On its current group show Budapest based Glassyard Gallery presents a new generation of abstractionist painters. They are all connected to the East-European tradition of Geometric Abstractionism and Modernism but the show poses a question: how they connected to each other? We met one of the artists exhibited, Genti Korini. He is from Tirana, Albania and belongs to a generation raised in a traumatized post-socialist society. Most of them wanted to leave the country. He also left but instead of heading to the West he ended up in Romania studying art. He attended the famous art university in Cluj for four years (1997-2000) and got solid foundations. His paintings are bold geometric explorations of shape, line, and colour. Referring to the turn-of-the-century art movements such as Constructivism, Suprematism, Genti’s works may remind the viewer of imagined Eastern Bloc architecture.
ap: First of all let me ask you about Cluj or Kolozsvár as we call it. One can see in your bio that you’ve studied there at the University of Art and Design. The “Cluj School” has a big reputation here, almost a cult status. How did you ended up studying there?
Genti Korini (G.K.): It happened by chance. By the time I’ve finished high school I had to make a decision. One thing was sure: out of Tirana, out of the country. I wanted to continue somewhere else but the direction was not certain. Which universities were available at that time? It was interesting. My parents suggested me to look for a scholarship in Romania and I picked Cluj by chance. I was not prepared at all and did not know anything about the city and that particular school. I might as well go to Bucharest but when I started to take language courses first in Cluj I kind of liked the city, liked the students. I saw the school, it’s in a park, and I liked it so I said, OK I stay here. Things became more serious because the school proved to be demanding. We practically stayed in our studios all day long until late hours. It was very nice. A kind of a comradeship between us students. I was there with people like Marius Bercea and Mircea Suciu, they later became known as members of the “Cluj School”. I chose painting department and it was all about painting really: we stayed in the studio experimenting. When I left school after four years and went back to Tirana I got somehow disconnected from those people and those practices. But at the same time I became a foreigner in both countries. In Romania I thought I fitted in pretty well. And in Tirana I was the guy who studied abroad and I did not feel I fit in.
ap: Four years is quite a long time…
G.K.: Yes, it defines you. When you are 18, those years are definitive. When I got back to Tirana painting was out of question. I mean all the curators, the foreign curators coming to Albania scouting East-European art, were not interested in painting and were looking for something else. In Tirana I saw very conservative, old fashioned and rather boring painters or young artists experimenting with new media. Nothing in between. So again, I felt I do not fit in. It took me some time to gain some confidence and say: OK it is still possible doing something interesting in the area of painting. After ten years I started to reestablish connections with the Romanian scene. I don’t see myself as a part of it but peripherally I am connected. And also in a subconscious way, you can see its hints in my paintings.
ap: When somebody takes a look at your paintings they are more abstract and they have more to do with the architecture. How did you develop your way of practice and way of painting?
G.K.: Back in Tirana I was experimenting with figurative painting too. But the reality of Tirana and Albania is totally different from the reality of other places. The way of the transition from a state-socialist country to a capitalist one was totally different. Not the same paradigm. The city was changing rapidly and it was all around you and into your face. So it was impossible not to acknowledge that. I tried to put it in my work as well but I did not want to do it very directly in a very visual, figurative way. It took me a while to move towards these abstract structures. I said to myself: these are going to be paintings because I want to refer to this traditional media conceptually and this is going to be non-figurative because I don’t want to represent images. After making these decisions I’ve started the process of building up these constructions referring to the hybridity of our society. It is connected to Modernism as well, which is very important in our country.
ap: So this Albanian modernist tradition is that you can relate to and connect yourself?
G.K.: The thing with Albania is very interesting. This is like adopting your grandfather. Psychologically you can’t “kill your father”, I mean when there are no traditions you have to borrow something. There is a missing tradition and as an artist you feel like an orphan. We never had famous artists, avantgarde artists in the seventies and not even in the modernist times. It is not like in Hungary where there were serious modernist artists, big names like Moholy-Nagy and later there was the neo-avantgarde generation. Not having these kind of figures you can either feel very frustrated or you can see it as an opportunity. I see it as an opportunity and I hijack your fathers and grandfathers. I felt free using the tradition of Modernism because it speaks a universal language and it is related to our societies.
ap: You were born in 1979, so you have memories from the time of the former regime. In Albania there was an extremely rude version of communist dictatorship. How do you handle this heritage? Did the political situation have any impact of your personal life?
G.K.: That was the most isolated country in the Eastern Bloc, we were the North-Korea of Europe, let’s say. You guys had a comfortable life here. We were the real deal. It was hardcore, no revisionism, no reforms, nothing. I have a faint memory of a parade on the main boulevard of Tirana, back in my childhood. I was there with my father. I felt and witnessed all the traumas my parents had when the system started to collapse. It was a rapture moment. All the values, hierarchies, economical, social structures, intellectual positions broke immediately. My father was a doctor, I remember seeing all these traumas on his face. We were kids. Now I can understand how hard it was for him not being sure what the future brings for the family and for him. How difficult it must have been trying to get in terms with what is happening. They wanted freedom but when it happens…What is this new thing? And then I saw the transition and that was one of the reasons why most of my generation went abroad after the high school. Italy, Germany on the first place, I was the “lucky one” who went to Romania. It could have been anywhere. The important thing was leaving and studying somewhere else.
ap: Romania also had its fair share of post-communist traumas…
G.K.: Yes, I came from a country with a trauma and went to another country with a trauma. I was like: what the hell am I doing here? I’ve heard the comments at home that I must be the unluckiest person in the World, leaving a country for many good reasons and going to a different country with exactly the same problems. It was a pretty depressing time. Sometimes you don’t choose the path of your life but now I see the point in it. The school, all the things I have learnt, the painting I do must be the reason why I was there.
ap: Is there any hint of the post-socialist past on your paintings? The viewer sees abstract structures on the canvas but somehow your background, your experience and even the place you are coming from must be there.
G.K.: If you happen to visit Tirana the first thing you are going to see is the colours. Many colours. Colourful geometric shapes. That was the strategy of our government or our people so to say to get rid of the communist heritage and sort of reinventing the urban landscape. Colouring is the easiest thing to do, an inexpensive way of changing the view. It was like an intervention. At first they used it everywhere and it became like a drug. Now we have the hangover and the city is trying to change things structurally and not just on the surface. My paintings, my compositions look solid but if you take a closer look you can’t be sure if these structures are developing or crumbling. These are fake solid sculptures on a painting. And I use colours that can be related to that part of the World.
ap: On the exhibition of Glassyard Gallery here in Budapest you are represented together with other abstract painters from the region. It appears as if there would be a new generation or a new wave of abstractionism here. Do you think it’s true? Do you have anything in common with all these artists?
G.K.: I knew the works of the others quite well. One of them is from Cluj, the other one is from Prague and we participated in a collective show in Berlin so this is not the first time for us to meet and present our works together. Maybe this is why Áron Fenyvesi the curator chose putting us in the same room. We come from different backgrounds but somehow our aesthetics and results have a common ground. I was surprised in a good way. This is interesting to see how these people coming from different places speaking the language of abstraction so it makes that we are in the same show. At the same time there are these differences when you have a closer look on the works and sense all those tiny brushes. You see the similarities and distances as well. Houdek is also using structures and geometry but he is very black and white, very graphical and multi layered. So you see your pals dealing with the same questions and issues. It’s fun.
ap: You were talking about the changing situation of painting: sometimes it is fashionable but sometimes it seems like an art form which is passé. Why do think it is? How do you see the position of painting now?
G.K.: I don’t know. Thanks God it’s a good time now for painting in general. Not sure how long. Talking about the contemporary art discourse sometimes painting seems to be repeating its vocabulary and probably the art world does not need that. It’s a sentence or paragraph coming into the story depending on how the story goes. We don’t have to be mad about it. I’m not a painting fan myself. I do love arts in general be it conceptual or performative. I love seeing it. I entered art through the door of painting and this is what I can do the best but I always love to see my artwork among works from other fields and don’t want to be the painter’s painter. I love painting but it’s problematic when you narrow it down only to its language. It has to be relevant.
ap: Unfortunately here in Hungary we don’t know too much about the Albanian contemporary art scene. We know some international names of course from Adrian Paci to Sislej Xhafa and Anri Sala and those who travel to Tirana are talking about exciting things but still there’s a lack of information. How would you describe your scene?
G.K.: I would say that this is a scene without almost all the elements of a proper scene, like big institutions, galleries, collectors, art magazines except for the artists and some spaces. But maybe this is the best situation for an individual, because you can be sure that you cannot remain a local artist, you must reach out and you must be international because there is no such thing as local art scene. This is why we have some established big names and emerging new artists as well. There’s a pressure on you that you must go ahead and make it out there. The local scene is not supportive so you cannot allow yourself to be comfortable or lazy. You have to move your ass. So when people ask how come that such artists like Anri Sala or Adrian Paci emerge from Albania, maybe this is the answer.
ap: Is the visual art community connected to other communities like literature or theatre people? Are there collaborations?
G.K.: We have connections on a personal level. Maybe I’m wrong but the visual art community is more emancipated, more critical thinking and less hierarchical. We know them but they don’t really know us, we read the books, see the performances and movies but I don’t think they are attending our openings. By the way I don’t really see too much interesting stuff in the theatre scene and in the literature. Visual arts are more challenging in Albania.
ap: It’s Tirana only or other cities can be named as well?
G.K.: When I talk about Albanian art I also talk about Kosovo now. So it’s mainly two cities: Tirana and Pristina. But it’s still very small. Not so much support from the institutions. The Academy of Fine Arts is still very conservative and problematic. The scene could have been bigger if the Academy is better and more liberal, open minded, inviting lecturers and embracing more people. But again: when the system is not supportive you have to do your work on your own and this situation pushes you to work harder and get further.
ap: We probably see our future in a way in the Albanian situation. The opposite happened here: we used to have a system, we used to have institutional background but this system is more and more dysfunctional. We must find new ways of working and reinvent ourselves again.
G.K.: We keep functioning despite this situation and these circumstances. Maybe this is a psychological syndrome. I think when people are ambitious they can work like a small community and things become possible. That’s the Albanian case. That’s my home even though I know that not too many people will respond to what I am doing so I have to see Albania as it is and trying to do things in other contexts as well. It’s better than waiting until my country becomes a real part of the art world.
ap: Do you think you’ll stay in Albania?
G.K.: I don’t know. I have one foot in and one foot out, since my university years. I’m based in Tirana, I have my friends there and I can work there, but I go wherever I have to. The governments will always be bad. It’s up to us how we handle the situation. We are loosing the political game, because it’s their game. The society has to develop irrespectively of governments and political parties. We should not have a university that is more corrupt than the government is. Though the people are tired of being better citizens and more active. They don’t care and the question is how to drag them out from this mindset. There is a kind of disappointment and anger because the idea of Europe did not prove to be the same as we imagined. The boomerang is coming back now and lots of people became more nationalist. But it’s not the fault of Europe, it’s our imagination that was false: Europe is not full of commodities. The Western society is more based on work ethics and productivity. Going out to the streets protesting can be important. But our resistance and fight should start on a personal level: we have to emancipate our universities, our theatres, our galleries, institutions, emancipate ourselves. I try to do it through my art.