23 Jan Interview with Ag
Ag is a collective participating in the exhibition “Uninspired Architecture: Public Space and Public Memory in Albania.” Their overnight intervention “Red Lenin and Stalin” consisted of painting the Stalin and damaged Lenin statue behind the National Gallery red. The next morning, the statues were cleaned immediately and have since been covered in plastic.
Department of Eagles: Why did you decide to paint these two statues?
Ag: Ag as a collective wanted to focus on a really important part of our past. These two statues represent a way in which we have dealt with this past, namely trying to erase it but only superficially so. If not treated properly, however, the past will always remain in the back of our heads, at the back of our institutions, gathering dust, tormenting and a feeding a deformed propagated democracy. This part of our history has always been left outside our attention, in this case behind the National Gallery of Arts. By doing so these objects turn into a fetish; they are there but the cannot be touched, as if they have the mystical power of bringing back unwanted feelings, once that shouldn’t be felt. In this sense, by painting the statues, we’re fighting the fetishes of our parents because we want to feel these unfelt feelings. Moreover, it puts in question the way in which we deal with public space in Albania; we painted them red to raise people’s attention, to emphasize their historical importance and maybe to reuse or reinvent certain political terms in order to articulate the current political and social situation.
DoE: The intervention was accompanied by a short manifesto, which was quoted in the media as “one of the first communist texts to appear in years.” How do you consider the heritage of communist thinking in Albania?
Ag: Repressed but nonetheless very present. In 1991 we tried to symbolically overthrow our past but effectively it has been impossible to do so. And if not treated and discussed properly this heritage will keep developing itself but without being conscious about this. Because during communism, even if we don’t like it, we created all the terms that belong to a state: public institutions, public space, the entire state structure that is currently in place in Albania. Therefore the desire to erase this history is absurd; if we want to follow the development of our country, we should also follow the development of the concepts that form the basis of it. This can be done only by tracing the influence of all singular elements in the history of the creation of this country, including communist thought.
DoE: The day after, when your intervention was discovered, it was reported by the National Gallery as an act of vandalism. Similarly, Armando Lulaj’s intervention into the “ENVER” sign near Berat has been denounced as such. How do you relate to the cultural heritage from the communist period and the concept of “vandalism”?
Ag: We’ve mentioned this aspect of fetishism before. This heritage seems to be something that can only be secretly admired but not openly touched – and this holds for the entire heritage of communist thought and production in Albania. For example: when tourists come to Albania the first thing they come in touch with is this heritage, and they are completely allowed to do so, it is even expected of them to admire this untouched past. But when it comes to discussing the real importance of this heritage within the conceptual framework in which they were first conceived – family structures, employer-employee relations and so on – we have never discussed these things, and we have no idea even how these relations have changed between the communist and post-communist period. This is core of the problems we have faced lately in society: raising murder rates within the family, corruption, and so on. Introducing new concepts without discussing them can only lead to resistance.
When it comes to this so-called vandalism, in our eyes vandalism is destroying something of great public importance or value, and letting these statues rot behind the National Gallery was the act of vandalism, not our attempt to focus the public attention on them.
DoE: What could be ways to reactivate this heritage in the current political context, and what could be the meaning of such reactivation?
Ag: By confronting our present with our past; analyzing both systems, communist and democratic, in each other’s terms; and rearticulating certain marginalized cultural and social phenomena of the present, such as the concept of “autarchy.” It seems that this core value of our communist past is transferred into every single current debate, from the discussion of the family to the discussion of EU candidate status. Each of these discussions is considered to be “self-sufficient” in itself, as if the spirit of communist isolation has infused every single political thought we can currently formulate. When you are acts such as painting these statues, the response should not be to clean them immediately the next morning and then cover them by plastic. In this way you work exactly in the way with which we have dealt so far with our communist past: seeing history in clear divisions: good-bad; clean-unclean. For us history only progresses by overlapping experiences and actions. You don’t clean the statues; you should discuss why they were painted.