Anri Sala Is the Artist Unpacking Politics through Music

Anri Sala is the Albanian artist exploring historical and political realities through music and physical encounters

Anri Sala, Title Suspended (Sky Blue), 2008. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Ellen Page Wilson

On a bright April morning, sunshine pours through the sky-lights of Berlin gallery Schipper/Johnen. In one room are colourful geometric statues by Angela Bulloch. Opposite these hangs “Them Apples”, a collection of 44 drawings by Anri Sala, part of the 42-year-old artist’s current exhibition, “Take Over”. In the adjoining room is the titular video work, a two-channel film projected back-to- back on a wall that divides the room in half. Here, Sala engages two historically significant musical compositions: “La Marseillaise” and “L’Internationale”. Originally written in 1792 during the French Revolution as a song of freedom and rebellion, La Marseillaise is now France’s national anthem. In 1871, a socialist movement adopted the tune and rewrote its lyrics to create its own anthem, L’Internationale; it wasn’t until 1888 that an original musical score was composed. Even then, however, as Sala notes, the existing lyrics dictated the development of a new rhythmic pattern. So despite it becoming a workers’ song, it remained closely related to its French counterpart.

“What is interesting for me is the space between one anthem and the other, and the ensuing space that it projects. It’s at once a space of con- cord and dissonance, bearing the intimacy of an intricate musical and political relation,” Sala explains. “You could say that the political trajectory of each anthem has somehow fluctuated over time, but when you think about it, it’s the listener’s partisanship, allegiance and prejudge that have shifted and wavered. What has oscillated is who is listening to them.”

Anri Sala, Take Over, 2017

Having been raised under communism, L’Internationale evokes memories of childhood, while La Marseillaise reminds him of his time living in Paris and his dual citizenship. The video at Schipper/Johnen, however, is presented without any biographical information, allowing each viewer to recognise and relate to both songs according to their own personal history and project individual meanings onto the artwork.

“Everything about L’Internationale and Le Marseillaise is not so much about where they stand [in history], but where we stand in relation to them” – Anri Sala

“Depending on how you relate to the ideals of L’Internationale on the one hand, and the dire legacy of the communist regimes on the other, the way you feel about it upon hearing its tune can continuously fluctuate,” says Sala. “A person from the Baltic republics, whether progressive or conservative, might feel very different towards it [than] from an activist situation far away from the Russian borders. Likewise, someone from the Maghreb could approach La Marseillaise very differently from a French citizen, whether left- or right-leaning. In both cases, the background of who is listening may turn an evocative and ennobling tune into the soundtrack of the occupier or the coloniser.”

Anri Sala, Ravel Ravel Unravel, 2013. French Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia – 55th International Art Exhibition

In this film at Schipper/Johnen, Sala depicts the entwined history of these songs through a pianist and Disklavier that struggle with the ongoing tension between the two anthems as well as their relationship to each other, the relationship between man and machine. Each channel of the video opens with a close-up of the keyboard, the black and white keys pressed in unison but in contrasting rhythms. Rather than musical melodies, listeners hear only the sound of the keys pumping up and down, thudding like soldiers marching in formation. The pianist enters and begins teaching the Disklavier until the space between man and machine is gone and the two synchronise to perform a recognisable melody – La Marseillaise in one video and L’Internationale in the other. Shortly thereafter, the Disklavier reverts to the anthem it is programmed to play; the machine nullifies human agency. No matter the individual viewer’s relation to each song, the videos beg viewers to consider individual agency – or the lack thereof – when facing any powerful regime.

In addition to this, four glass panels that protrude from both sides of the projection screen give the exhibit a sculptural element: the videos reflect, perspectives shift, and the sound changes according to the viewer’s physical location. Sala suggests that “this is something that’s also been in my earlier works – how to push a medium to the point where it could suggest another medium”. For example, his sculptural work “Title Suspended (Sky Blue)” (2008) becomes film-like, as two mounted rubber gloves per- form animated movements that establish a beginning, middle and end. Sala carefully calculates the technical aspects of his work, like the spacing of musical notes in a score or a site-specific display technique, yet artworks remain open to interpretation due to the absence of objective signs. He sets the stage and establishes an initial concept, but allows his audience to choose the final message.

Some of the themes in Take Over are present in “Them Apples”. Depicting 44 apples, each with one bite, the series confronts an ongoing political issue. The drawings, which are based on pho- tographs, hang on the wall arranged like notes composing an imaginary score of the German national anthem, and each item of fruit was originally bitten by a Syrian, Afghani or Iraqi refugee living in Berlin. “To me, who the people would be who would bite these apples was very important,” Sala says. “Everything about L’International and Le Marseillaise is not so much about where they stand [in history], but where we stand in relation to them.” After a brief pause, he cites Adam and Eve, Snow White and even Macintosh: “The apple also has this undefined notion… somewhere between the symbol of the fall and eternal loss, and the metaphor of curiosity, deliverance and eventual emancipation.”

Unlike “Take Over”, however, “Them Apples” directly addresses Germany’s controversial open refugee policy (the country has allowed more than one million refugees to legally enter and apply for asylum in the last two years). By composing the anthem with representations of refugees, he removes the distance often present in his work, and forces the viewer to confront what’s going on in the world now. “I like the influence of time, the distance and detachment of time, and what it brings to our judgement – whether it’s conscious or subconscious, subjective or objective.” But when it came to the refugee crisis, “there was a certain urgency and it was important to carry that urgency along”.

Anri Sala, Them Apples, 2017

“I prefer to use time as a filter that procures freedom from the bullying of the current” – Anri Sala

This year, Sala was invited to contribute to Venice Biennale’s main show, “VIVA ARTE VIVA”, where similar friction between pairs like time and space, human and machine, emerged. His multifaceted piece, “All of a Tremble (Encounter 1)”, presents an encounter between two wall- paper patterns over 100 years old. Sala found the two original materials – signifying the shift from artisanal craftsmanship to mechanised mass production – and combined them to establish a tension between two worlds: “two tastes, two grandmothers, two people”. The wallpaper roller also rotates against a backdrop with more than 160 teeth and functions like a music box, playing both Eastern and Western scales. Here, Sala again draws attention to the tension between human agency and the ma- chine; between the audience and their relation- ship to the music; between time and society’s understanding of history.

The appeal of Sala’s artistic output lies in his work’s ability to shift in accordance with each viewer’s perspective. Although he often presents distinct concepts, no two people experience his videos, drawings and sculptures the same way, as each visual symbol, musical score or combination thereof can assume various meanings based upon individual circumstances. This ‘distance’ between the artist, the viewer and his work, is itself an important aspect of Sala’s practice. And although it could be argued this space between subject and object provides critical padding, Them Apples is a laudable move away from this cool detachment – even though, as the artist indicates, he is unsure if he will continue in this specific bent. “I prefer to use time as a filter that procures freedom from the bullying of the current,” he says.

Take Over” by Anri Sala is on display at the 57th Venice Biennale, which runs until 26 November 2017

The Arrival of Helmut Lang's New Era