Yesterday was a day of cultural whiplash. My evening started at the opening of the annual Onufri exhibition of modern art at the National Gallery of the Arts. Despite the general disrepair of the Gallery, the hall in which the Onufri was held was sparkling – freshly painted, well lit, truly splendid. But the art itself? Some of it was quite good, especially the photographs, some of which displayed a wicked sense of humor (for example, there was one of a copy of the Venus de Milo looking wistfully at a set of marble legs); and there was a video of a block of ice melting, and as it melted you could make out a bear trap in the ice, so as it melted the anticipation welled up inside you until the ice melted enough for the trap to explode shut. But there was also the inevitable nonsense, such as a series of framed pages from a book of art and literature, in which the different pictures had been defaced the way any schoolboy would (and could) do it; a video of a woman kissing her reflection, projected onto a pillow; a plumb line suspended over photos of damaged bricks; and a variety of large simplistic acrylic paintings.
One of the museum’s curators raved to me about how exciting these works were, and while some of them indeed were compelling, in the majority of the cases I think people are just too intimidated by the size and originality of these works to call them out as the inacessible bullsh*t they are. Reinforcing this impression was my experience of the night before, when Abby and I attended the opening of an exhibition at the gallery at the Academy of Arts. The centerpiece was a video of a woman’s naked torso, with a man’s arms coming out from behind her to finger-paint her breasts and stomach. There also was a long cartoon panel involving two Albanian marionettes calling out elliptical phrases to each other and some other video works in which nothing quite seemed to happen. There even was a chart of local rainfall for the past decade. The curator – who is the teacher at the Academy with whom I’m going to be taking lessons, and who also had some large, bold, but peculiar pieces at the Onufri – has offered to explain the exhibit to me; I will have to exercise some remarkable tact.
Yet even with the pretense of modern art on full display, I was enjoying myself at the Gallery with the brilliant white walls, the huge works of baffling creativity, the artists dressed in black, and the rest of Tirana’s artistic milieu, when I got the call that I had to join Abby at the Sheraton Hotel down the street. The American Chamber of Commerce had invited Abby to their holiday party that evening at the same time as the Onufri opening, and as the chief consul she had to go and “represent”. The wife of the head of the AmCham is on the Board of the Special Friends with me and she was at the opening as well, but her husband wanted her to come over and he asked for me as well. We arrived and were faced by a totally different scene: a hotel ballroom, gaily wrapped boxes suspended from the ceiling, jolly presenters at the bandstand assuring the guests of the exciting door prizes on offer for the evening, and tables full of forced corporate gaity. The beer and wine were good, but everything else was phony and awful, and as one of the presenters took up the mike to blatantly lip-synch an Albanian pop song I told Abby (in American Sign Language, to avoid detection) that the AmCham owed me big time.
The band started playing American standards (Kim Carnes, Clearance Clearwater Revival, “My Way”, “New York, New York”) and they were quite good, but only a few couples came out for a half-hearted dance or two before retreating to their plates of antipasto. I commented to Abby that the AmCham had shoehorned their Albanian guests into an American idea of a good time: all the trappings of an American corporate holiday party were there, but no one was actually enjoying themselves. They hadn’t even provided the standard prop for an Albanian party, a bottle of raki, for the benefit of the Albanians. However, just as we’d resigned ourselves to spending the evening listening to undanceable party music, the band started playing some Albanian traditional and pop music, and the guests flooded the dance floor; all gloom and reserve were gone. We joined the dancing for a while, but when the circle dancing started, we left since it was nearly ten o’clock, the second course still hadn’t arrived, and Abby had to work the next day.