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Three Responses to an International Emergency: Part 3 — Adrian Paci’s Albanian Stories

Once, after we had moved to a new city, I found it helpful to drive my daughter to and from school. In time, her inborn need to be independent led her to public transportation, which she still relies on four decades later, but our pleasure in each other’s company kept us sharing that morning drive far longer than necessary. One of the pleasures we shared were her dreams, which she enjoyed recounting to me in great detail. At some point I must have realized she wasn’t so much remembering the previous night’s dreams as having new ones, despite being awake: like the waking dreams novelists have while they work. She was, as Robert Olin Butler has it, speaking to me “from where you dream.” It was my introduction to the prodigious imagination of the young, and a foretaste of the impossibility of separating memory from imagination.

The Contemporary artist Adrian Paci also has a daughter, and when she was 3 he began making short videos that both celebrate and rely on her creativity. By gently inserting a camera between them while they conversed, he was able to capture natural performances in which she seems to sing or speak directly to the viewer. On one side of “Apparizioni,” a split-screen video, she sings fragments of folk songs heard in infancy, while on the other side her relatives, who in reality live across the Adriatic Sea, seem to reply, finishing her verses as they sing back to her. The doting family, broken when her father fled Albania to escape political violence at the turn of the millennium, engages in a call-and-response duet with its newest member.

Paci is known primarily for performance and video works in which he blurs the boundaries between the two genres until, like in “Apparizioni,” it doesn’t feel like a documentary: it’s become a document, and a piece of the evidence. His parables on the sense of place and its dislocation draw on his own experience, but use his biography as a source for understanding timeless qualities in the modern world. Looking beyond the specifics of a father and a daughter, here are two generations, separated by unequal years of life and experience, so that they can never truly be in the same place. And instead of healing the break, present time only carries them farther apart. Events specific to Albania and the Paci family aren’t the only, or even the main point of the fable; time passing in Utah also brings the old closer to death and the young closer to life.

While Adrian Paci works in most of today’s familiar media, his Contemporary approach leads him to modify each, and thereby make it his own. His almost monochromatic paintings often feature multiple images on a single canvas. Both techniques underscore their everyday subjects, including such unsung labors as housekeeping—again, often featuring his family—with these tasks elevated by contrast with the alleged freedom that supposedly comes of having no home. In one performance, which became a video and then a sculpture, a nearly naked, Christ-like Paci carries the crushing weight of a roof like a cross while he struggles, frequently almost crawling, to get along. While superficially representing the work of making a home, its real subject is the psychological burden of having to create and carry a portable substitute for genuinely personal space.

Sometimes a sculpture is carved from marble, employing such relevant historical references as tombstones, or in a recent masterpiece, to the fallen columns of Classical architectural ruins. What sets Paci’s column apart is that his has never stood upright, but lies down as if it always knew how it would end up. Having taken inspiration from graffiti found on the walls of an abandoned prison, he also has created his own, indigenously styled building in which to show other works. Found objects, such as an antique shower mechanism from a tent someone lived in, bear witness to the real foundations of his imaginings.

Albanian Stories, from which his remote corner of the BYU Museum of Art exhibition takes its name, makes an ironic promise in a title it has no intention of keeping. Once the video begins, it soon becomes apparent that these would-be stories are being told by a narrator too young to keep content and narrative together. Once again, Paci’s daughter addresses the viewer directly, telling a story that may have begun with a folktale about barnyard animals and their daughters, but which allows her to add elaborate narrative embroidery, and it soon becomes apparent that no coherent narrative will be forthcoming. It’s another common experience of parents and those willing to listen to children, of an elaborate joke that the teller overheard, but was too young to comprehend. As it meanders on, the listener is left hoping the investment in time invested in its halting retelling will not, in the end, lead only to frustration. “Once upon a time there was a cow that had four daughters,” she begins, revealing either unfamiliarity with bovine reproduction or a preternatural grasp of allegorical fable. What follows meanders and repeats, often leading up to a crucial moment only to have her substitute an ambiguous hand gesture for a key word.

The storyteller steals the viewer’s heart, of course. She’s as adorable as a kitten, and of course neither apprentice cat nor human should be expected to complete a task unassisted. But like a kitten’s mortal play, her story gradually reveals the world in which she is living, into which she is growing and adapting. Its words and images come clear with repetition, and as what constitutes the mundane, quotidian environs of her life becomes clear, the viewer’s heart begins to crack, and goes on breaking long after the video ends.

Had there been no political upheaval in Albania, Paci’s career might have led him to settle in Milan anyway. The city where he now dwells is a major hub of International art, and it doesn’t require looking too far into his resumé to discover that he routinely returns to his homeland, which few expelled persons have the means or the headstrong courage to do. American politicians, determined to make the most of any alien threat, even one that doesn’t actually exist, like to characterize refugees as opportunists who roam the world seeking a wealthier lifestyle for themselves. Through manipulation of their public image, the opponents of immigration conceal the reality that most refugees are unwillingly displaced persons, who are no more eager than their critics to abandon their homes. Most would return if they could, and often do so if it ever becomes possible.

So it is that, in his other video at MOA, Adrian Paci focuses on a powerful depiction of the core reality of the refugee predicament: one that captures it in a single eloquent image. “Centro di Permanenza Temporanea”—the title is an oxymoron in Italian that the English equivalent, “temporary stay,” tacitly accepts—begins on the tarmac of a commercial airport, where a long line of working-class men and women are discovered walking, from right to left, toward an unseen destination. Eventually, they come to one of those wheeled staircases that used to be, and in some places still are, necessary in order to board and exit from aircraft. Without pause, they start up the stairs, each following the one in front. Eventually, the entire staircase fills up with passively waiting individuals who, in spite of their common fate, remain isolated and uncommunicative.

Then the camera moves back to reveal that, while in the background planes are coming and going as usual, this staircase connects to nothing. Moving in even closer, the camera begins to study the faces of the waiting, would-be passengers up close. Then it moves out again. In the front of the queue, one veteran traveler, trapped in place but knowing where this is going—or rather not going—sits down on the top stair. What should be but one step on a longer journey has become not a journey, but a permanent, temporary location. And with that, their place has become no place.

This, of course, is the refugees’ ultimate fate. Not that danger, imprisonment, frustration, disappointment, and death aren’t all equally possible outcomes. But the only real certainty for every refugee is to be, to remain, in transit, to have left one home, in a sense never to arrive at a new one. It’s a lot like the aging person’s realization that you can’t make old friends. It’s through Paci’s slow, detail by detail unspooling of his art that those who haven’t had this experience can begin to grasp what it’s like, when displacement becomes a permanent condition.

But of course, looking closely at the fate of the displaced, Adrian Paci’s audience should see that the refugee’s fate is not all that different from their own lives. Seeing what we all have in common doesn’t diminish their predicament, however. Far from setting the homeless apart, the artist’s ultimate subject, as it should be, is how alike we are.

Adrian Paci: Albanian Stories, BYU Museum of Art, Provo, through Sept. 29.

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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