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Berlin-based video artist Anri Sala first gained international recognition at the 1999 Venice Biennale while representing his native Albania. Since then, the reception for his work—haunting, documentary-style meditations on music’s place in shaping experience—has only grown. He’s now the subject of a career survey at the New Museum, where he met with us on the day Winter Storm Jonas hit to discuss the role that memory, history and architectural space plays in his work.
Your work seems to dwell on a sometimes surprising relationship between sound and place. In one piece, you actually hung a musician outside of a large building, while he played a sax solo.
Yes, the idea was to create tension by placing someone in a difficult situation—in this case, by suspending a musician outside an apartment building, 260 feet above the ground. While we made sure he was physically secure, we put him in a position where he would feel psychologically vulnerable. His only means of escaping the situation was to keep his mind occupied by continuously improvising the music.
The Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” plays a role in a couple of your videos. In one of them, a man is seen wandering around a city playing the tune on a music box, while another man and woman grind it out on a barrel organ. What’s the dynamic here?
That was shot in Bordeaux in France, but the dynamic you speak of isn’t between people; it’s between people and the building in the video, a music hall that closed in the 1990s. When it was active, it was a very important venue, historically, for promoting hard rock and punk music in France. I wanted to make the building relive its past through a song that had once been played there. Whenever the music played, the tune echoed off the building. And of course, it was very different from the Clash’s original version because it was played on an old-style music box and barrel organ. And in a way, doing so reverses the relationship between the present and past because the song is from the present while the instruments are associated with the past.
Are those kinds of historical resonances important to your work as a whole?
Yes. For instance, I was invited to create a video installation for the main hall of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. The place is huge and was built by the Nazis in accordance with Hitler’s preference for neoclassical aesthetics. The infamous “Degenerate Art” show had been exhibited there. It has a heavy background and acoustics to match. In the past, the architecture had been hidden behind fake walls, as though to conceal its history, but over time, the original design was revealed through renovations. I wanted to base my piece on music that would likewise reveal the space in another way, which is why I chose to use a composition by [Arnold] Schoenberg: It’s the type of thing that would have been banned from the Haus der Kunst when it was built.