“You are one in a melon”: consumable myths hitting the ground with a splat in the work of Driton Selmani
Driton Selmani (b. 1987) is a Kosovo-born and based artist working across a variety of interdisciplinary media. His work includes photography, performances, illustrations, sculptures and interventions in public space, works that take different forms, but are underlined by the desire to deconstruct and question the idea of given reality. Selmani often uses the frame of Kosovo as a means to enter this discussion, as a space on which various identities have been imposed by insiders and outsiders in the past and present. The lived reality of these fluxuating identities and narratives forms questions that are also applicable to many other realities, especially a Europe questioning itself amidst issues of migration, xenophobia and populism.
Selmani’s practice does not provide a solution to these issues, but rather seeks to emphasise the lack of a certain answer behind them. Reality in this sense implies a given, static history, a concept that is especially problematic in the shifting historical space of Kosovo, but also is relevant to a European Union questioning and often undermining its basic values. Underlining all of this is the idea of given concepts and descriptors as inadequate to encompass the shifting times and spaces of the present. These concepts often manifest in the forms of myths, stories and symbols.
Selmani’s early works are underscored by a sense of looming imposed values that find their place in myths, especially that of capitalism. In They say you can’t hold two watermelons in one hand (2012), Selmani is framed in the centre of the photograph in a pose of intense concentration. Half his body split by a metal fence, half embraced by the mountainous landscape, he looks downward while attempting to balance two watermelons in one hand. The title comes from an old Albanian quote, a saying meant to describe one’s inability to be in two places at one time, while the work was enacted in the climate of a newly independent Kosovo. After the 1999 war and a period of intense international supervised governance, Kosovo declared independence in 2008, still under supervision that officially ended in 2012 but remains heavily present to this day in the form of NGOs, embassies and prescribed guidelines for joining the European Union.
They say you can’t hold two watermelons in one hand, 2012
C-Print on aluminium, 150×100 cm, Kunstraum Niederösterreich, Vienna
They say you can’t hold two watermelons in one hand was inspired in part by the phenomena of capitalism deeply infiltrating the space of post-independent Kosovo. One curious manifestation of this was that, as part of the transition process into an independent country, Kosovo citizens were encouraged by the international community to promote and brand themselves as “Kosovars” or “Kosovans”. This issue is complex for a number of reasons, including the intertwining identities of Kosovo and Albania, physically looming in the form of countless Albanian flags spread across a variety of spaces in Kosovo, as well as the broader neoliberal idea of needing to compartmentalise and package one’s identity for consumption. In a way, the work seems to be mocking the viewer: “you can’t have it all”. Straddling a border between two very interconnected countries, balancing (small and probably unripe) summer fruit in the middle of the winter, Selmani playfully teases the viewer into questioning how the allure of digestible forms of identity functions as a means of control, suppression and sale.
Untitled Union, 2012
Collage textile cut from flags, handcrafted scythe tale
Installation view: Ludwig Múzeum, Budapest
Archaeology of Capitalism, 2012 – Present
12×12 cm photographic prints
These questions are also present in works such as Untitled Union (2012), a ragged red flag sewn from scraps of other flags and leaning sadly against a white wall, and the Archaeology of Capitalism photo series (2012-present), which documents forlorn little scraps of advertising, consumption and the overall promise of a better life amidst uneasy and gloomy environments in Kosovo. Both works provide glimpses of potential utopias, from national unity to a wide array of consumer options, buckling under the light of day.
These ideas are developed further in later works that continue to explore the relationship of myth to lived experience. Romeo (2015); Call it fate, call it karma (2015); and The importance of being a fairytale (2015) are all uncanny objects that recall mythical stories. The first consists of a paint-roller handle with inserted tree branches, the second is a single shoe holding two ghostly legs in yellow trousers, while the last is a taxidermy fox attached to electronic devices, hanging from the wall. Together, all of these pieces recall ancient Greek and Roman myths and characters, supposedly timeless tropes that underline the pitfalls of human nature, but with twists that both reference this universality and dismantle it.
Blackthorn branches, plastic grip, 140 cm wide, 70 cm high
Installation view: Tulla Culture Center, Tirana
Writing about Romeo when it was originally displayed at Tulla Center for Culture (Tirana, 2015), Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei suggests that the handle with branches recalls the faeces, a weapon carried by the bodyguards of Roman magistrates, connected in this instance to the story of Romeo and Juliet through the work’s name. Gerven Oei wonders about the contemporary parallels to the original tragedy with Albanian political drama, an arena also full of deception and intrigue. Returning back to the object itself, it is once dangerous in that it recalls a more deadly weapon of treachery that could play a part in the extreme end of this drama, but it is also comical. Try to stab an enemy with a weapon of thin branches and it will most likely break into pieces on his chest. Romeo turns into both a comment on the connections to present reality within the scheme of supposedly universal tropes, but deals with the mendacity of how this actually unfolds in real life. Weapons are made from what is available, they easily break and there is no love interest to impress. In the end we just have broken twigs.
Call it fate, call it karma, 2015
Handcrafted shoe, trousers, 140 cm wide, 220 cm high
Installation view: Tulla Culture Center, Tirana
The same can be said of Call it fate, call it karma, which Gerven Oi connects to the tale of Oedipus, in which as an infant, the protagonists’ ankles were impaled and lashed together to limit movement. The physical object is a pair of bright yellow trousers with both legs stuffed into one shoe, which, like Romeo, evokes feelings of pain and futility upon first glance. Eternal and fruitless struggles for power that may seem dignified, or at least valiant, in their original myth become deflated, made flimsy. What is the reality of power? Bloated shoes and blistery feet rather than the eternal truth of a noble hero.
Red tape, 2018
Public Space Intervention. Printed textile flag, 600×400 cm
This idea of fragmentation of power is developed in Selmani’s later works, especially Red tape (2018). The work is a public spatial intervention in which, without official permission, Selmani replaced the national flag located in the main district of Prishtina with a red and yellow “offside” flag. Selmani positions the flag as an object laden with symbolism, especially as a tool for shaping the organisation of nations, societies and cultures. Its function varies based on context, shifting from a means of surrender, to a strategy of victory, to a way to connect cultures and countries to ripe marketing potentials just waiting to be harvested. Underlying all of this is the connection of the flag in sports games: a tool for a variety of maneuverers, but at the bottom of everything, a symbol involved in a game. The specific choice of an “offside” flag is particularly important, because an “offside” occurs when a member of one team is standing on the side of the opposite team; their teammate passes the ball, but there is no defender from the other team between this player and the goal. It implies power plays, fickle but fundamental rules and team loyalties.
Red tape, 2018
Public space violation fine, issued by The Municipal Inspection Department
In the context of Kosovo, flag games have unfolded, like the aforementioned tragi-comic sculptures, in a messy situation that is greatly different from the clean representations of their idealised symbols. Likewise, an idealisation of reality is used to poke cracks in reality itself, especially in a situation of a post-independent country that has endured intense debate over the graphic image of its new flag and continues to connect with and publically present the Albanian flag. Ideas of consuming and packaging identity mingle with the existential question of what kind of identity Kosovo wants for itself amidst a historic juncture in which it must choose whether it really wants to position itself towards European Union membership and all this entails. Echoing this is the broader European struggle with self-definition, especially amidst populism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the immense cracks in the ideal of EU membership in this day and age.
Upon hearing of Selmani’s gesture, Shpend Ahmeti, Prishtina’s mayor, remarked, “This morning, I’ve been notified that the National flag at the ‘roundabout’ was removed by unknown persons, and replaced with the Offside flag. The National flag will come back, but I have to say that somehow I’m glad that such a thing has been said in this way.” Perhaps we should also be somehow glad. Perhaps this “somehow” can include the murky implications of not only life played out in power struggles, but the wider potential of artistic gestures in disrupting the many fantasies projected on daily life.
Selmani’s practice continues to evolve across media, but it is underlined by the desire to pull back this screen of fantasy and take apart myths rooted in locality, timelessness, new world order and cultural particularities. On the one hand, clean reality becomes fragmented by a sense of dark unease, while on the other, this creates a feeling of hope that acknowledging the shortfalls that underlie the expectations of daily, national and cultural life is a means to create dialogue and meaningful change. Looking at both hands, all we can really see is the sticky residue from our vain attempts to hold the watermelons before they hit the ground with a wet splat.