Flutura & Besnik Haxhillari (The Two Gullivers)

The Two Gullivers live up to their artistic name – I was unable to meet them when I was in Tirana, as they had emigrated long ago. Last I heard they were living in Berlin, where I also missed them, only to find out that they are now based in Canada. Thanks to Estonia, and their wonderful invention – Skype – I was able to meet the Albanian-born artistic duo Flutura & Besnik Haxhillari online one fine autumn day in Aberdeen, while they were in Montreal.

Readers of this site will recall that the first stop of my field research, in 2013, was Tirana. It was an interesting place to start, considering that Albania doesn’t have the strongest tradition of performance art. Furthermore, its contemporary art scene is currently in development. Flutura and Besnik created the first performance in Albania – at the Tirana National Gallery – in 1998. For the first performance to take place there, it was quite striking – the artists installed their matrimonial bed on the wall of the museum – a large, open space usually reserved for a large painting, and usually prior to the 1990s that was a state-supported and ideologically based painting. So, their act was quite subversive. Not only were they tarnishing that space usually reserved for Socialist Realist painting with an “object of performance,” in which they then created a performance by sleeping in it, but they replaced the communist icons usually seen there with a very personal, individual, and bourgeois one. Furthermore, there are the subversive implication of a matrimonial bed and what takes place there. As we all know, in the Soviet Union, there was no sex [the reference being to the famous 1986 Leningrad-Boston “telemost” (TV Bridge or Space Bridge) show, where a Soviet woman, responding to a question by an American one, commented that “There is no sex in the Soviet Union”]; one can imagine that in communist Albania, there was none either – at least not public displays of it.

Unlike other communist countries in Eastern Europe, Albania didn’t have a strong neo-avant-garde tradition in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, in the 1970s, an artist could still be imprisoned for painting in an expressionist style. Needless to say, there are no examples that I have discovered of anyone working in performance at that time. In the late-1980s and early-1990s, as things started to open up, artists began discovering the more recent histories of contemporary art. Flutura and Besnik recall going to the French and American Embassies to read the books on art in their libraries. They even learned foreign languages to be able to read these texts. Soon, artists began experimenting with and working in these new art practices, which were new to Albania, although not really new in the West. Nevertheless, that didn’t create problem in Flutura and Benik’s practice – rather, it opened up space for them to experiment and create. As they told me, when they started traveling outside of Albania, they realized that they were missing a lot of information regarding recent developments in contemporary art. So, they decided to work in an art form that they knew nothing about – this helped them to be fresh in what they proposed to do as artists. In fact, their practice represents both a continuity and rupture with Albanian artistic traditions. Drawing is very much a part of their practice, and plays a significant role with regard to their performances. The artists draw everyday, and consider it a way to bring the everyday into their art. Drawing functions as a dialogue between the two, as they come up with ideas for performances; it is also a document of the performance that enables re-enactment by others later; it is a performance itself, being active in nature; and the drawing gets re-activated in performance. Finally, it is a trace of the process artistic creation, enabling presence – an important an active concept in the artists’ work

The artists also use objects in performance to facilitate presence. Like a drawing, an object can also function as a trace of the performance – a remnant – and it also has utility in that it can be used by others when they re-enact the performance. Once they create their works, Flutura and Besnik release them to the world, allowing others to re-create them. That said, however, they make a distinction in their work between those performance that can and cannot or should not be re-enacted.

In that first performance in the Tirana National Gallery, The Two Gullivers Sleep, the artists were present for part of the performance, but later replaced their real bodies with prints of their faces on the pillowcases, thus enabling their continued presence, despite their physical absence. In later performances, they used transparent plastic objects, such as masks or cradles, which also allowed for presence through absence.

The Two Gullivers is an artistic name adopted by the two artists, for their joint artistic practice, and refers directly to their liminal position between both presence and absence – as artists who have migrated across the globe, they are physically absent from their country of origin, but nevertheless consider themselves part of that art context as well. As artists who are always foreigners wherever they find themselves, they describe themselves as “always outside, always in discovery mode.” That said, one place where they feel they are not foreigners is as artists, and their work enables them to communicate across national and other borders. The Two Gullivers were married in 1993, but in 1999 they staged the performance The Marriage of Two Gullivers as a celebration of their union as an artistic couple. Since having children, Flutura and Besnik have included them in their performances, continuing their strategy of connecting art and life. In 2009, their three children joined them living in an installation set up in the gallery space, in a piece entitled SLEEP (Bauhaus No. 1). Here, the line between art and life, performance and everyday living, artist and audience is completely blurred, as the only division was a permeable, transparent frame that did not cut them off from the gallery space, but rather delimited the area of their performance.

Although the artists have not lived in Albania for several years, they are still very much a part of the history of contemporary art there, and Albania is still very much a part of them. Through their performance practice, they maintain presence through absence in contemporary Albanian art.