A new concrete floor has been laid. Videobeamers are humming. Over in the far corner, the Swedish embassy has offered a table of drinks and snacks. And in the middle of this wide space, a woman seems to be gazing over at the other side. As I approach her from behind, her long, long hair flows right down to the floor, covering her feet and spilling out underneath the tall glass case that holds her in solitary confinement. I move around her, but she seems to turn away. All I keep seeing is her hair. When I have circled her completely, I have still not detected any human features. This woman is hair, nothing but hair.
mandana moghaddam: chelgis 1
Thirtyfive wigs, actually, bought from an puzzled Albanian lady at a small shop for wigs and hair extensions on a Tirana market by Mandana Moghaddam, the Swedish-Iranian artist living in Goteborg today. Her work derives from the Persian folktale of Chelgis, a girl with forty plaits - a sign of extraordinary beauty - trapped in the garden of a demon. Outside the walls, the villagers are out to kill their torturer, but this can only be done by breaking his glass bottle of life. Moghaddam, coming from a country where female hair is kept invisible to the public eye, has captured this girl with her beautiful flowing locks in a glass prison: to break it is to break her as well, and yet there is no choice but to break through the glass.
On Albanian television these days, there is no shortage of fairytale girls with long wavy hair caught behind glass screens. The number of agile, seductive popsingers is endless, the variations in their upbeat discotunes minimal. The only other face featured even more frequently is that of prime minister Sali Berisha, the autocrat capable of stonefaced denunciation of the very same 'informality' - the word he prefers when talking about corruption and black market - that his government has allowed to flourish all over this society. Judging on a few days of local television, Albanians seem to live a life dominated by these two images: the sexy singer and the stern leader, both of them as fake as the wigs in Moghaddam's installation.
So are they living in a fairytale world or a nightmare? The line between them has always been fluid, and never more so than here in Tirana, a city at once booming with new prosperity and construction, and bogged down in stale burocracy and malpractice. It is precisely this schizophrenic situation, hinging on very traditional power games, that TICA aims to expose and counter.
And as was the ambition from the outset, the first to be liberated from stereotype have to be women. One of several striking features of this attractive, thought-provoking and tightly composed exhibition is the female presence. Seven of the thirteen artists in this group show are women. And many of the works focus on the loneliness, vulnerability, curiosity, hidden desires and survival strategies of their heroines. The fairytales of old tell timeless stories of innocence and betrayal, magic and lies, cruelty and cunning escape: features that have translated seamlessly into a new age of advertising, pop culture and computer games.
Fairytale, curated for TICA by Joa Ljungberg and Edi Muka, presents a choice of young artists capable of producing arresting images while playing with rules of the genre, a game that can be playful or grim, and sometimes both of them at once.
In many fairytales, the protagonists are condemned to each other, for better or for worse. So are we and our lovers sometimes, today. Monika Larsen Dennis, the Swedish sculptor and visual artist, makes this the domain of her art: the trust and suspicion, the love and agression, the longing for liberty and the imprisonment. Very often, she lifts her images from classical paintings and sculptures. Here, she has taken the dagger and the wounded breast of Lucretia Borghia, who killed herself after having being raped by the prince. Both are suspended against the wall, and on a small pedestal below remain two crowns, their sharply pointed circles entwined in a way that makes them look like a wolftrap.
Directly facing them, way over on the other side of this carefully layed-out exhibition space, is the astonishing video Deeparture, by Mircea Cantor of Rumania. And there is the wolf, just yards away from his eternal prey, the deer, both of them put together in... the white cube of what could be any modern art gallery. Taken out of his territory, with the boundaries of his domain nowhere in sight, the wolf is at a loss. He leaves the deer alone. He lies down uneasily on the shining floor and hardly even glances at the animal we know so well from fairytales and Disney films. It makes sure that it stays away from the wolf, does not let her guard down, but she is safe here, where art rules and predatory instincts are not triggered. So completely does the wolf ignore her, that you cannot help but wonder how sometimes our greatest fears are those that we imagine.
Are the enemies we run away from real, or do we need them and the stories we tell about them in order not to submit that the greatest dangers lurk inside? In What if Tom invented Jerry, a clever video by fellow Rumanian Gabriela Vanga, we see the dumb cat bruised and exploding in the fashion we have known since childhood - but his little tormentor is nowhere around. Smartly removed from the scene, the suggestion is that Jerry might be no more than the fruit of Tom's feverish, paranoid imagination. Even modern fairytales, like this cartoon, work to give our fears a face and a name, to externalize them in order not to have to confront the enemy inside.
What would happen if Chelgis, the girl with the flowing hair, was freed from her glass case? What if the fairytale came to an end and gave way to reality? The danger would follow in her steps. Monika Larsen Dennis' dagger would always be there to pick up in moments of shame and self-hatred. Just a few steps from where Chelgis stands, the young Albanian artist Elda Gjikondi has painted a girl like her, larger than life, a tall and very thin figure with the sad eyes of a creature blinking in daylight after having been trapped in the dark too long. Just above the heart, she has been stabbed - or has stabbed herself - and the blood runs down her naked body, which is covered only by long, long strands of black hair. One cannot wander through this exhibition without passing her every time, without wondering where she came from. Has she been raped and abused like Lucretia, is she an anorectic model, fresh out of one fashion show too many, or maybe a pop star whose young career has turned sour?
Fairy tales and their contemporary counterparts are the visualization of what we can only imagine is lurking in the shadows of the world we see around us. The monsters in the lake, the wolves behind the trees, the demons behind the walls. Emre Huner from Turkey does not fear the dark and has ventured below the surface, digging up medical and mechanical artifacts of a time when man believed reason could overcome the unspeakable. His inventory of such objects returns in a slowly moving, wide-screen animation of scenes recalling Breughel's Fall of Icarus and especially Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, from which Huner took the title for his work, Panoptikon.
emre huner: panoptikon
The scenes we see move gradually from just above the surface of the known world to the depths underneath, with countless little scenes of cruelty and vain attempts to escape, the tiny instruments cutting and destroying whatever life crosses their path. Most memorable is the chilling scene of faceless inmates performing a mechanical ritual while above them hover the white figures of those who survey their every movement.
Facing this Panoptikon is a double screen by Sejla Kameric, the Bosnian artist who so often floats her work between horror and dream. Accompanied by the sweet repetitive tune of a music box, the handwritten sentences of a fairy tale appear and fade away. 'Once, in a country very far away, there lived a fabulous siren, whom everybody loved. And she loved everybody. That was her problem...' And while this princess gropes for happiness, the other screen shows us the golden autumn colors of a forest in the mountains.
We hear Kameric counting slowly in Bosnian, and notice the undergown of a woman suspended from a coat hanger directly in front of the screen. Impossible not to think of similar Bosnian landscapes, where yet uncounted human remains - male and female - are being dug up, to this day, from the mass graves the Serbs left behind after the war.
But if fairytales are there to feed our imagination of what we cannot see, be it bodies decaying in autumnal forests or the senseless cruelty of life behind the prison walls, it might be time to see what they are telling us about ourselves and the world around us. In the delicately crafted puppet world of Nathalie Djurberg's video's, accompanied by Hans Berg's computer ditties, we see tiny figures of clay and cloth enact our own most wicked fantasies. Five ultra-skinny models moving from childplay to torture games, Pinocchio poking his finger in the arse of his loyal doggie, and other scenes where the puppets grimace and leer with unconcealed joy in their ugly little games.
Are fairytales, in the end, nothing more than an elegant reminder of our own darker nature? Maybe the real world has some surprises up its sleeve that no fairytale, however dark and perverted, can hope to match. In his classic video, Albanian artist Genti Shkurti has Alice in Wonderland - who, as we know, has seen some really, really strange scenes along the way already - blushing in wide-eyed amazement when she looks through the keyhole and witnesses some of the mad, frantic scenes from the weeks of Albanian anarchy in 1997. A truck driving away from the airport, with a jetplane hitched on to the back, stolen in broad daylight? No fairytale could match these raw video images, not even in Alice's Wonderland.
Also featuring equally suggestive works by Kalle Runeson, Minnette Vari and Dejan Antonijevic, Fairytale not only proves Tirana to be an emotionally charged environment for such an exhibition, it also justifies TICA's ambition to create a permanent space where work of this quality, made by either local, regional or international artists, can be produced, shown and debated on a structural basis. It is high time that this ambition, which might have sounded like a fairytale just a few years ago, is turned into reality.