Sislej Xhafa: asymmetric désir
13 December 2013’25 January 2014
Review by Yvette Greslé
Public monuments and statuary play a role in the mythologising of nations, authoritarian or democratic. They commemorate the fallen soldier and perpetuate the myth of war. Monuments function as visual reminders of who holds political power, and of whose voice is heard. But many of the 20th century’s most iconic images remind us that monuments and statues are not sacrosanct. The idea of the monument has come under renewed scrutiny in the work of a number of artists who have come of age in the decades of violence that have shaped the political climate of the late 20th and early 21st century.
A refrigerator, a dead cat (preserved by taxidermy), a transistor radio, a cigarette, a child’s white lace dress on a wire hanger: these objects are suspended by wire, in a row, on the monumental, rusted structure of football goal posts. They might be imagined as signifiers of consumerism, aspiration and the transient comforts of leisure and domesticity; imagined via the conduits of commodity culture. As a national sport, football is a site of heroic masculinity, and for many (as numerous biographies attest) it is an escape from the entrapments of poverty, invisibility and the aftermath of political violence. Ironically titled Merry-Go Round (2013), this work by Sislej Xhafa functions as a poignant counter-monument. It offers no heroic figure, and no myth of authority and human victory against the odds. It is a memento mori of sorts, with its displaced goal posts; lifeless cat; and objects that imply human presences (as they offer only absence) and speak only to the anonymous and invisible.
Xhafa, who was born in Kosovo in 1970 (and is now based in New York), is an example of a generation of artists emerging in relation to the lived encounter with political violence: ‘I like to question violence because I come from a very violent country. Art can push beyond what is obvious. To me, it becomes an attitude that is not about proving what is. Because in reality violence is stronger than us. Art is rather about pushing at the edges. To me what is important is not visual memory but memory as it is experienced. My work is not linked to shock. It slowly draws you into an environment and makes you feel. This is my approach to the process of questioning’.
Visually Xhafa’s work (across media) suggests historical relationships to early 20th-century European modernism in dialogue with the devastation of the First World War. It speaks also to the critical, experimental practices of the 1960s and 1970s, an important moment in terms of art’s relation to politics. But the work of artists such as Xhafa also brings to these histories (their critique of any belief in a grand, coherent narrative; and an irreproachable truth) a vision grounded in the present. This present is characterised by the escalating entanglements of capitalism, politics, displacement and war, and the survival of those searching for a ground within the uncertain space of the exile.