Question 1. (Manca Bajec and Isobel Wohl) Ralph Rugoff writes that this year’s exhibition, entitled May You Live in Interesting Times,‘will no doubt include artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the “post-war order.”’ How do you feel that the work that you are presenting as part of your curated project responds to this set of concerns? (Or, for curators, how do the curatorial choices you have made respond to this set of concerns?)
Alban Muja: Speaking as a former refugee who has made a work about refugees, the title May You Live in Interesting Times feels provocative—particularly for those of us who have experienced conflict. Living as a war refugee is an intriguing experience but one ultimately characterised by uncertainty for oneself and one’s family. These problems are by no means limited to the past but are happening even now in some parts of the world. I come from a place where 20 years ago we couldn't talk about art but only about our own existence. I also come from a place where the past taught us how to be grown-ups although we weren't.
This thinking was a reference point for our work for the pavilion, which we have entitled Family Album. It presents three different experiences that have one thing in common: the challenges arising from the war and its ensuing crisis in 1999 in Kosovo. We believe our project for Venice responds well to ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ because our project for the pavilion explores the post-war order. It aims to address the past in the now in order to tell stories which often populate crisis in a human way. We want also to show the reality of recent history through former refugees but, significantly, we want to tell their stories through their own position and in the now.
Question 2. (MB and IW) What does it mean for you as an artist, a curator, or a curatorial team to represent your country? How does the structure of the Venice Biennial, with its individual national pavilions, influence your choices as a participant? What does it mean, in terms of the current state of European and world politics, for us to emphasise national representation in the arts sector?
Muja: Well, we all know the importance of participating in the Venice Biennale but representing your country gives you a certain responsibility because you are representing where you come from. Kosovo only declared its independence in 2008. As such, it is a new state, albeit in transition, which has ongoing issues with international recognition. As a country in Europe that has problems with travel issues—particularly visa-free arrangements within the continent—it is important for us to be represented at international events to ensure people receive better information and awareness about our country. I feel proud that I will be sharing the experiences of our country with the world. Significantly, in such a context, our participation helps to ensure we are on a level-pegging with other countries. Having that sort of equality is very important.
Question 3. (MB and IW) How do the choices you’ve made in your national pavilion relate to recent developments in your artistic or curatorial practice? What do you hope that your creative decisions in this project will contribute to your work going forward?
Muja:I believe that the issues being addressed in terms of the work for the pavilion are transnational but given from a local perspective and experience: Kosovo’s. I believe that similar stories can be found in different places that may also have a troubled past and environment; the only difference is a geographical position. I believe that an artist’s purpose in major art events like the Venice Biennale is to communicate to the public local stories that present transnational concerns and challenges.
In my previous projects, I constantly tried to keep a certain distance from the experience of the war, or of what I and my family went through personally, choosing instead to focus on the consequences that followed in the aftermath. Then, about three years ago, I was going through childhood photographs and came across this one image of myself in the Hamallaj refugee camp in Albania.
For me, Family Album is the first project I’ve worked on that has a direct relationship and correlation to the past. My work up until now has consisted primarily of research into the political, economic and social transformations of Kosovo today, as well as of the Balkan region as a whole, but none of it speaks directly about the past.
A while ago, I tried to talk to my father about his experience in prison, if I can even call the place he was held a prison, since it was more like a concentration camp, with over a hundred people locked into one small five-by-six-meter room, and kept there without any explanation. Family Album is my first work that addresses history, indirectly including my own family’s experience but also that of many other Kosovo families.
Manca Bajec is an artist and researcher living and working in London, UK and Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Isobel Wohl is a visual artist and writer. She lives and works in London, UK and Brooklyn, NY.
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