07 Jan Interview with Armando Lulaj
Armando Lulaj is one of the artists participating in the exhibition “Uninspired Architecture: Public Space and Public Memory in Albania.” His work “NEVER” (2012) consists of the video documentation of an intervention on Mount Shpirag overlooking the southern city of Berat, switching the first two letters of the name “ENVER,” painted on the mountainside in 1968.
Department of Eagles: What was the occasion for the creation of the original monument in 1968?
Armando Lulaj: It was made to commemorate the national liberation. The army, assisted by young communists, worked for a month in the mountains. It was hard work. I’ve been told that initially they had planned to write PARTI ENVER, but they had no time to complete it. There are however no documents to prove this.
There is another thing in my view. In 1965 the construction of the Mao Tze-tung textile plant, one of the biggest structures in Albania, had begun in the city of Berat. It was completed in 1968. I think that the creation of the ENVER sign reflected more a position of the party, or of the dictator personally. So ENVER (first name of the dictator) would be positioned right at front of MAO (the textile plant built by the Chinese). This was more than a sign of friendship!
DoE: What happened to this monumental painting after the fall of communism?
AL: The name was made with rocks from the mountain and others coming from the area. The army pulled these rocks, some of which are enormous, with horses onto the slopes. After they finished, the socialist youth painted the rocks with white paint, and they returned to do so every year as a moral duty to the party until 1990. Four years later the Democratic Party was in power and at Sali Berisha’s order the army tried to destroy the sign. They used dynamite in order to pulverize the rocks, but after some falling debris destroyed some houses under the slopes, it became nearly impossible to continue. So they try to use fire. With flame throwers they tried to burn the white surface off the rocks but this turned out to be another total failure. Two soldiers were burned alive and the sign was still visible. They left the sign for nature to cover over the years.
DoE: What was the attitude of the local people toward your intervention, who were the workers that did the repainting work?
AL: It took me more than six months to complete the work, but this time was mostly spent on organizing and convincing the inhabitants of the villages near the sign. The five letters that form the name are positioned on several slopes of the mountain, which are some kind of property of the villagers, – the first two letters belong to one village and the other three to the second one. I recorded some of the encounters trying to convince them that the operation of turning ENVER into NEVER is more than a negation, it goes towards a global attitude. It was difficult because everything in this country seems to have its roots in politics, so they were insecure about this and were wondering to which political party I belonged.
So convincing them that this was a piece of art and had nothing to do with any political party (in the sense of sponsoring, ideas, attitudes, etc.); it was more based on trust than on a conviction coming from elsewhere.
One of the villagers, the old man we see in the film, had in fact taken part in the operation of 1968. He knows the mountain and the letters very well. He led us by foot and with him we discovered the letters, the exact place and their measurements, which would have been impossible to do otherwise as the position of the letters had all but disappeared, covered by bushes and plants. The other people who took part in painting NEVER were younger, and some of them part of the old man’s family.
DoE: The current situation of Albanian state archives as precarious to say the least, how did you conduct your research on the exact location of the monument, its size, methods used, etc?
AL: Memory. It was the memory of these people. I visited different archives, from Berat to Tirana, to find documentation but it was impossible. During my research I gathered different old photos and testimonies by old people living in that area, and others who had moved to other cities.
DoE: Your work is a recalling in the sense that it both clearly brings to mind the old communist leader’s name, and actively erasing it through displacement and explicit negation. How do you think that your work reflects on the current state of public memory in Albania? Do we tend to forget what we need to remember?
AL: The Ministry of Culture is trying to protect cultural heritage, and this is very good, but I want to see whether it’s only an electoral tool or actually their real intention. When I completed the work someone very linked to the heritage department wrote that I had destroyed the cultural heritage and this was shameless. But these same people now want to turn the Pyramid (ex-Enver Hoxha’s museum) into a contemporary arts center by changing its inner structure, its architecture and design. So essentially they are doing the same thing. Before this plan the Democrats had agreed with the Socialists to destroy this structure completely in order to build the new parliament. And then there is a Socialist deputy who wants to build a private beach inside Butrinti, the ancient city in the south protected by UNESCO. So it seems they are measuring with different standards. Another deputy wanted to stop the NEVER project, only because by doing so I would supposedly take away from him some 10.000 voters for the Socialist Party. And last but not least, the most interesting thing was when an American ambassador visited Berat by the end of 90s. He was so impressed by this ENVER sign that he proposed to change it in Denver, the city where he was born. Of course, our bureaucrats were very happy to do so, but it remained a kind of provocation.
I think we have a big problem with history and I see it very linked to the communist dossier that we’re never opened, and of course to the historians and the Academy of Science that aren’t able to throw away any provocation made by other historians or politicians. We have to solve these problems, before trying to be part of a colonial-economical European dictatorship. Enver is not just a name, it’s a concept and this concept has the negation in its inner structure, it is not made by forcing the concept but orientating it. Recently some other artists wanted to turn NEVER in FEVER. This is more problematic for me, and reflects a political party attitude. I think that with NEVER the history takes its real shape.