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Still Waiting to Join Europe

Driant Zeneli, Albanian visual artist

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In today’s globalised yet divided world, art has also changed, as has the attitude toward the notion of nation, with many artists and intellectuals having questioned the concept of nation states ~ Driant Zeneli

In his oeuvre to date, Driant Zeneli has utilised various forms of artistic production, from drawing to film and performance. The work of his trilogy The Animals. Once Upon a Time… in a present time has to date been presented in more than 14 cities around the world, from Venice and Sofia to Hamburg.

“For me, it is important to present these fables placed in these brutalist architectures in the Balkans, as a great heritage of the past and as a symbol of continuous transformation and the instability of this geographical area in the world called the Balkans,” says Zeneli in this exclusive interview for The Region.

You represented the Albanian Pavilion at the 54th (group show) and 58th (solo show) Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition. Could you share some insights into the inspiration behind your creations and how these accolades have influenced your artistic journey?

― More than representing one’s nation, today one has to represent those who don’t have the possibility of representing themselves. The Venice Biennale emerged in 1895, in a very nationalist format. We are obviously talking about very different times, in which the importance of the nation state was on the rise, particularly in central Europe. In today’s globalised yet divided world, art has also changed, as has the attitude toward the notion of nation, with many artists and intellectuals today questioning the concept of nation states. There are also more places where we can exhibit nowadays, with many biennials open around the world, and this is a chance for us to get to know other worlds and cultures. During these years, my work has also been enriched thanks to these events that I’ve been part of, particularly in the Balkans, such as the October Salon biennale in Belgrade. You’ve been actively engaged in performances and collaborations with cultural institutions from Tirana, Pristina, Skopje and Belgrade.

How do these collaborations contribute to your artistic vision and what do you believe is the significance of cross-cultural exchanges in the region’s contemporary art scene?

― Working in the Balkans is always a way to learn more about the world that I come from. I lived in Italy for 22 years, where I also studied and formed myself as an artist. In more recent years, I’ve wanted to discover more about the sociopolitical and cultural context of my origins. I began with Kosovo, where I started doing research on the National Library, representing the largest library in Kosovo. Opened in 1982, it is a place full of history and memories, while there is something interesting in the conflict of perceptions of this architecture that was the work of Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković.

Failure, utopia and dreaming have a common element that shows up often in my work: gravity. This gravity somehow causes us to fall and rise again every day, with feelings of love and hate towards the planet

So, it was in Pristina that I started working on my first film No Wise Fish Would Escape Without Flying for the trilogy The Animals. Once upon a time… in the present time, which I made in collaboration with the children of the BONEVET Foundation in Pristina. We created a fairy tale around this building, designing the characters of the film as robots. I then continued with the second chapter, focused on the Pyramid of Tirana, with the film How Deep can a Dragonfly Swim Under the Ocean? The film opens with the story of Rilond Risto, a former prison inmate who developed his passion for the world of flying insects by building micro robots using all the mechanical material he found in prison. Then came the film that concludes the trilogy, The Firefly Keeps Falling and the Snake Keeps Growing, which was made in collaboration with the students of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia.

After this long adventure that ran from 2019 to 2022, I started a new trilogy, The Valley of the Uncanny Lovers, the first chapter of which, entitled The Leaf, was created in Belgrade together with students of the University of Belgrade Faculty of Drama. This project was launched at the invitation of the Cultural Centre of Belgrade (KCB), while I’m now developing the second chapter in Germany’s Ruhr region.

The redefining of the notions of failure, utopia and dream represent the core of your research. As an artist, how do you see your role in addressing social or political issues, and what impact do you hope your work will have on the observer, both locally and internationally?

― Failure, utopia and dreaming have a common element that shows up often in my work: gravity. This gravity somehow causes us to fall and rise again every day, with feelings of love and hate towards the planet.

I often wonder whether I’m interested in dreaming a vision or visioning a dream. I am drawn to people who try to overcome their limitations, who live in both harmony and conflict with the force of gravity. To me, that means being political, and I always hope that my work speaks many languages, so that it can extend from the local to become global.

The Balkans have always been more open for artists than politicians wanting it for their own interests. The question I ask myself today is how long we will have to tolerate narratives that lead to hate and conflict?

I was born in Albania in 1983, at the height of the communist regime, and my memory of that time is preserved in the images and voices of my parents, who said that we would one day also be part of Europe. I would awaken at 7am to music for school; my mother would often play The Final Countdown by Europe. More than 30 years have since passed. That song has been consigned to history, the band has broken up and then reunited, and I’m still waiting to become part of Europe.

Your recent exhibitions in Rome, Frankfurt and Dhaka garnered attention for their innovative approach and thought-provoking content. Could you tell us more about the concepts behind these exhibitions and how they reflect your own evolution as an artist?

― They are obviously three different contexts and three very different cities, which ensures that the perception also differs. The work of the trilogy The Animals. Once Upon a Time… in a present time has so far been presented in more than 14 cities around the world, from Venice and Sofia to Hamburg. For me, it is important to present these fables in the brutalist architecture of the Balkans, as a symbol of great heritage and the continuous transformation and instability of this geographical area in the world called the Balkans.

As an artist who hails from the Western Balkans, how do you navigate the intersection of personal identity and broader cultural narratives in your work? And how do you see the role of contemporary art in shaping and challenging social perspectives within the region and beyond?

― Almost all of my works begin as a journey with an unknown end, yet I know what I’m drawn to. As such, each project contains a different place, a new study that imposes many challenges to be confronted. I collaborate with many people, my artists, but also institutions in the Balkans.

A common problem that I confront when discussing the politics of our nations with my colleagues is the issue of the narrative that each of us has set for ourselves from the politics of our countries, constructed between facts and mostly imagination and populist propaganda. The Balkans have always been more open for artists than politicians wanting it for their own interests. The question I ask myself today is how long we will have to tolerate narratives that lead to hate and conflict; Who benefits in all of this?

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