The Venice Questionnaire: Driant Zeneli

The Albanian artist on utopia and dystopia

Driant Zeneli, Maybe the cosmos is not so extraordinary, 2019, two-channel video installation © the artist and prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan_Lucca

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists exhibiting in the various national pavilions of the 2019 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening on 11 May.

Driant Zeneli is representing Albania. The pavilion is in the Arsenale

ArtReview: What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

Driant Zenel: The work for the Albanian Pavilion in Venice will take the shape of a sculptural video installation with the title Maybe the cosmos is not so extraordinary (2019), which expands upon a multidisciplinary project entitled Beneath a surface there is just another surface started in 2015 at Metallurgjik, a dystopian industrial compound in the city of Elbasan, Albania. The project and its title derive from the pioneering science-fiction novel On the way to Epsilon Eridani (1983) by Albanian physicist and writer Arion Hysenbegas. The artworks I produce narrate stories, desires and attempts often referred to utopias and dystopias. Drawing on the personal stories of people I meet, I construct a narration in which they interpret their own characters. In this case, they are five very young teenagers who find a cosmic sphere inside a factory in Bulqize, a village in the north east of Albania.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ your country? Do you find it an honour or is it problematic?

I would like to dedicate this space to those who still believe in dreams, who, every day try and fall, but, no matter what, get up and run. This work is the fruit of a collaboration between different people coming from different countries. Therefore, I will not be alone, but there will be many of us representing the context we live in. With the curator of the pavilion Alicia Knock we are also working on a catalogue which will be an important part of the work. We have invited many friends, artists, writers, curators, scientists, geologists, etc. to react to the title Maybe the cosmos is not so extraordinary, thus trying to create a constellation of thoughts and ideas.

Is your work transnational or rooted in the local?

Generally, my work is inspired by unexpected encounters and discoveries. Initially I found a slag by chance at Metalurgjik in Elbasan, one of the former biggest industrial areas in Albania which represented the most ambitious project of the communist regime for the industrialization of the country. Later I met a geologist who explained to me that the slag I found is created through a fusion of different metals, and that it contained particularly Chrome metal, which is extracted in the mines of the mountains of Bulqize.

The next thing is that I go to the village, and I meet people and families who live and work there. The element of Chrome is embedded in the mountain but it is also the organ which, for better or for worse, has led to the existence of the mine and the factory where many people work. The Chrome, through the mountain defines the working and social identity of a village, to afterwards be transformed into the tools of our daily life like the cutlery we use to eat, or more extraordinarily into the spaceships we build to study the universe. It is precisely this space between the limits of human beings as individuals and the vastness of the utopias we imagine that I build my work on.

How does having a pavilion in Venice make a difference to the art scene in your home country?

There is so much to tell and to discover about countries that gather attention only when there are political tensions. Albania has been participating officially in the Venice Biennale since 1999. Certainly, the Pavilion draws attention to the discovery of contemporary art and culture in Albania but also gives the chance to the Albanian artistic context to confront with other international realities, with other socio-political and economic situations.

If you’ve been to the Biennale before, what’s your earliest or best memory from Venice?

I have visited the Biennale many times over the years. The feeling of the first days is like being in a playground for adults. Then slowly you also become part of it, feeling detached, as it actually is, from the rest of the world. I remember once when I happened to be visiting the Biennale during the installation period, when the artworks arrive and the employees assemble everything together with the artists and architects. I think that was the most exciting moment, to see how this incredible machine works.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

While I was starting to respond to this interview, I was wondering how I can extend the seconds, the minutes and the hours. In our ‘deadline era’ it often seems that time is not enough. In Venice I will certainly be looking forward to seeing people watch works that manage to create a moment of waiting.

The Venice Biennale runs 11 May – 24 November 2019