The man from security at the airport called my suitcase “a busy bag”. I always travel with a lot of wires and plugs for my computer, my camera, my phone, my shaver, my external hard drive etc., so my luggage is often checked. My busy bag is small this time and packed for a few days in Tirana (AMS-VIE, VIE-TIA and you’re there) where there’s a conference titled ‘The Art of the Socialist Period between Contempt, Fetishism and Transition’. It is organized (and very well organized) by Tirana Art Lab (http://www.tiranaartlab.org/) and I am one of the speakers. The conference takes place in the National Museum of History and on arriving the fronton of the building makes it clear that this is the right place to discuss the cultural heritage of the former East bloc.
It promises to be an interesting lecture program with colleagues from many former East bloc countries discussing different projects that deal with the socialist cultural heritage. I am the only person from the former West. My lecture will be about three exhibitions in our museum: Lissitzky – Kabakov (2013), RED! (opening in our library on the first of May) and NSK (opened two weeks ago). I will analyse and compare the narratives of these exhibitions and point to some contempt in Lissitzky – Kabakov, a little fetishism in RED! and maybe some transition in NSK.
The lectures of the conference will be published, so you can read all about the subject in due time. Monuments from the Stalin era in the former East bloc, portraits of shock workers, photos of huge steel plants in decay, the development of former Yugoslavia, all in all too much to tell you about here. Please wait for the book. My lecture went well and there were some interesting questions afterwards. To celebrate we had a nice dinner in a good fish restaurant and after a few raki (which is not ouzo here but grappa) a female colleague (no, we do not mention names) and I decided to climb the Pyramid (1988). This building was formerly known as the Enver Hoxha Museum (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_of_Tirana) and thus one of the most controversial buildings in the city: an expression of the power and control of the totalitarian state.
But I am glad they did not demolish this building. Not only is this a monument to remember an era of Albanian history, but this construction has its nice aspects too: it has no stairs but you can climb the steep walls on hands and feet and enjoy the view over the city on top afterwards. This monument was not intended by the architect to be climbed upon; originally it was clad with marble. But I suddenly saw the symbolic value of sitting on top of a monument to a dictator and, overconfident by the raki, thought it was a piece of cake, a walk in the park. It was already midnight but the streets of Tirana around the Pyramid were still crowded on this warm Saturday night. My colleague was a good climber and she went up steadily but my shoes were too slippery and halfway I slid some five meters down, got my grip again and then slowly but certainly climbed up. Out of breath I arrived on the top where we sat down, looked over the city and talked for a long time.
Now, the day after, it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon. The work is done and I have some time to see the city. It’s the first of May and there is a small group of people with red flags walking down the road. Their slogans are the weak echo of a past era of big parades and festivities on this day. It’s already quite warm and there’s going to be rain this afternoon. You can see the clouds arriving over the mountains in the background of the low skyline of Tirana. Families are strolling along the broad boulevards, carefully avoiding looking at the begging gypsies along the side. I walk to the National Gallery of Art because I heard that there are some good socialist realist paintings there. That proves to be no exaggeration.
In the evening I meet with Romeo Kodra from Tirana Art Lab and together we go to a small restaurant in the old part of Tirana. There is only one room with three tables. And again – like in the other restaurants we went to – they cook the most fantastic food here. In the salads the tomatoes taste like tomatoes and the cucumbers like cucumbers. (I can tell the difference because I grow them myself) In this restaurant they serve the most delicious vegetable dishes prepared in exactly the way I like it: well done and without any unnecessary additions. We eat filled eggplant, white beans, wild spinach and even nettles. Advised by Romeo I start with a light green raki made from a fruit I do not know and with the lamb I drink Albanian red wine. Romeo tells me tirelessly about the history of Albania, the development of Tirana, the current political situation and the state of the arts here. With his stories and anecdotes he opens up a new country for me and makes me want to see more of it. Such a turbulent history and nevertheless all religions live here in peace. Someone told me that everyone here agrees that being Albanian is more important than your religion. If only this thought would spread a little further! At the end of the meal we agree that the food will be easier to digest than all the information.
Back in the National Museum of History for a visit the next day I find my angels in an icon: ‘Meeting of the Archangels’ by Constantine and Athanas Zografi. The two archangels in front show the aura of the universe with the image of an angel who holds the Gospel in his hand. In it we read: “O Ω N” meaning “The One That Is”. But there is something strange about this icon. First of all there are quite a lot of archangels here. Depending on the religion you have two angels (protestant), three (catholic and islam), seven (Greek orthodox) or even ten (in the Kabbalah) but here I count eight and one in the centre. Clearly this icon is Greek orthodox. I wonder why these painters depicted nine archangels. But then I discover something stranger: some of these archangels have things coming out of their ears! They look like silver hearing devices and I don’t know what to make of them. Suggestions anyone?
Before leaving I want to see the market in Tirana. In every city I go I want to see the market if I have time. I like the smell of food markets: the herbs and vegetables, the fish and meat. I like to see what food people can buy and what it costs. I almost forgot the time and quickly passing by to the hotel I discover an entire street with bicycle shops. No time to waste anymore, no time to look at fresh vegetables or angels; I have to fly. Looking at the distant mountains in the taxi to the airport I promise myself to go here again.
TIA-VIE, VIE-AMS went not so smoothly. The plane from Tirana arrived too late in Vienna so I had to hurry to catch my connection, but everyone had to re-enter the Schengen zone (there are invisible borders everywhere) and that means cueing up for passport control and after that for the inevitable security check. So I arrived five minutes too late at the gate just to see the plane slowly taxiing away. Luckily there was another plane a few hours later and I had some time to eat and write some of the above to you about Angels and Eagles. And it is to be continued.