The first work that Olson Lamaj showed me sums up his approach to art making and explains his interests (these were his words, but I also agree). It is a short video made up of stop-action photographs entitled Photo Eater, showing the face of the artist himself covered with various photographs, ID photos of himself, photos of books, of a bunker (former communist leader Enver Hoxha wanted every one of his citizens to be protected in case of an invasion, and ordered the building of concrete bunkers all over the country. They still dot the landscape to this day, and are iconic elements of the country). The artist says that it is these images – all of the visual components of his surroundings – that make him what he is, both as a person and as an artist. It is from this visual imagery that he takes his inspiration, and from where he creates much of his work.
One piece that he did that received a considerable amount of attention was a reworking of the iconic national symbol, the Albanian eagle. He recreated this imagery using a dead chicken. The artist was interested in the fact that, despite the fact that it is a chicken, we still recognize it as the Albanian eagle, because of its iconic shape. When I asked him why he used a chicken instead of an eagle, he replied, quite emphatically, that he couldn’t kill an eagle! The piece became an Internet sensation and was published in a number of blogs, taking on a life of its own, and many who posted the image didn’t even know who the original author was. Olson says he was not concerned about that, but was interested in the way that the piece became almost a new symbol for Albania, as the piece began being rapidly circulated on the occasion of the 100th anniversary celebrations of Albanian independence in 2012. There are a variety of different interpretations of the piece: that it weakens the symbol or suggests that despite the fact that the symbol of Albania is an eagle, its people can’t yet fly. But these interpretations are up to the viewer; Olson isn’t so prescriptive about the piece.
The artist is also creating other new symbols for modern-day Albania. In his series of portrait photographs, he captures the cultural creators at work in the country today – its visual artists. He has photographed friends and colleagues, many of whom I have met and discussed on this site, such as Ëndri Dani, Ledia Kostandini, and Lume Blloshmi. In a country without a contemporary art museum, Olson creates his own virtual museum, and populates it not work artworks, but with the portraits of artists that will (hopefully) someday be installed in a yet-to-be-built contemporary art museum, himself among them.
The artist was in fact thinking along the lines of a contemporary art museum when he repurposed an abandoned building for forest guards by placing a sign on the plain white simple structure: “Contemporary Art Gallery” (2011). In the photograph, the ramshackle building is littered with empty bottles, newspapers and trash, not all that different from the objects that Duchamp selected as his readymades and exhibited in museums as contemporary art. For Olson, the piece raises the question as to what a gallery is. I think it also cleverly hints at ways that artists can have a contemporary art museum in a country that won’t fund one – what if, for example, all of the bunkers were turned into pop-up galleries across the country?
Perhaps when Olson is a “famous” artist his work will find its way into a major international art museum. This is precisely the subject of one of Olson’s staged photographs, The Drowned, where he captured himself as dead from drowning, imitating the a similar photograph by Hippolyte Bayard, who staged a photograph of himself having drowned, complete with a fake obituary, because he lost out on recognition for his discoveries in photography when Dauguerre usurped the role of the inventor of photography. The artist hoped that after this feat, he would become famous – as one does. With Olson’s photograph, he too hoped to fool the public into being recognized as such. But Olson is already famous, he tells me, having received much media attention for his work at the Miza Gallery, which he founded together with fellow artist Ëndri Dani. He appears often on TV, and doesn’t seem to need any help getting attention for his work.
Overall, it seems that Olson follows Duchamp’s imperative of taking something old and repurposing it or making it anew. He does this in his series of photographs entitled Scratch Memory, where he combines images of the crumbling building façades dotting the cityscapes of Albania at a time of rebuilding, with the iconic poses imprinted on his visual memory from studying Michelangelo’s sculptures. The artist had studied in Italy, which contributed one more layer to the arsenal of his visual imagery, which the artist then consumes, digests and presents to us anew.