New York

Adrian Paci

Peter Blum/Smith-Steward

As befits an artist whose themes are displacement and memory, Adrian Paci’s recent New York gallery debut spanned two venues. One piece—a video made in 2002—had been seen in the city before. Another—a video from 2007—hinges on a trick that colors subsequent viewings. If one demands surprise, then, there were issues with the shows. But work concerned with the compulsion to revisit a vanished past, or to posit an impossible future, itself implies repetition.

Shown at Peter Blum, the earlier video is Vajtojca (The Weeper). Paci shot it in Albania, which he left for Milan during the Kosovo war in 1997. We meet the vajtojca, a middle-aged woman in a head scarf, as she admits Paci to a leafy courtyard. The scene is redolent of another century, though the artist wears jeans and sneakers. Upstairs, the woman spreads a sheet on a divan while he dons a suit, as if they were preparing for an odd tryst. They are. He lies supine; she covers her face with a shawl, and begins a ritual lament for the dead. Her partly improvised song is raw, yet perfectly controlled; she is a professional for hire—an artist like himself. The lyrics, available as a handout, speak to Paci by name, acknowledge his wife and “orphans,” and identify the mourner as “a mother weeping for her only son.” But her role is apparent without translation. She personifies the mother culture, whose rites Paci is rehearsing. The room is lit like a Vermeer, with a gauzy curtain across a sunny window. When the camera looks into the mirror that is the room’s sole decoration, it frames Paci’s face like a coffin’s edge. Abruptly the weeper ceases. She removes her shawl; he jumps up; they embrace. The music changes to a rollicking tune, and the scene freezes on a laugh.

At an atavistic emotional level—alas, dead! hooray, not dead!—the sequence is satisfying. The triptych of installations shown with the video doesn’t compare in intensity, but is intriguing nonetheless. In Tirana, Paci trained in the socialist realist tradition, and that training is evident in “Facades,” 2007, a trio of fresco panels, each fronting a freestanding brick wall propped up with wooden beams. The gridded images translate, in earth-toned tempera, stills from a home video of a wedding in Albania. Paci didn’t shoot the video, nor does he know the people who appear—men with drinks in hand, women attending the bride. When the bouncy music begins in Vajtojca, it furnishes a party sound track. Inasmuch as the video of a faked funeral borrows its iconicity from painting, the painting of a real wedding takes its sequential frames from video, while the theatrical brick-and-beam support suggests the deconstructed house as a screen onto which memory projects in unnaturally tidy, mournfully tinted snippets.

The second video, shown at Smith-Stewart, widens Paci’s consideration of exile. A line of people move toward a mobile airplane stairway and slowly crowd to the top. They are mostly Hispanic-looking men. (Paci has worked with casts of hired laborers before.) When no more fit on the stairs, they stand and wait. The camera pulls back: no plane. Poised at the jumping-off point, they wait until the loop fades out and recommences. The work is called Centro di Permanenza Temporanea, after the Italian name for detention centers for illegal immigrants. The surprise of the missing airplane doesn’t, of course, survive repeated viewings. But the ideas linger, especially as regards the title’s Orwellian joke. Even when we know how powers that be play mean-spirited, predictable games, we participate—what’s the alternative These people want to move, even if they see no way forward. They might have a wedding, or a funeral, to get to.

Frances Richard