Ëndri Dani is fascinated with Marina Abramovic. He was recently involved in organizing a screening of her work, The Artist is Present, in Tirana, and tried as hard as he could to have the artist herself present, first by asking her to record a video message to the audience, and second by inviting the artist’s brother to attend. In the end, neither event came to pass, but the screening did, and it brought Abramovic, albeit briefly, back to her Balkan origins.
It comes as no surprise that Ëndri is interested in Abramovic. Like her, he is also focused on the deep symbology present in human history, the layering of tradition and experience, and the passage of time and its influence on our visual landscape. When I met with Ëndri he showed me a series of work entitled Palimpsest. The reference is to Derrida’s writing about the palimpsest, which informs Ëndri’s use of the word. In the Palimpsest series, the artist is interested in objects that represent both the present and the past, or the past and the future. For example, he takes an ordinary cement mixer and covers it with traditional Albanian designs, commonly seen in textiles and carpets. The cement mixer, an ever-present site in a city dotted with building projects, represents the building of the future, but becomes grounded in the land on which it, and the buildings it helps to create, stands. The artist transforms an object of the future into an object of the past. He does the same with a souvenir, only by reversing the process – scraping away the kitschy paint job adorning the souvenir terra cotta vases, cups and bowls, revealing the earthen material beneath. Losing the décor was no loss at all; the Albanian eagle that had been painted on the surface of one of the objects didn’t even have the correct number of feathers to be considered the true symbol of Albania – it was cheap souvenir in every way.
In another piece in the series, the artist removed the colored dye from a traditional Albanian carpet. While the design remained (the weave), the color was lost, which forced the viewer to rely on memory to recreate the pattern, or to create one anew for himself. His work presents a close examination of the symbols, patterns and icons that surround us everyday, which are part of our visual heritage. While he does pay attention to the cultural objects and heritage of Albania, he does not limit himself to only the local context. A found object – a crushed soda can found in the forest, whose color had been bleached out by the sun – presents an opportunity for the artist to remake, by hand, this mass-produced object, by drawing the original label back on the can in pencil. Finally, in a very personal work, he examined the layers of paint found on the walls of his family’s apartment, identifying each color by the associations of his relatives – the color of melon, peas, etc. – and asking them why they chose those colors of paint and what they meant to them at the time. In each work, Ëndri seems to be interested in the significance of the various visual markers that surround us on a personal, local and global level, and the way that they permeate each of those layers of our experience of the world.
One more project that Ëndri showed me focused on the human presence in the physical landscape. The artist had himself photographed in the doorways or entryways to buildings across Albania. These doorways were made to a particular height – the legend has it that it was the same height as the country’s long-time dictator, Enver Hoxha. It is also the height of Ëndri Dani. The artist isn’t interested in the political connotations of the height of these doorways, but rather the symbolic meaning of that goes with standing in a door or apartment that frames your body precisely – almost too precisely – so that you can’t outgrow it, or move beyond these physical limitations. It is interesting to consider this idea of limits not only in terms of Hoxja, who placed strict limits on his people, but also of Le Corbusier, the modernist architect who sought to design houses as “machines for living.” He, too, aimed to rigorously design homes around human needs, and came up with an ideal proportion – based on the height of the average British police officer (he had wanted to use a French one, but decided that their average height was too short) – and designed all of his buildings around that height.
This idea of limitations is thwarted by the palimpsest, which allows for a layering of experience. What Ëndri’s work shows is that though the world may try to fix meanings, symbols, and dimensions, those things or concepts will only be part of the puzzle, just one layer on the many strata of human history. Peeling back the paint, we can uncover them all.