Sparely installed, lushly beautiful, Anri Sala: Answer Me encompasses three floors and part of the lobby of the New Museum, affording this understated artist the breadth his incisive lyricism needs in a city where it’s virtually unknown.
In his remarks at the exhibition’s press preview, the museum’s artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni, who organized the exhibition with Associate Curator Margot Norton and Assistant Curator Natalie Bell, called Sala’s lack of name recognition in New York a “blind spot” that he hoped this show would rectify.
Sala was born in 1974 in Tirana, Albania, a country that, at the time, vied with Romania as the most repressive Communist regime in Europe. A kind of North-Korea-on-the-Adriatic, it was so closed off from the rest of the world that Werner Herzog, at the age of 15, walked around its entire border, fascinated by the idea that he couldn’t get in.
By the time Sala was 15, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and the dissolution of the People’s Republic of Albania would arrive a few years later. The lingering trauma of repression and the heady, disconcerting repercussions of freedom are tendrils that wend their way throughout Sala’s refined, giddy, somber body of work.
It’s almost a relief to enter the high-ceilinged spaces of the New Museum — which can often feel cramped when filled with artworks — to find them emptied out and plunged in darkness, with only a few large video screens to occupy our attention. (There’s a scattering of drawings and sculptures on the second floor, but aside from the mechanized, upside-down snare drums hanging from the ceiling, physical objects are clearly not Sala’s game.)
The most spectacular installation is on the fourth floor, where “Ravel Ravel” (2013), a two-channel video, is projected on vertically stacked screens in a double-height room lined with pyramidal, sound-absorbing cushions. The screens are filled with close-ups of the left hands of two pianists as they perform Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D-major” (1929–30), written for Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig.
The stated purpose of the piece — to present two versions of the concerto played in and out of sync — may sound overly conceptual, but the disorienting pace of the music and the sight of two hands playing music written for one, the result of a casualty of war (Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I), are unexpectedly moving.
War, repression, freedom, and the regenerative power of art are the subtexts of Sala’s videos, heavy themes executed with a light touch. “The Present Moment (in B-flat)” and “The Present Moment (in D)” (both 2014), projected on screens in opposite corners of the museum’s second floor, depict separate performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s single-movement string sextet “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”) (1899), again following Sala’s rearranged score.
Although the video is composed almost entirely of close-ups of the musician’s faces and limbs, its most pointed reference is the hall where the performances took place, the infamous Haus der Kunst (House of Art) in Munich. Designed by Paul Ludwig Troost, who predated Albert Speer as Hitler’s favorite architect, the Haus der Kunst was built as a showcase for Aryan Neo-Classicism, in which the music of Schoenberg, a Jew and “degenerate” composer, would have been banned. None of this is explicit in the film, leaving only the beauty of the music, cascading through nineteen speakers in overlapping fades and echoes.
Sala’s reticence about the hall is an exquisite artistic choice, one that allows the building’s legacy, if known to the viewer, to hover like a pause between notes, or if it’s unknown, to vanish into the attic of history. A similar restraint is evident in “Answer Me” (2008), the video that lends the exhibition its name, in which a visibly upset, barely audible woman tries to argue with a man behind a drum kit, whose responses take the form of aggressive percussion solos. The source of their conflict is left unsaid, as is the purpose of the three large geodesic domes in the background (in an interview with Gioni published in the exhibition catalogue, Sala reveals that the domes were built during the Cold War on top of an observatory in Berlin, where he now lives and works, to spy on East Germany).
And in “Long Sorrow” (2005), a super-16mm film transferred to HD, the free jazz saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc is supposedly suspended from the upper stories of a large apartment block in Berlin as he plays extended riffs on his horn. There is no hint of a cable or harness in the footage, however; all we see are extreme close-ups of the musician’s face and shots of the back of his head. Still, the images and sounds carry with them a sense — made literal toward the end — of unbridled freedom and flight, while the close-ups of Moondoc’s face, straining his muscles and lungs with each honk and wail, are reminders of the gritty actualities of creation.
The idea of the imperfect reaching for the sublime is carried through two very different films, “Tlatelolco Clash” (2011) — in which a succession of anonymous men and women play portions of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (1982) in unsatisfying, stop-and-start snippets on a hand-pumped street organ, until the song finally emerges in its infectious entirety — and “Dammi i Colori” (2003), a sort of anti-travelogue of Sala’s crumbling hometown of Tirana, narrated by its mayor, Edi Rama, who knows the artist from their schooldays.
Riding in a taxi to survey the progress of his initiative to paint blocks of hulking, concrete, Soviet-era apartments in Mondrian-inspired, geometric patterns of primary colors, Rama muses on his efforts to turn Tirana into a “city of choice,” where people would want to live, rather than one of “destiny,” that is, a last resort for those with no other options. Whether or not the idea works, however, is ultimately not the measure of success; the ambition to make the attempt, he concludes, “is a utopia in itself.”
Anri Sala: Answer Me continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 10.