Anri Sala: «My work is linked to this tension taking place between on-beat and off-beat within the architecture of syncopation»
The notion of Syncopation
Liminality can be intended as the condition of aperture towards the extraordinary, where an inescapable intrusion of an altering element within the regular sequence occurs, leading to a new state as a result. And while it may appear a priori as a manipulation in the flux of the real, this transitional period constitutes an intentional organic process that disrupts the present to make it actual. This approach and perspective can be ascribed to the syncopation phenomenon, which in musical terms is an effect that interferes or perturbs the proper harmonic stream of a passage within a composition. «Syncopation is a rhythmical displacement that relates on the on-beat and off-beat. Often, culturally, we take pleasure from the on-beats, while the off-beat are moments when you detach from the rhythm and you open up a space of potential. My work is linked to this tension taking place between on-beat and off-beat within the architecture of syncopation. It is about not being necessarily on the beat: usually, it is way more difficult to stay out of it, and it is interesting how the beat might resist the beat itself. In the interval from rhythm, an alternative space intervenes. Syncopation includes both on-beat and off-beat; it contains two opposite states». Although this notion has its metaphorical significance, it can be detected in a palpable form in the artist’s works as his pieces are embedded in the context of music and its frequencies. Specifically, for one of his latest projects titled Time No Longer, two separated musical episodes between which approximately fifty years elapse engage into dialogue through an attentive orchestration.
Anri Sala Time No Longer
Time No Longer is a large-scale immersive installation in which sound and film are the main media. Along with them, its receiving architectural structure, the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern (Houston, TX), takes on a vital role by operating as both venue – and, therefore, the container of the intervention – and an agent impacting its execution. The subject of the exhibition is a film revealing a turntable floating in a zero-gravity space station with no apparent human presence involved. A vinyl plays, and thanks to what seems to be its own intelligence, the stylus moves away from one spot on the record and lands on another in a dancing attitude. This action enlivens the soundtrack itself, triggering and ceasing the music path. From its emplacement, this ambiguously spirited record player witnesses the daily succession of sunrises and sunsets. In the glow of its hovering performativity, two musical undertones intertwine. They let the idea of syncopation emerge and bestow a tangible impression upon it. On one side is an arrangement of Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen. Sala selected the piece due to the narrative and emotional value underpinning its realization. During World War II, Messiaen was, in fact, captured and confined in a prisoner of war camp. While imprisoned, he wrote the composition. For Time No Longer, the artist feels an attraction to the quartet’s only solo movement, titled The Abyss of the Birds, written for clarinet and played by the composer’s prison comrade Henri Akoka. On the other, the echo of a saxophone is present as a reference to Ronald McNair. In 1986 McNair, astronaut and professional saxophonist, had the vision to play and record the instrument’s solo while aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. It would have been the first-ever original piece of music recorded in space. The expedition had a dramatic culmination, leading not only to the disappearance of all those involved in the mission, but also to the impossibility of accomplishing the pioneering intent. Sala, therefore, gives shape to an unfulfilled wish, incorporating the voice of this second instrument by re-envisaging The Abyss of the Birds. The composition acts as a phantasmatic presence of an event that never took place by generating a musical exchange between two voices that, nonetheless, are not meant to set up a duet in the classical sense.
Lampoon in conversation with Anri Sala
«I was not interested in making happen in the film what it did not in reality. In this case, I thought about what could have been the soundtrack of an intention: better, an unrealized intention. That is what I searched for. Also, the link between the events I put into dialogue is the condition of being isolated in space. The turntable is the prisoner of a technological system able to sustain it but at the same time perceived as a very fragile state – being in zero gravity so far away from everything – and then the vulnerability and precariousness of a man incarcerated in a POW camp. It is about losing traction towards your will. Then, I wanted to recall in a ghostly way the presence of McNair and his saxophone; that is why the work has been centered on finding a way to rearrange Messiaen’s piece for two parts. It is not merely about a duet. It is more about the idea that one instrument might be perceived as the refraction of the other in space. Two voices are present, and the interval or exchange between them activates a form of empathy: empathy requires at least two subjects to exist. It had to do with how to convey and bring empathy without necessarily being overwhelmed by a feeling of dramatic loneliness», explains the artist. Empathy is an element that threads its way through various layers of this work. It unravels between the two musical events, the artist and the musicians to whom he pays tribute, and between the spectator and the stylus, hence between a human and a non-human presence. The absence of a human figure as the subject of the film augments its resonance because the lacking fuels a longing for something that is not visible. This void is made tangible since human sensibility is projected into the stylus so that a non-verbal but empathic communication unfolds. The stylus is not in control of its existence; it is at the mercy of zero gravity. Its drift seems so emotionally driven to enable a state of sharing and communality with human behavior. The film depicts a continuous negotiation of a will within the impossible, exposing poetic parallelism with a high and ineluctable conception of the human condition. A mechanism of specularity among living beings and inanimate bodies is implemented under the gravitational pull to which the vinyl is subjected, or better in relation to the fluttery environment in which it is enacted. Gravity itself conveys a sense of familiarity and propulsion towards a hospitable landscape. It is a force of habit and recognition that holds the individual anchored within a specific frame of society or time through an inevitable attraction. In its being an apparent catalyst of belonging, it stands as source identification. Albeit being a sound-based project, as are others by the artist, such dynamics do come even more to the fore during the moments of silent stillness featured in the video. Within Time No Longer venue’s space, silence turns into a permeable entity by absorbing the reverbs of the music being played and thus carrying the sound in the digestion process. Therefore, it is not to be understood as the counterpart of noise but rather as a rhythm and the phase of articulation of a tone duration.
The difference between manipulation and intention
In Sala’s practice we find a reflection around the momentum of experience, conceived as a whole with his projects’ display or structural apparatus. By choreographing and interlacing media of dissimilar natures, one language blends into the other. At the core of such a disposition is a sense of tension: the adoption of one medium as a means of stretching the boundaries of another, so that one might in a way embody unfamiliar or external qualities of what, at least in terms of form, does not belong to it and unlock its scope. In addition to an overture in the combination of disciplines, it exists a concern towards what can be construed as the canons of perception, narrative, and interpretation. Experience, in this regard, appears to function as the point of a possible breach, a collision, even if not perforce violent, with the existing criteria in which the audience is channeled. According to the influence of culture, society and personal background, these tenets might regulate and conduct reactions in a predefined model. «There is a history of how people relate to media and codes already embedded in these media. In that sense, the experience of the audience is something that could be manipulated. As an artist, I try to detach from those codes; these are something I do not want to embrace, perhaps. Manipulation means that whatever is the viewer’s subjectivity, by using certain codes and means of narration, there is an aim towards a response, a result, an impact. It does not mean that intention doesn’t take place. There is the border between intending and manipulating. With intention, you make choices. I am more working on the intention. It allows and opens up the autonomy of the viewers. I can say that it is about questioning the experience, meaning producing experience through the artistic intervention and at the same time cleaning experience from all the triggers that are rooted in the codes». This kind of perspective contributes to the idea of keeping the artist’s projects vibrant as if they were organisms with a pulse and a breath. Sala composes his works as a composer with a piece of music. Unusually tuning pre-existing elements of reality to transfigure it and thereby uncover new edges. The very principle of composition somehow pertains to the artist’s practice. On the one hand, it is intrinsically tied to the used media; on the other empowers a generative attempt to develop alternative angles: «in a way composition is about gathering the conditions that are going to have an altering impact on what has already been heard, and uniting the events from a previous time or state so to imprint them on the present», states Sala; suggesting, perhaps that memory should leave traces disposed to turn themselves into next steps.
Anri Sala artist
Anri Sala (b. 1974) is an Albanian artist currently based in Berlin. He attended the National Academy of Arts, Tirana; at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; and at Le Fresnoy, Studio National des Arts Contemporains in Tourcoing. Sala is a multi-media artist primarily renowned for combining video, sculptural installations, architecture and sound with his interventions. The performative and experiential characters play a leading role in his practice. He explores and questions language with a synaesthetic approach to generate new understandings of reality and its narratives. Sala took part in a number of group exhibitions and biennials, including the 12th Havana Biennial (2015), the Sharjah Biennial 11 (2013), he represented France at the 55th Venice Biennale, Italy (2013), the 9th Gwangju Biennale (2012), documenta (13) (2012), the 29th São Paulo Biennial (2010), the 2nd Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art (2007), and the 4th Berlin Biennial (2006). His solo exhibitions have been held at internationally recognized venues. Among others, the Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2021); Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, Houston (2021); Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy (2019); the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2012); The Serpentine Gallery, London (2011); The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (2008); and the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan (2005).