Adrian Paci, Prova (Test), 2019, HD video, color, sound, 10 minutes 16 seconds.

Adrian Paci, Prova (Test), 2019, HD video, color, sound, 10 minutes 16 seconds.

Adrian Paci

National Gallery of Arts

Spending time in Adrian Paci’s survey exhibition “Prova” (Test) in the days following the earthquake that shook Albania in November 2019 felt both strange and apt. The artist, who was born in the northern Albanian city of Shkodër and is now based in Milan, presented a range of works dating from 1999 to 2019. Among them were two pieces from the photographic series “Back Home,” 2001, showing individuals and families who emigrated from Albania placed before depictions of the homes they left behind; Home to Go, 2001, a white marble-dust and resin sculpture of a hunched man weighed down by the tiled roof he carries on his back; and Il riposo (The Rest), 2014, a hazy watercolor of a young boy perched on a rock by the sea.

While these lesser-known works articulate the feelings of mobility and stasis that are part of the contemporary Albanian experience, Paci’s uncanny videos seemed to mirror the suspended temporality of waiting—for the news, for aftershocks, for sleep. One thinks of Antonio Gramsci’s words: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The hallucinatory quality of Paci’s durational works akin to those of other artists of his generation, such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, and Philippe Parreno, may, in general, be a response to our 24/7 contemporary condition. Yet in those interstitial days after the earthquake, his videos spoke poetically to the precarity of life in Albania.

Since emerging out of one of the most brutal Communist dictatorships in Europe after Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985, the country has been on a long road of transition. Paci’s magisterial video Interregnum, 2017, whose title also summons Gramsci, weaves together footage from state and national television archives to show the (enforced) public performance of mourning surrounding the passing of Communist “great leaders” in China, North Korea, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia, as well as in his native country. Oscillating between overwrought and solemn, the initial symptoms of grief continue the cultlike disciplinary power of Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai, Kim Il-Sung, Lenin and Stalin, Tito, and Hoxha under the surveilling gaze of the camera.

Other morbid symptoms come to the fore in the recent work Prova, 2019, including the necessity of building a new political framework and a citizen body to participate in its democratic processes. Under bright moonlight, a group of men gather in an abandoned concrete building, its circular structure supported by monumental columns and its interior overgrown with weeds. This provisional agora, located in Shkodër, contains an assemblage of microphones in which the men repetitively utter the word prova. Occasionally their voices overlap and form a chorus. It’s a performative choreography of ground-level civic engagement—the spoken word functioning as both a rehearsal for an action and the action itself.

Since he first emerged internationally in the late 1990s, Paci has produced videos characterized by a painterly quality and composition. The colors are saturated, the slowness invites contemplation, the light seems to play an existential role, and the camera adopts a centralized one-point perspective. This elision between painting and video is also a symptom of Albania’s integration into the global market of contemporary art. During Hoxha’s rule, socialist realism was the official doctrine, and artists had to toe the party line or risk extreme punishment, including imprisonment and reeducation camps. Largely rejected after the fall of Communism, this painterly language was nevertheless part of an artistic legacy that Paci’s generation had to contend with. Leading figurative painters such as Edi Hila became professors in the Academy of Fine Arts in Tirana, teaching Paci and his contemporary Anri Sala, as well as the current prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama. While Paci has absorbed these lessons and transformed them into his own idiom, the past has somehow not been exorcised. The painterly symptoms of a haunted figuration reappear, making visible a lingering and unresolved collective wound.