The way we work

Driant Zeneli, No wise fish would escape without flying, 2019. Single-channel video installation, 07’10”. Courtesy the Artist

A conversation between Driant Zeneli and Merve Elveren conducted between November 10, 2020 and March 31, 2021.

Merve Elveren: Driant, thank you very much for accepting this short conversation request. I feel that it is important to document and reflect on the current circumstances, specifically our shared experience at EVA International’s 1st phase. As you know, the exhibition venues are now closed due to the Level 5 COVID restrictions in Ireland. The situation is pretty much similar everywhere in the world. The growing numbers in cases bring more uncertainties. I’m curious to hear what you feel about ‘today,’ what is changing, or has changed, around you?

Driant Zeneli: I know that you have been waiting for my answer for more than two months, and only now I can write to you. Although I have tried several times to concentrate, I couldn’t. Not because I don’t have the time, but strangely enough, I had a lack of contraction and the desire to activate the senses of creativity. It may be that these are the first effects of this long wait for mental closure and psychological distance that we are creating more and more. I think we’ll see and understand better what is happening now in the present future.

In this long wait for an answer, several things have happened in my personal and professional life, which I consider crucial moments of transformations of a longer journey. I wanted so much to be in Limerick to celebrate all together; the exhibition you and the EVA team have been working on for years. But here we are, writing letters to justify our loneliness, producing online programmes that create another form of addiction and isolation, making us lose more and more contact with ourselves. In our ‘deadline era,’ it often seems that time is not enough; everything must be finalised immediately and instantaneously. I don’t know if we are moving forward or we are going round in circles.

ME: Can you open these ‘transformative moments’ a little?

DZ: I promise you this time my answer will not take as much time as the first one. Anyhow, for me, this has been the first year in my artistic practice that I haven’t produced any works; such as films, installations, or performances as I used to do for 15 years more or less.

I purposefully took this decision to reflect on what I have produced so far and where I was going in these last years. And gradually, this situation became an attitude. I found myself more confident in drawing and doing research for an upcoming trilogy. Of course, these are not enough steps to consider this a significant transformation. In all last months, I made a couple of radical decisions. The first was about my health; the second was to leave my gallery after ten years of professional relationship. The third was to leave the past behind and fall in love again.

ME: I realised that you did not mention Harabel, a non-profit organization based in Tirana that you run and focuses on promoting contemporary art in Albania. Have all of the changes in your life over the past three-four months affected the programs and the structure of Harabel? Did Harabel go through a ‘transformation’ as well?

DZ: Like all art platforms, Harabel had to adapt to changes. Together with the co-founder Ajola Xoxa, we thought of working more on archives, specifically art in public spaces, since these materials constitute one of the focuses of Harabel’s archive. We decided to avoid online programmes, considering an information overload for the audience and increasing specific dependence and online isolation.

Instead, we started the “Harabel Channel,” which consists of video interviews where different personalities from the art world and contemporary culture shared their opinion about life as well as their artistic practice. The other project, titled “The encyclopedia of everyday words,” concentrated on increasing the visibility of the Albanian art scene through the images of the works in Harabel’s archive. We inaugurated our first public artwork in the city with Adrian Paci’s oeuvre Bukurshkrimi [The Calligraph, 2019]. The work explores the relationship between political power and language as a tool of manipulation. It also comes as an artifact of the power of language: codes that gain meaning through the content that expands or narrows the alternatives of discourse.

Driant Zeneli, Maybe the Cosmos is not so extraordinary, 2019.
From the trilogy “Beneath a surface there is just another surface,” 2015-2019. Three-channel video installation, 10’ 19”.

ME: I would like to go back to the trilogy that you’ll be showing in different phases of EVA International. “Beneath a surface there is just another surface” (2015-2019) focuses on the importance of mining and metal production in Albania between the 1960s and 1990s. The series of works in this trilogy also highlight how you delicately build the narrative on the collaborators. Can you explain your initial relationship with Mario leading to the realisation of It would not be possible to leave planet earth unless gravity existed and later to the two others works, Maybe the Cosmos is not so extraordinary and And Then I Found Some Meteorites in My Room?

DZ: The work didn’t start as a trilogy, but the coincidence with different people from different geographies transformed it into a longer journey. These unpredictable encounters revealed the relationship that people still have with the land and outer space; and where they live in contemporary Albania.

Throughout this journey, I observed the areas where the chromium ore is extracted from the mines—starting from the extraction to processing and its journey outside Albania. Today I see chromium ore mineral as a connecting node of many steel materials and a metaphor for the human relationships that I encountered between 2016 and 2019. The first meeting started with a high school friend of mine, Mario, then Bujar and Flora, and the children of Bulqizë.

Mario was a man with his head in the clouds who challenged gravity through his imagination and desire to become an aviator one day. He achieved that after many years, but again gravity and his relationship with the Earth became more and more conflicting, especially after losing his father. The meeting with Mario led to the first work, It would not be possible to leave planet earth unless gravity existed (2017); shot in the Metallurgical complex in Elbasan, where the utopia and dystopia meet in the formerly largest area of ​​steel production, 155 hectares of the so-called “Steel of the Party” built in the ‘70s.

During the shooting of the film, in the abandoned spaces of the Metallurgical zone, a gentleman named Bujar approached me and asked what the film is about. I told him that it is dedicated to my friend Mario who wants to leave planet Earth. Bujar started to explain his passion for the universe. This coincidence was the reason I returned to the metallurgical complex after a few years to meet Bujar once again and his daughter Flora for the work, And Then I Found Some Meteorites in My Room (2018). Flora’s dream was to become a DJ, but she and her father collected coal and looked for chrome slag in the Metallurgic.

Driant Zeneli, It would not be possible to leave planet earth unless gravity existed, 2017. Single-channel video installation, 13’ 43”. From the trilogy “Beneath a surface there is just another surface,” 2015-2019. Courtesy the artist and EVA International. Photo: Jed Niezgoda.

Driant Zeneli, It would not be possible to leave planet earth unless gravity existed, 2017. Single-channel video installation, 13’ 43”. From the trilogy “Beneath a surface there is just another surface,” 2015-2019. Courtesy the artist.

A year after, I received the invitation to represent Albania at the 58th Venice Biennale. The only thing I knew at the time was the title of the project: “Maybe the Cosmos is so extraordinary”—a phrase from the sci-fi novel “Drejt Epsilonit të Eridanit” (On the way to Epsilon Eridani, 1983) by the Albanian author Arion Hysenbegas. Around that time, I meet a family friend, a geologist, who advised me to look into chromium, the second most important mineral of the Albanian economy after oil. He encouraged me to go to Bulqizë, a town in the southeast of the county where the largest chrome mines are located. There, I met five children who became the main characters of Maybe the Cosmos is not so extraordinary (2019). Throughout the filming process, my friend Mario helped me with the scenography and the shooting. His relationship with the children was magical. Meanwhile, Bujar and Flora did voiceovers of the film, quoting phrases from Hysenbegas’s novel “On the way to Epsilon Eridani.” Even today, our relationship continues except for Mario, who passed away two years ago while challenging gravity, as always.

Driant Zeneli, No wise fish would escape without flying, 2019. Single-channel video installation, 07’10”. Courtesy the artist.

Driant Zeneli, No wise fish would escape without flying, 2019. Single-channel video installation, 07’10”. Courtesy the artist.

ME: One characteristic of your work is that you always go back to magical realism. The trilogy is a good example, and your more recent work No wise fish would escape without flying (2019). It feels like there is always an escape plan that you go back to.

DZ: A group of children in Prishtina wrote the script of this film. It narrates a fish that tries to survive the threats of a shark’s teeth. The whole story evolves inside a significant and symbolic building, the National Library of Kosovo, considered one of the Brutalist architecture examples and holds different identities inside. The decision to build Nation Library was taken in 1970. Until its final design in 1981—by Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković—the building changed its name and purpose three times. It was transformed into a Serbian orthodox religious school, and then, during the NATO bombings, the Yugoslav Army used it as a command and control center. During the occupation, more than 100,000 books, and rare volumes, were stolen or burned. Only 600,000 volumes survived and are preserved in the best means possible. The National Library is now opened to the public and used by the students.

My works always start with, “Once upon a time there was…”, and similar to my previous works, the confrontation with gravity appears together with the attempt to get away from ‘something.’ This is evident even in my last work, No wise fish would escape without flying (2019), which has this particularity that all the characters are just robotic animals. Unlike the trilogies “Beneath a surface there is just another surface” and “When Dreams Become Necessity,” where the characters are people that I met in this last work, the human figure disappears, and the animals remain.

I have never tried to identify my work with a particular style. But, I do not deny that magic realism enables us to rethink reality and build a paradigm of human existence through imagination. That is why I often find myself close to magical realism, especially the ones from Latin America, but also Italo Calvino and La Fontaine’s fables.

ME: Most of your works are outcomes of dialogues, collaborations, and especially face-to-face interactions. Do you find it challenging to work this way, given the circumstances?

DZ: As the law of physics says, for every action, there is an equal and an opposite reaction. In this way, the sparks are born or caused, and it leads to new work. The coincidences or accidents can often change our vision and sensitivity to what, until yesterday, we thought was safe. Indeed, the moment of the pandemic we live in and the (online) isolation is not very favourable to create sparks (collisions) that can lead to new creations. In fact, for a year, like never before, I have not produced any work except for drawings and researching the projects that will come in the future. The lack of the spark is the main reason why our interview has been the longest that I have ever been part of. I hope that in the next interview, we will have the opportunity to talk face to face.

Driant Zeneli, No wise fish would escape without flying, 2019. Single-channel video installation, 07’10”. Courtesy the Artist
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