter of the film. The mayor of Tirana, artist and politician Edi Rama, who questions whether “it is worthwhile painting at all today,” is turning his city, the poorest and perhaps most depressing of European capitals, into a gigantic collective artwork by having its facades painted in huge swaths of bright colors. The film pans across the facades, sometimes in daylight, sometimes at night, following the mayor/artist as he drives through town and reflects on the ultimate significance of this major urban maneuver: “The city was dead,” he says, but “color has an impact.” Once again, Sala avoids overtly political or symbolic gestures, leaving us with lurid surfaces and the sincere face of the mayor. Whether Sala is an accomplice or a critical observer is not clear, but the portrait of the unlikely Edi Rama conveys one thing distinctly: sympathy.

“Anri Sala: Entre chien et loup” travels to the Deichtorhallen Hamburg through Aug. 1.

Director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum also heads the institution’s Portikus gallery.