— Nuit Banai

Notes from the Upperground

Despite its title, Genti Korini’s exhibition “Notes from the Upperground” had nothing to do with Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Here, the “upperground” refers to the remarkable headstones that memorialize the lives of everyday people laid to rest in the cemeteries of Tirana, Albania. Korini’s almost-life-size color photographs, sharing the same title as the exhibition (all works 2019), withhold the particularities of the departed by documenting the reverse side of each headstone.

Filling the main space of Bazament (a literally underground project room struggling to give visibility to artists in Albania, a country with virtually no institutional infrastructure for contemporary art), this Becher-esque procession of necropolitical silhouettes seemed to shape-shift between the nonobjective and the mimetic. They were exceedingly hard to place: Through a modernist lens, the stone monuments’ sleek designs occasionally resemble the abstract sculptural creations of Jean Arp, but in a more mundane optic, they evoke flames, sails, and lighting bolts. Generally, there is no clear referent to Western art- historical iconography or everyday life, let alone to any religious canon or the collectivized funerary symbols of state Communism. Indeed, Korini is interested in the entanglements of this singular memorializing idiom with the construction of contemporary identity in a society that, still recovering from a brutal dictatorship in which thousands were killed or interned in labor camps, must at the same time confront the challenges of a neoliberal global order.

With these idiosyncratic headstones as a design template, Korini produced three additional pieces. The first, Window Rails, no. 1, consists of a black steel sculptural object evoking a wide gamut of possible barriers, including a window grille, gate, or room divider. In addition to the standardized, gridded latticework pattern, it is accentuated on both top and bottom by eccentric flourishes much like those personalizing the headstones. Displayed on the wall as a stand-alone piece in one of the gallery’s nooks, it also became the basis for Fence, an array of five similar steel prototypes propped on pencil-thin stakes in a side room. Both as a stand-alone wall piece and as a cluster, this object’s combination of grid-like structure and decorative irregularities simultaneously summoned the legacy of modernism; the necessity of demarcating, allocating, and protecting space and property in today’s Tirana; and the surging desire for boutique branding. Another piece, Coffee Table, no. 1, which was positioned alongside the photographs in the main room, is a marble coffee table whose flat surface similarly replicates the shape of a headstone. Here, the singular format for burial has been transformed into a symbolic space of collective exchange, conviviality, and mourning. In his statement, the artist writes that the coffee table “is where we collectively grieve the dead in historical and contemporary Albanian funeral rituals.”

Korini’s message about the complexity of the organization, management, and representation of life and death in contemporary Albania is profound. By asking us to follow the threads connecting headstones, barriers, and coffee tables, the artist leads us to understand that the spheres of public and private existence, urban fabric and domesticity, are intertwined; that the legacy of modernism has a particular tenor in a country that was equally isolated from Western Soviet, and nonaligned states for so many years; and that the desire for individual sovereignty resides as much in life as in death. The artist uses the graveyard as a metaphor for a life suspended in waiting for the yet-to-come. To exist in this precarious non-place, he suggests, necessitates inventing forms of living and working together that connect local tradition and global demands.