by Kat Widing
Photo by Timothy Schenck
Currently on view at the High Line, Adrian Paci’s thought-provoking The Encounter (2011), PilgrIMAGE (2005) and Turn On (2004) – are inspired by both Paci’s tumultuous biography and broader, more global topics of identity as shaped by politics and socio-economics. Paci’s works derive from his experience as an exile from Albania, and yet are suggestive of a more global narrative.
Born in Albania in 1969, Paci came of age within a harsh dictatorial, neo-Stalinist regime. Although the socialist government was overthrown in 1990, violent riots fueled by threats of civil war eventually forced Paci and his family to take refuge in Milan in 1997. That same year, Paci began to experiment with video. His medium, film, reflects his interest in addressing this tension between personal and collective identity, as film embodies its own inherent tension between the fixed and moving image. In their formal austerity and reflections of the everyday, Paci’s works often assume a semi-documentary quality. Though Paci’s works are occasionally scripted, he works with non-professional actors in order to retain a sense of realism.
Filmed in the town square of his hometown of Shkodra, Turn On directly reflects Paci’s liminal identity. The camera captures headshots of middle-aged Albanian men, their faces worn with wrinkles, sitting on the steps of a local building. Each subject holds an unlit light bulb in front of their faces. One by one, the men turn on a personal generator, illuminating the light bulb and producing a symphony of humming motors. Perhaps the light bulbs are a commentary on the complex politics of Albania, a reference to optimism within the bleak socio-economic milieu of the country.
Though his video works often seem indivisible from his biographical experiences as a migrant, Paci’s biography merely serves as a point of departure for his investigation of “universal questions like truth and fiction, the personal and the collective, trauma and storytelling, art and non-art and so on.” This dichotomy is particularly manifest in PilgrIMAGE in which Paci reflects his own exile status by tracing the history surrounding an ancient legend in his hometown that teeters between reality and fiction.
According to local lore, when the Ottomans conquered Shkodra in the 15thcentury, a venerated painting of the Madonna and Child that existed in an Albanian church was saved from the invaders by angels and brought to a church outside of Rome. To this day, local residents pray for the return of the painting and the repatriation of their heritage. In response to this tale, Paci organized a public screening in Albania of the Madonna and Child in Rome. Conversely, in Rome Paci screened a video of the Albanians waiting for the work to return home. PilgrIMAGE records both scenes, and the reactions of the inhabitants in each country to the project. By ruminating on the legend of the painting and its contemporary relevance, one becomes more aware of reality and of the environmental boundaries between Albania and Italy.
Paci’s most recent work, The Encounter, records a performative act by the artist. Standing in the middle of a Sicilian square, Paci greets a line of people who came to the village to meet him and shake his hand. The video shows the artist shaking each person’s hand, transforming an everyday gesture into a symbolic ritual. The Encounter underscores Paci’s belief that contemporary society has a need for ritual, explaining that “we need rituals to handle our state of abandon and to organize our existence.”
By engaging both private and collective history, Paci discovers, or recovers, how we live through his video works. His films investigate how our lives are interconnected and how we are shaped by borders and socio-economic circumstances. In our increasingly global world, Paci’s works underscore the fluid state of identity in contemporary life.
Video stills courtesy of the artist.