'Notes from the Upperground'
-Genti Korini 2019
Notes from the Upperground explores the ways in which forms are created, their ideological foundations, and the sociocultural contexts that shape them. I observe and take notes on the physical, aesthetic manifestations of modernist language and their vernacular interpretations in our urban environment. Previously interpreted through painting, here I have expanded my vocabulary, research, and materiality in three new series: Notes from the Upperground, Railings, and Coffee Tables.
In Notes from the Upperground, headstones from Tirana’s graveyards are seen from their back side. Portrait-like, the photographs focus on the stones’ silhouettes and their formal aesthetic information. The photographs deliberately obscure all of the graves’ personal details, reducing the headstones to their shape alone.
In most societies, graveyards are filled with religious symbolism, but here the forms have been replaced with new peculiar designs, ones that seemingly erase the signs of religious and communist pasts of Albania. Instead, I would argue that they represent the hybrid identity of contemporary Albanian society: the bygone collectivist, communist system has morphed today into our consumerist, individualist reality, constructing new imagery along the way.
Two sculptural series, were born out of the photographic work. I designed them with a set of curvy elaborations borrowed from the headstones’ aesthetics. The works ask that the viewer interpret signs and form when separated from the object’s designated function and context.
Railings considers everyday metal gratings or gates, so ubiquitous in Tirana today that they are commonly installed even in graveyards. They function as barriers, dividers, and markers of private property.
The Coffee Tables was produced with the same material and technology used to fabricate the headstones. The publicness of the gravestones is confronted with that of the private — the domesticity of coffee tables. But these spaces are nonetheless linked: the coffee table is a key site of gathering and mourning; it is where we collectively grieve the dead in historical and contemporary Albanian funeral rituals.
ON IDEOLOGY MORPHING INTO FORM
- Christina Steinbrecher-Pfandt, Anton Streletzki, 2014
Albanian artist Genti Korini (b.1979) sets himself an ambitious and nearly impossible goal: he reinterprets painting in its most reflexive and lofty version, that of modernist abstraction.
Abstract painting is rooted in the urge to conquer or overcome as fundamental illusions art in general and painting in particular. This idea is a product of modernity and comes laden with the energy and drive for modernization typical of that age.
The totality of the illusionary essence of painting has been constructed and maintained throughout the history of art. It has permeated the pores and lacunas of artistic practice and of our perception of art. Art’s mimetic nature draws on the traditions of classical antiquity, which are at the roots of Western civilization. After the dark ages of symbolic representation that conceived of reality as a text, rather than an image, mimesis made a triumphant return in the linear perspective (re)discovered by Renaissance artists. It was not until the mid 19th century, however, that painting started to challenge its own tenets, the very same tenets that it had previously exalted and which it had traditionally prided itself in. Therein lie the origins of modernism that by early 20th century had converted this auto-reflexivity and self-questioning into geometric abstraction.
Genti Korini takes into account the conceptual contexts of his predecessors and conceptualizes his artistic practice in its ideological dimension. The latter clearly takes front stage in what he does, which allows Korini to bring together several vexed problems and problem areas in his art.
Genti Korini has a lot to say about architecture. Since the Renaissance it has been the most powerful medium for representation for the powers that be and as such has long served as a material embodiment of dominant ideologies. The architecture of Albanian capital, Tirana, is the major visual inspiration behind Korini’s work, in which the new Albanian architecture emerges as a kind of symptomatology for the rapidly evolving ideology.
Decorative aspects of buildings, urban spaces and the new architecture itself are now conceived of as a visual facet of the larger language of expression, which is intrinsically connected to the imaginary dimension of power (its dream-space or virtual space).
According to Jean Baudrillard, power rests upon control of the space of simulacra, while politics is not “any real action or space, but a certain simulation model that manifests itself through little more than its realized effect”, both perspective constructions of Renaissance artists and drab facades of Tirana’s apartment blocks blasted with color and geometric abstractions are ideological expressions of the dominant visuality. They both are products of the imaginary dimension of the powers that be that exist and operate within their very own historical and social horizons.
Genti Korini is particularly interested in the metamorphoses of the visual idiom “spoken” by ideologies and by the architectural materializations of these metamorphoses, since he believes that architecture is the most expressive and obvious tool that a government has at its disposal.
Under the communist totalitarian regime architecture imposed a certain code of unification, a code for the “(wo)man of the masses”, while simultaneously asserted and celebrated the regime’s triumphant grandeur. In the age of neoliberal freedom the ideological idiom has been hijacked by capital and has found new forms of expressions in the domain of architecture. Therefore, Korini is prompted to ask: how does ideology manifests itself through form? This question reverberates through his paintings and his research projects in photography; for a whole set of reasons it has come to carry particular significance for Albania. Korini talks about the exoticizing, “othering” lens through which the West regards Albania and its art. He believes in the importance of establishing a dialogue with the modernist tradition that has been forcefully and artificially interrupted in his country. How, on what terms is this dialogue possible today? The artist never ceases to reflect on this question, suggesting his own answers to it, as if trying to compensate for the historical lacuna and to fill in this gaping absence with the different versions of modernist abstraction. He continues to develop its ontological reflection and to examine its potentialities in the new and different political and cultural contexts.
Korini is not the only artist to contemplate the relationship between form and ideology within Albania’s urban spaces. A fellow Albanian Anri Sala creates impressive video artworks about the new architecture of Tirana with its houses transformed by means of colors, marked by the imprint of post-painterly abstraction, the most momentous and precious (to today’s capitalism) pinnacle of modernism.
Korini goes to great lengths studying and reconstructing the modernist agenda of image and medium. His abstractions appear to be figurative while remaining abstract. They bear an uncanny resemblance to architecture, while being painterly in essence. They hint at the presence of material objects while simultaneously destroying the construction of space that can potentially contain an object within it. His painterly forms, surfaces and structures mobilize and challenge the viewers’ imagination, but do not provide them with ready-made answers.
GENTI KORINI / THE HYBRID
- Jane Neal, London, April 2014
From the arrival of the seminal essay: "The Death of the Author" in 1967 by the French literary critic and theorist, Roland Barthes, it has been considered outmoded to follow the traditional practice of criticism when considering an author or artist's work: that is, to look for the intentions and biographical context of the originator in order to better understand their practice. Barthes argues that writing (or art), and the creator are unrelated, and that to look for the artist's background in his oeuvre, is to limit his work. That is all well and good, but what if the artist's surroundings and intentions concerning his personal environs form the basis for his actual practice? What, one wonders, would Barthes have made of that?
If it were possible to borrow H.G. Wells' time machine and bring Barthes to Tirana, the capital city of Albania and home to the young painter, Genti Korini, it is possible Barthes would have made an exception to his argument. Since 2007, Korini has been drawing inspiration from the post communist architecture that has quickly sprung up to populate his city. Unlike conventional architecture (which considers the suitability of design in relation to function, permanence and the relationship between the impact of a new building on the existing surroundings and community), the majority of the new buildings that have been erected in Albania are an eclectic mix of shapes and styles that have fused into each other. Though the individual designers behind each building might strive for uniqueness, because they borrow and blend elements from various styles, the result is what Korini calls: a 'state of hybridity'.
Albania's experience of communism was not an easy one. With a heavy dose of irony, Korini explains: 'Here we had the "real deal". The others were flirting with it. Think North Korea and good old-fashioned Stalinism'. It is unsurprising then that post communism brought with it an aggressive refusal of the former uniformity. It is possible to see the architecture that followed as a direct, physical manifestation of the mindset of the people: they yearned to 'do their own thing'. Korini believes that if you're not an insider you might not recognise this, but for him (a painter who lives and works in the city), it is apparent that everyone is trying to break the uniformity of the past because they feel so strongly about it.
Albania is embracing the new ideology of consumerist, capitalist individualism, but in response the buildings that have sprung up, do not so much suggest a bold vision for the future, instead they resemble a state of ephemera, closer to stage design than architecture. There is a dream-like, computer game sensibility to many of the buildings (which is unsurprising considering that the majority are created through the use of architectural software programmes). There are petrol stations that appear more like museums of contemporary art, and restaurants that look like castles: a multitude of incongruous forms resulting in a plethora of unlikely buildings.
While this might be problematic from a purist, architectural perspective, it has proved very interesting and inspiring for Korini. Witnessing the democratization of architecture thanks to the computer software that allows youngsters who (though they might not be trained as architects, are better equipped with the skills necessary to use the architectural software than their older, less 'Tech friendly' counterparts), Korini started to think that it would be interesting to take the phenomenon as a starting point for his own painting practice. He wondered what would happen if he used the same software and manipulated the computer-generated forms in an abstract way. Since the Surrealists exploited automatic writing and painting in their practice, there has been a tradition within abstraction of allowing a work to evolve (we might use the word 'organically', today), as opposed to creating a strict, narrative structure that operates according to the laws of perspective with fore, mid and backgrounds. The difference with Korini's work is that the software supplies the 'surprise' elements, and as a consequence, the paintings (in terms of the origin of their process at least), are situated firmly in the 21st Century.
Though 21st Century technology might be involved in the genesis of Korini's practice, the resulting works are extremely painterly. Korini trained in Cluj, Romania from 1999 - 2001. The school has become known internationally for its figurative painters, artists such as: Victor Man, Adrian Ghenie, Serban Savu (and two of Korini's classmates), Marius Bercea and Mircea Suciu. Korini credits his time there as strongly affecting his painting style and technique. While he himself was a student in Cluj, Korini made figurative paintings. He sees himself as belonging to 'this strong tradition'. He is fascinated with the social and cultural implications of the buildings that now surround him - they are his inspiration - but he loves: 'the process of painting.'
Korini believes that a painting has to work on two levels: the conceptual and the sensual. He feels that there needs to be an intuitive and open process involved, not only in terms of choosing the subject matter, but in the decision making inherent to the painting process: the colours, brushwork, consistency of the paint, and so on. Without this process, it is possible for a painting to work conceptually, but not to function in itself as a technically-balanced painting. Korini is clearly passionate about this issue: 'If I was working with other media then maybe this wouldn't be so important. You need the skill, you have to find a way yourself. Painting today, it seems, has a 'double assignment', it has to have an alibi. Painters can't simply paint, they have to have this reason for painting, an excuse. But we have to let go of this alibi. Painting should not need an excuse. If there is the subject and the desire to work, that should be enough.'
For a while after leaving art school and moving back to Tirana, Korini was taking photographs. The contemporary international scene demanded a new form of socially engaged art, but the situation for Korini in Tirana was demoralising, even impossible. 'You cannot be a conceptual artist here because no one will fund your project. You cannot be a photographer either because no one would sponsor you.' Increasingly, Korini realised that he wasn't interested in conforming to a prescribed 'type'. He decided to come back to the medium of painting to execute his ideas and to abandon 'the artificial components' of his painting practice (the acrylics and sprays), concentrating instead on using the traditional medium of oil to depict his very contemporary subject matter. Korini also made a deliberate decision to situate his abstract forms within a classical portrait format. As with a traditional portrait that might depict a king or queen in the centre of a canvas, three quarters turned, so Korini has set up his subjects, thus creating his own homage to the ruling state of hybridity in Albania's post communist landscape.
There is a power inherent in Korini's paintings. They address Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum, the desire to live in a state removed from reality, but they also serve as monuments to the collision of two major occurrences that changed the course of history. The early 1990's saw the countries of the so-called Eastern Bloc adjusting to life after communism while simultaneously, the world started to experience the greatest technological expansion of all time: the advent of the global internet. A new freedom enabled the construction of this new state of hybridity, which Korini's paintings brilliantly encapsulate. Much as Morandi's still lifes of the early 20th Century often seem to function more as portraits than depictions of objects, so Korini's abstracted shapes speak of a people struggling to find expression for their new found autonomy and consumerist desires.
Korini is not yet decided on how he feels about the architecture that has become his muse. On the one hand he enjoys the exotic nature of the buildings and the identification in people's minds of Tirana with an architecture that would not be out of place in Las Vegas. On the other, he does not think this is the way the city should be. Whatever his feelings, Korini's painting raises an awareness - not only of the architectural situation, but of the place of abstraction. Abstract art is problematic for Albanians. Thanks to the influence of Constructivism, there was a short-lived movement of abstraction in Albania, but this was soon rejected and censored by the state and, under communism, only socialist realism was permitted and supported. Consequently, even today, Korini believes that Albanians have a problem understanding abstract art because they had so little contact with abstract language. Ironically and paradoxically, if someone in Tirana was to look at Korini's painting and then look outside their window, we might imagine they would make a connection and realise they were in fact living amongst this abstract scenery. Yet somehow, Korini feels, they can neither see it, nor feel it; it is an unconscious response.
Formally, this series of works by Korini is strongly influenced by Constructivism, most notably: El Lissitzky, Kasimir Malevich and Antoine Pevsner. Yet the influence extends beyond the works from the movement; Korini is also inspired by the utopian vision that lay behind the establishment of this new language. He returns to Constructivism in order to connect with this period of Modernism, in effect drawing a metaphorical line from the movement to now, 'like an architect'.
Korini enjoys the mixture of hard geometry with a painterly non-perfect surface in his work. It is possible to look beyond the Constructivists as instrumental in the development of his practice. Picasso is a great source of inspiration - not only in terms of subject matter but in terms of his handling and mixing of paint. "Portrait of Jacqueline" 1961 has proved a particular reference for Korini, also the works of the Hungarian artist, Laszlo Moholy Nagy.
Though Korini's works are powerful there is a tenderness woven into the treatment of his forms. It might seem a diametrically opposed impossibility that a monumental structure can also be fragile, but somehow Korini manages to evoke this. Some of the paintings resemble torn paper, others seem more plastic, as if Korini has first modelled his subject in clay and then depicted it, as a painter would address a still life. As afore mentioned, it is impossible not to think of some of Morandi's arrangements of still lifes when looking at Korini's paintings, but though some of his paintings' palettes also consist of closely related tones, others are much more lively and vibrant, revealing a debt not only to Constructivism, but also to Fauvism. Cubism is clearly also a reference for Korini, indeed the early years of 20th Century painting and sculpture seem to hold a strong fascination for the artist.
The state of hybridity that Korini finds himself living in, plays out in the extremely effective combination of technologically derived subject matter, executed in a painterly manner and combined with the influences of the vivid modernist movements of the early 20th Century. From the way he treats his subject matter, Korini clearly has a certain fondness for the buildings that have become a source of fascination for him. However, we should not lock the artist into acts of social and cultural observation. His figurative training and understanding of the human body has also inspired him and we cannot help but anthropomorphise his subjects.
Korini epitomises that rare combination. Though all his work is undergirded by a rigorous intellect, conceptual drive and pertinent engagement with the world around him, he is more than simply curious or committed to recording events. Korini is first and foremost a painter. He is driven by the seductive nature of his chosen medium and its plastic potential and buttery facility to breathe warmth and life into the artists's subject of choice. He does not simply use paint to evoke the state of hybridity that so fascinates him, he creates a convincingly consistent world where we can feel the full phenomenological force of this state of being, and the human desires that have driven it. Like so many before him, Korini needs no alibi to paint, he just needed to find confidence and inspiration in the world around him; and from the strength of this new body of work, he clearly has.