Anri Sala

Read about Sala's intertwining of history, architecture and music for his work, Ravel Ravel Unravel

By Christopher Mooney

Anri Sala, Unravel, 2013 (still)  © the artist, courtesy Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris Anri Sala, Ravel Ravel, 2013, HD video projection on two screens © the artist. Courtesy Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris German Pavilion, photo: © Martin Weigert French Pavilion, photo: © Philippe Zimmerman/Institut Français;

Franco-German enmity is Europe’s deepest wound, a seemingly unstaunchable source of blood and bile that, just in the last century, twice gushed its poison across the world. Then, suddenly, it dried up – officially at least – when, on 22 January 1963, on a tabletop in a ballroom in a palace in Paris, French president Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, signed the Deutsch-französische Freundschaftsvertrag, also known as the Traité de l’Élysée or, to those across the Channel and Pond, the Franco-German Treaty of Friendship.

To mark the document’s half-century – and celebrate the seemingly boundless and borderless energies of contemporary art – the two countries have organised a transnational exchange of their pavilions at this year’s Venice Biennale. The Germans are showing four artists, only one of whom is German, in the French Pavilion; the French are showing the Albanian artist Anri Sala in the German.

The German-designed and owned pavilion at Venice presents a surfeit of ticklish issues: architectural, aesthetic, political

The French building is an innocuous enough space. Built in 1912, designed by an Italian and owned by the citizens of Venice, it presents exhibiting artists with only one problem: how to fill its standard-issue neoclassical shell. The German-designed and owned pavilion, however, with its temple-like apse and towering Teutonic pillars, presents a surfeit of ticklish issues: architectural, aesthetic, political, you name it. Built in 1909, Nazified in 1938, de-Nazified in 1947 and almost razed a couple of times since, it is overdetermined by history and overloaded with ghosts. Included among the latter is the spirit of the last artist to show there, Christoph Schlingensief, who died in August 2010, a year before his Venice installation opened. Schlingensief’s curator and widow turned the building into a Schlingensief mausoleum of sorts, and it worked – the Biennale jury awarded the pavilion its top prize.

Anri Sala and his French curator, Christine Macel have opted for an exquisitely complicated weave of ideas, orchestrated around the unifying capacities unique to musical composition and performance

Few living artists have fared so well. When British artist Liam Gillick – the first non-German invited to fill the pavilion since Nam June Paik’s co-selection alongside Hans Haacke in 1993 – was given the nod two Biennales ago, his first thought was to finish what Haacke had started. The German artist had smashed the white marble floor at the entrance – where Mussolini and Hitler once shook hands for the cameras – and called the resulting rubble art. So, thought Gillick, why not just knock the whole damn thing down? ‘The problem was,’ he told journalists, ‘I wouldn’t know where to stop. The one next to it is colonial, and the Italian one is definitely fascist, so that would have to go, too.’ Instead, Gillick puzzled over his predicament for the good part of a year, and at the last minute hung some coloured bug strips at the front door, filled the inside with pinewood kitchen cabinets and let a lifesize animatronic cat try to explain what he was on about.

Gillick described how in order to solve the pavilion’s complex thicket of signifying entanglements he just needed to unknot one single thread from the mass – ‘just find one idea, an idea’. Clearly, he never succeeded. With Ravel Ravel Unravel (2013), Anri Sala and his French curator, Christine Macel (chief curator at the Pompidou Centre), have instead opted for an exquisitely complicated weave of ideas, orchestrated around the unifying capacities unique to musical composition and performance, and played out with virtuoso finesse.

The choice of Sala is elegant in itself. He has lived and worked between Berlin and Paris for most of his adult life, and his art – videos in which sound is a dominant, independent and mood-altering component – is most powerful when specifically attuned to the physical space in which it is experienced.

No ghostly resonances here, only the full, glorious sound of the French National orchestra

Like the posthumous Schlingensief, Sala has blocked the German Pavilion’s monumental entranceway, forcing visitors to enter by a service door on the left side. A curved ramp inside leads to a dark room containing a single screen, on which loops a silent film of a young woman wearing DJ headphones. Backing up and continuing along the curve brings one to the pavilion’s high-vaulted central apse, now a giant semi-anechoic chamber – the walls and ceiling are covered in sound-absorbing material. No ghostly resonances here, only the full, glorious sound of the French National orchestra performing Maurice ravel’s Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand (1930).

On two screens – one on top of the other but slightly displaced – we see two videos, each showing the hands (active lefts, idle rights) of two performing pianists, Louis Lortie and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Both virtuosi are fully limbed and francophone, unlike Paul Wittgenstein, the one-armed Austrian for whom ravel wrote the work. Wittgenstein, a fabulously wealthy concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War, maintained an active recital career by commissioning works for his left hand from Europe’s best-known composers: Prokofiev, Hindemith, Korngold, Britten and Strauss among them. Some he never played, nor allowed others to play – he considered them his intellectual property and not the composers’, mere mercenaries who only penned them for the cash. Hindemith’s, for example, he sealed away in his studio. It was only found upon the death of his widow a decade ago.

Ravel’s Concerto is by far the best known. Almost as famous is the falling-out between the two men: Wittgenstein took liberties with the score (it was, after all, his to modify as he saw fit), infuriating ravel, who never spoke to him again. Today, the issue of ownership is further complicated: ravel’s music entered the public domain in 2009 in Germany, but will not do so in France for another eight years, as the copyright protection of musical works in that country was extended to compensate for the two world wars.

Let’s take a crack at untangling this knot: a work composed between France’s two wars with Germany by an anti-nationalist Frenchman (who refused to sign a letter in 1914 urging a ban on the performance in France of works by German and Austrian composers), commissioned by an Austrian forced to flee his country by the Germans, now being played in a building in Italy considered part of extraterritorial Germany – a postwar, inoculated form of Pan-Germania, but this year representing France, therefore, because of the wars (or not because of the wars?), not belonging or available to the public as a whole... The confusion of echoes defies the anechoic chamber’s efforts to suppress them; they haunt Ravel Ravel Unravel, as do so many others, not least being the language games of Paul’s younger brother, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Ravel’s own disability, frontotemporal dementia, which gradually obliterated his ability to compose – to write down the music that only he could hear – and eventually, to communicate at all. In late 1937 (just a few months before Wittgenstein, prohibited from performing in public by the Nazis, left Europe for the united States), Ravel underwent ‘experimental’ brain surgery, fell into a coma and died nine days later.

Their identically filmed left hands and the sounds they trigger jump in and out of sync 

The concert pianists’ performances mirror this dissonant jumble. Their identically filmed left hands – and the sounds they trigger – jump in and out of sync with each other and the orchestra (which was recorded in a separate room from the soloing pianists, who performed a few days apart but with the recorded sound of each other in their ears). The disoriented tempos complicate the piece, lengthening and shortening it, pushing and pulling at the performers’ and visitors’ eyes and ears and brains as they try, collectively and independently, to unravel and re-ravel the work: to return it to its initial, unified and harmonious whole. Sometimes, too, the parts excluded by the music – the soloists’ silenced and extraneous right hands – occupy the screens, hanging limply beside the hardworking bodies and minds or gripping a leg, struggling to be free to play their absented part in the show.

Before exiting out of the right-side service door, visitors confront a further unravelling in a third space. Here, on a smaller screen, the DJ seen in the first room disentangles the two performances by retangling them – remixing them on two turntables, restoring them to a semblance of their original aural and temporal unity by means of the technology and vernacular of contemporary electronic music. (The DJ, we are told, is a fixture of the Paris and Berlin club scenes; yet another cooperative note of felicitous resonance.)

This is, I think, Sala’s best work to date. A nuanced intertwining of the identical and the different played out almost simultaneously – in and out of time – in a space overcharged with political and historical presences by absent, projected performers working together and apart, hand in hand and hand on hand, crossing borders, almost overcoming physical handicap, almost eliminating physical estrangement – almost aligning the world into pure collaborative harmony – by means of the generosity, attentiveness and fellowship of art. Bravissimo.

This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue of ArtReview