15 Jan Interview with Pim van der Heiden
Pim van der Heiden is one of the artists participating in the exhibition “Uninspired Architecture: Public Space and Public Memory in Albania.” His work “Retrogeography of Enver Hoxha’s Statue’s Life” retraces the life of the statue of Enver Hoxha on Skënderbeg Square in Tirana, from the bronze foundry where it was casted (Qendra e Realizimit të Veprave të Artit, which no longer exists), to its momentous fall in 1991, and the reuse of the bronze for two statues now standing in the city of Lezhë.
Department of Eagles: Your art practice includes lots of walking and retracing routes. How do you conceive walking and dérive as an artistic strategy?
Pim van der Heiden: A Buddhist once told me, that only walking is in accord with the human speed. Intuitively I agree. When walking, I regularly end up in events and atmospheres, often precious to me, that I for example wouldn’t meet on my path cycling. As regards exploring spaces, walking implies a direct physical relation to our environment. In fast-moving societies, we often use means of transport that drastically scale down our spatial perception of the environment. By entering capsular vehicles, like cars or the metro, we connect to directional trajectories, in which we are ordered to move forward. We loose a sense of place and reconsider the environment as a logistical network, providing A-to-B transitions. Similar processes of alienation frequently pop up in critical literature and Marxist theory. Accordingly these are often challenged and explored by means of artistic strategies, like the dérive, as introduced by the Situationists. You mentioned it here. From an artistic viewpoint I approach the act of walking mainly as an instrumental activity, like a painter drawing a line. I consider my actions geographical choreographies, in which the routing reveals a local (hi)story. In this specific work I wanted to virtually undergo the different stages of Hoxha’s statue’s life, whilst articulating the geographical storyline. I performed a composed sequence of stages, in which I appealed to a comtemplative conciousness. Although I moved in a most natural way, with my lame foot though, I strongly imagined the statues effect on its perceivers. From the concentration of my creators to the excitement of my destroyers.
DoE: How did you develop this particular work in Tirana?
PvdH: I was investigating the political potential of public space. I learned a lot about the communist era and the events of 1991 and I had the feeling that not many people liked talking about it. The communist past was some sort of taboo, a heavy subject not commonly to be discussed. At least, not publicly. This hush appeared quite contradictory to me, since the communist past is noticeable in so many ways. In my experience Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled and oppressed the country for almost half a century, had become a ghost that was still roaming in the streets. With his spirit somehow clearly present, I wanted to touch upon his physical absence. And so I allegorically impersonated his central statue with my actual presence.
DoE: One of the surprising discoveries you made was that the bronze of Enver Hoxha’s statue had been reused for the Gjergj Fishta and Atlas statues in Lezhë, how did you find out?
PvdH: It was very surprising indeed. And ironic as well, to come to realize that the dictator’s central statue has reincarnated into two legendary bodies, representing Albania’s national identity. I couldn’t find any official records on the afterlife of Albania’s communist statues. I guess that only stories may lead us to this once so politically charged matter. I spoke with many Albanians who remember how iconic landmarks artfully dominated public space, establishing a constant notion of the communist reign. I actually became friends with a man who had hijacked a police truck and had subsequently dragged the toppled Hoxha statue through the streets. After the regime collapsed nobody seemed to recognize the historical value of the communist remnants. More important was the historical meaning of the iconoclast violence directed towards it. Statues were beheaded and enthusiastically scattered into pieces, others were simply banned to dusty depots and desolate industrial spaces. Different people told me that Hoxha’s statue – or what was left of it – must still be hidden in an old foundry on the east side of the city center. So I searched and found the foundry and sneaked inside to see myself. I glimpsed a huge Stalin statue and a bust of Hoxha, but his colossal statue was not to be found there. It was by chance that a local historian later told me about the reincarnation of Hoxha’s statue. This is a total unofficial fact, not even a single newspaper wrote about it! So, to fulfill my quest, I headed to the village of Lezhë, a few hours up north, where I photographed Fishta and the Atlas.
DoE: There are still many traces of communism in Albanian public space, not all have perished like Hoxha’s statue. What in your opinion should be our attitude toward with these traces?
PvdH: In general I find it important to be thoughtful about any urban-political manifestation. Blinded by our cravings for (political) change, we sometimes lack a sense of prudence, not knowing that we thereby exclude future generations from a physical experience of local history. Skënderbeg Square is a typical example of how the built environment can reflect different political powers. Isn’t it exciting to see architectural highlights of Italian fascism coinciding with temples erected from Stalinist sentiment? Even today this symbolical heart of the city demonstrates how recent powers in charge effectively use public space as a political instrument, having replaced the publlic square by an inaccessible lawn. The redevelopment and repurposing of (public) spaces seems inevitable, but some landmarks should definitely be restored. One of them is the enormous pyramid that was built as a mausoleum for Hoxha. Never have I seen such an eccentric, weird building! And looking at its locus, at a point where the main boulevard and the Lana river meet: I can’t think of a more suitable, charismatic structure for that spot. Currently the building is rapidly decaying, since most parts of the building have been abandoned. The previous government already gave up on the pyramid, allowing its passive destruction. Most Albanians however, want the pyramid to revive in its original form, and open to the public in a way to not forget about the past. I hope that the pyramid will soon be embraced, like its Egyptian predecessors.