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S’envoler les pieds sur terre

Childhood experiences are central to the development of our perceptions of the world. Driant Zeneli remembers the thrilling challenge of gravity, from when he was a child, as he used to jump as high as he could to reach the sky, despite falling again and again. This endless sequence, involving the body and the mind, was motivated by an ever present wish to twist the possible. His life’s work is a way to carry on these attempts to connect with the Cosmos, to reach far from Earth, despite knowing that himself and gravity are inseparable. He also refers to how much aesthetic emotion you can evoke from the tension between the sky and the Earth, and between the poetry and the realism. His films are fed by his strong relationship with the territories he has lived in, and the life he lived as an Albanian through the transition from a Soviet dictatorial model to a democracy supported by wild capitalist liberalism. For his generation, gravity is that of the memories that should not be forgotten, of the traumas and violence that should be unburied, and even the responsibilities that should be assumed in the present. Being brought back to the past results in looking at the sky and evoking dreams and collective horizons in spite of the disappointing realities, in which precarities and individualism have taken control. 

Driant Zeneli, How deep can a Dragonfly swim under the Ocean?, 4K video, 8’20’’, 2021, Courtesy of the artist

According to Driant Zeneli being an artist is a collective act disclosing new possibilities, in opposition to his father’s lonely, submissive practice as a realist painter during the Soviet dictatorship. 

The making of his films is a journey in which he shares, with all the people involved, his desire to look at the sky, take the energy from it and produce something on Earth. His sceneries draw imaginary trajectories departing from reality to reach new worlds. Old friends, new encounters, children and adults, those who participate in his films, are all active contributors. In a process built over time, a fairy tale is written, based on the necessary and shared inputs of the contributors, bringing with it personal stories and desires. As the goal is to stay anchored to the ground, the films are based on existing places, the narrative potential of which is exploited by the artist. In Albania, and even in Kosovo, he conducted a workshop with some children and decided to film the brutalist architecture of the Soviet regime. This embodies, in its monumental brutalism, all the ambiguity of aesthetical perspectives and at the same time the seductive and terrifying feeling of compression they convey to our bodies. Today these buildings are testimonies of an historical memory, due to multiple attempts to comply with modern functions (TV broadcasting station, night club, etc.). The way Driant Zeneli films the architecture emphasizes their poetical potential, fueling not only the aesthetic of the modernist ruin, but even the décor, the narrative, and then downplays them, transforming these spaces into playgrounds and projections areas. As this architecture for the authoritarian power became the setting for the stories invented by both the artist and the children, the shadow of terror disappears.

Driant Zeneli, No Wise Fish Would Escape Without flying, HD Video, 07’10”, 2019, Courtesy of the artist

In No Wise Fish Would Escape Without Flying (2019), using the metaphor of the chase filmed between the fish and the shark, he travels the building. Using no special effects or sound overlays, he plays with the framing and the editing to generate a fictional and dramatic power, similar to the children’s story by which the narration is inspired.

Driant Zeneli, No Wise Fish Would Escape Without flying, HD Video, 07’10”, 2019.  Installation view, Gestus Act II: The assembly of actions, at Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, 2021. Ph. Matteo De Fina © Palazzo Grassi
Driant Zeneli, No Wise Fish Would Escape Without flying, HD Video, 07’10”, 2019, Courtesy of the artist

Flying is probably a frequent dream for a prisoner condemned to only go outside during surveilled walks in outdoor courtyards, during those rare moments in which the horizon opens up to vertical limitless perspectives. For twenty-one years, the Albanian prisoner Rilond Risto has pursued this dream, by tinkering with waste he found, assembling mechanical animals and attempting to fly them. After hearing his story, Zeneli contacted him and they built the second chapter of his trilogy on animals: How Deep Can a Dragonfly Swim Under the Ocean? (2021).  In the Tirana based film, in the deepest part of the Pyramid (a brutalist monument erected by his daughter as a mausoleum for Enver Hoxha), a dragonfly tries to fly away, to escape the long time it was held within the four walls of a cell. The narrative created begins from the visuals and the script read by the artist, who develops the story of the dragonfly trying to escape from the building from Rilond Risto’s confidences, while an octopus, drawn on the wall, will stay confined like the others before him.
The dragonfly struggles to flap its wings, as the former prisoner who should regain confidence in human society, after a confinement so long and violent that only gravity and guilt used to make his body alive. A twenty-one meters ascent awaits the dragonfly to free it from the depths, and let it swim free up to the bright surface of the ocean: it’s the metaphorical story of a man and of all the people striving to get back their lives after being deprived of them.

Driant Zeneli, How deep can a Dragonfly swim under the Ocean?, 4K video, 8’20’’, 2021. Installation view, Gestus Act II: The assembly of actions, at Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, 2021. Ph. Matteo De Fina © Palazzo Grassi

To tell stories by staging and mixing fictional and real elements results in a kind of performativity trespassing the field of representation. Driant Zeneli’s films are experiences which transform our way of looking at the places and the territories they’re embodying. They explore the theatricality of the real spaces and produce a scenic dimension inside of the exhibition, intimately connecting bodies and imaginaries. Intimate and personal sources mingle with theatrical devices to deconstruct and modify certain realities. He set them in a narrative framework, replenishing humans of their fragility, re-affirming their quest for freedom and their most utopical desires. Real space is used as a set, but not only places and their ability to present themselves as scenarios are part of the narration: there are also the memories inhabiting them and the emotions projected in them. The power of images is based on theatrical elements, in particular on that Brechtian distancing that Laura Lamonea has described, affirming the strangeness of places and actions as long as he connects them to individual and collective narrations in relation to the story.

Driant Zeneli, How deep can a Dragonfly swim under the Ocean?, 4K video, 8’20’’, 2021, Courtesy of the artist

Driant Zeneli’s work contributes to the necessary steps toward reappropriation of monumental architecture in the Balkan area, of which the hardness of the building materials and their impressive verticality are frequently associated with the excesses of Soviet regimes. If the power of images generated by these architectures results in a real dramatic charge, the sound atmosphere is equally important, and it takes its raw material form these uncultivated areas. We feel the deep breath of the derelict buildings growing our perception of anxiety, coming from the inside of these empty, imposing shapes. Nevertheless, in No Wise Fish Would Escape Without Flying, as the flying fish succeed in escaping the monument’s gates and the malevolent shadow of the shark, to arise from the top, that anxiety doesn’t immediately disappear. Seen from above, the roofs draw a welcoming sci-fi landscape, thanks to the organic shapes of the glass domes and the natural light reflected by the surfaces. However, the shark finds a track of the fish, which needs to decide whether to fly away, and cross the clouds, leaving behind an unsettling monument and a deflated shark. The flight becomes a journey and the sky a welcoming place. 

Mathilde Roman
Professor and art critic

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15 October 2021
15 January 2022

Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi

Curated by
Video Sound Art

Laura Lamonea
Chief curator

Thomas Ba
Junior curator

Daniela Amandolese

Francesca Mainardi

Lino Palena

Davide Francalanci
Editorial insights