Venice Biennale Highlight #1: Albanian Trilogy

To celebrate the relaunch of ESPIONART, the Cold War art blog, this week presents a series of Cold War related highlights from the 56th Venice Biennale, open now until 22 November 2015.

Top of the list is the artist Armando Lulaj’s exhibition at the Albanian Pavilion in Arsenale, entitled Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems. Curated by Marco Scotini, the exhibition presents three recent films by Lulaj charting extraordinary episodes from Albania’s Cold War history and the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

The most eye-catching piece in the exhibition focuses upon an unlikely victim of Hoxha’s regime. As the leader became increasingly fearful of an attack by the USSR following the disintegration of Soviet-Albanian relations in the early 1960s, the Albanian navy responded to the sighting of what they believed to be an enemy submarine by launching a missile at it. The unfortunate target turned out instead to be a whale, and its skeleton is now held in the Museum of Natural History in Tirana. The skeleton is temporarily on loan to the exhibition in Venice, and alongside it the film It Wears as It Grows (2011) presents this unfortunate animal’s remains as a representation of the damage of Hoxha’s regime.

Another passer-by who came a cropper in Hoxha’s Albania was US Air Force pilot Major Howard J. Curran. After entering Albanian airspace in December 1957, Curran was forced to land in the country and was only released after two weeks of interrogation. The film Recapitulation (2015) explores the less favourable history of his aircraft, which was moved to an Albanian castle that had been reimagined as the country’s Weapons Museum. There it remains to this day with the label “American Spy Plane?”, the question mark added in 2009 in an attempt to appease the United States.

Hoxha’s increasingly unpredictable paranoia left an indelible mark on Albania, most obviously in the form of his programme of “bunkerisation” that continues to pockmark the surface of the country. The last film in the exhibition, NEVER (2012), focuses on another monumental leftover from the communist leader’s 40-year reign. In 1968 the Albanian People’s Army led hundreds of young people in spelling out ENVER in enormous painted white stones on the side of the Shpirag mountain, over a distance of approximately 36,000 square metres. After the end of Hoxha’s regime in the early 1990s attempts were made to remove the stones, but napalm and military machinery failed to erase the offending letters. NEVER documents the state of the installation in 2012, as the persistent activity of local villagers together with the natural effects of the shifting terrain, vegetation, and the elements have gradually morphed the dictator’s first name into the English word NEVER.

As well as the whale skeleton, Lulaj’s three films are accompanied by further archival material to present a fascinatingly rich, disturbing and yet surprisingly playful historical account of the Hoxha years.

Top – Installation shot of Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems by Armando Lulaj at the Venice Biennale, 2015; Bottom – screen shot from NEVER by Armando Lulaj, 2012.

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