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Concrete in Common
 

Concrete in Common

At the Kunst Raum Riehen, an exhibition explores the past, present and future of Albania's bunkers, a symbol currently being questioned and reinterpreted by a new generation of artists and architects.

 

News / Vera Sacchetti

Upon entering the gallery space of Kunst Raum Riehen, a step away from renowned Basel institution Fondation Beyeler, a myriad of tiny terracota bunkers, spread out in regular intervals on the floor, stares at the visitor in a semi-accusatory, semi-vigilant way. Their stare is at first disturbing. A few minutes later, it seems normal, and eventually — perhaps because the terracota is almost the same colour as the wooden floor — the bunkers disappear from sight.

It is with sleight of hand that curators Niku Alex Muçaj and Elian Stefa perform this trick at the entrance of the new exhibition Concrete in Common: Albania's Bunker Legacy, where the gesture evokes both the ubiquitous presence of this fortification in Albania, and the the indifference with which the people face it. After Albania dictator Enver Hoxha's massive fortification of the country in the second half of the 20th century, Albania had hundreds of thousands of bunkers dotting its landscape, from hills and beaches to mountains and fields.

Such a fortification campaign reflected the dictator's (and the country's) progressive isolation from the rest of the world. As the leader of the Albanian Labour Party, Hoxha nurtured a particular brand of communism, which lead him to progressively break ties with Yugoslavia, the USSR and China, and finally withdrawing from the Warsaw Treaty organization. After this, the dictator declared "all other governments the enemy — which Albania would fight, and win," and proceeded to fortify the country in between the years of 1967 and 1986, ignoring advice of military experts, in what can only be described as a folly.

Top: A film still of the <em>Concrete Mushrooms Documentary</em>, on display at <em>Concrete in Common</em>, Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Above: A portrait of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. Photos by Xheni Alushi

Top: A film still of the Concrete Mushrooms Documentary, on display at Concrete in Common, Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Above: A portrait of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. Photos by Xheni Alushi


Concrete in Common does tell this story to the visitor — in a replica of an Albanian living room of the regime years complete with period furniture, no less — and proceeds to assess the impact of the bunker, as a physical and metaphysical symbol. "Albania's bunkers are a legacy of a paranoid past, permanent reminders of where the country comes from and the challenges that lie ahead," state the curators. "Most of them remain, in a very real and dense territorial occupation: still waiting, somehow or at some point, to be used or destroyed." The exhibition follows this leap into the present with a series of explorations by a new generation of artists and architects. "From a symbol of isolation to a new vehicle for social change, the projects on display clearly define an increasing realization of the impact and interest that these bunkers hold," continue Muçaj and Stefa.

<em>Concrete in Common</em> installation view at the Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Xheni Alushi

Concrete in Common installation view at the Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Xheni Alushi

Despite the fact that many of these bunkers are currently actively being destroyed by the population in order to recycle the steel armature within them, a number of projects encourages the re-use and repurposing of these structures. One example is the Concrete Mushrooms project, a web-based platform which seeks to act as a catalyst for the re-use of these structures, mainly for tourism, contributing to this growing sector of Albanian economy. Connected to the Concrete Mushrooms project but with a different approach, Niku Alex Muçaj's Konverskenë/Converscene overthrows three bunkers to create a stage outside an art centre in the Albanian capital, Tirana Ekspres. A symbol of repression becomes a symbol of expression, and Muçaj's poignant Kaba nga Ethem Qerimi [Kaba by Ethem Qerimi] video, where illustrious octogenarian Albanian violinist Ethem Qerimi stands on the Konverskenë/Converscene stage playing an intricate tune, is a particularly poetic addition to the exhibition.

 
Despite the fact that many of these bunkers are currently actively being destroyed by the population in order to recycle the steel armature within them, a number of projects encourages the re-use and repurposing of these structures
 
<em>Concrete in Common</em> installation view at the Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Alicja Dobrucka

Concrete in Common installation view at the Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Alicja Dobrucka


The exhibition marks Muçaj and Stefa's first chance to curate an exhibition together on a subject they both have been actively working on for some years, and is a pit stop to the Venice Architecture Biennale. Here, Stefa is curator at large of the Albanian Pavilion, where these and other bunker re-use projects will make an appearance, in what Stefa deems "an awakening to the re-use of military structures in Albania". Simultaneously, the Concrete Mushrooms project has recently been published in book format. "All of these initiatives seek to raise awareness, both at a national level and, with the Venice Biennale, at an international architecture community level," says Stefa. "Transforming the bunkers is the next step." Vera Sacchetti (@verasacchetti)

Niku Alex Muçaj, <em>Kaba nga Ethem Qerimi</em> [Kaba by Ethem Qerimi], on display at <em>Concrete in Common</em>, Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Alicja Dobrucka

Niku Alex Muçaj, Kaba nga Ethem Qerimi [Kaba by Ethem Qerimi], on display at Concrete in Common, Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Alicja Dobrucka


Through 7 September 2012
Concrete in Common: Albania's Bunker Legacy
Kunst Raum Riehen
Basel, Switzerland

Alicja Dobrucka, <em>Mapping Bunkers</em>, on display at <em>Concrete in Common</em>, Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Xheni Alushi

Alicja Dobrucka, Mapping Bunkers, on display at Concrete in Common, Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Xheni Alushi


Detail of a typical Albanian living room of the dictatorship period, on display at <em>Concrete in Common</em>, Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Xheni Alushi

Detail of a typical Albanian living room of the dictatorship period, on display at Concrete in Common, Kunst Raum Riehen, Basel. Photo by Xheni Alushi