“All artists are alike,” Dan Graham once said. “They all dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.” Few contemporary artists, however, have followed this desire to act outside the narrow confines of the art world as far as Edi Rama who, since 2013, has held the unusual day job of prime minister of Albania. Rama began his artistic career in Albania during the repressive regime of Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha and continued it in Paris after communism collapsed. He returned to Tirana in the late 1990s when he was asked to serve as the Albanian minister of culture, a position he held for two years. He subsequently spent more than a decade as the mayor of Tirana, during which time he notoriously had the facades of buildings around the city painted in a range of bright colors and patterns—a move that suggested, simultaneously, an artist’s utopian belief in the transformative power of aesthetics and a pragmatist’s acknowledgment that the government’s insufficient resources would allow for only cosmetic changes.
The works included in Rama’s exhibition at Marian Goodman, his first major solo show in the United States, don’t explicitly take up politics. Instead, they reflect on his double vocation as an artist-politician. The presentation revolved around a series of drawings that Rama began to make when he took office as mayor, covering the memos and daily schedules that came across his desk in candy-colored biomorphic abstractions. As he described in the show’s press release, the process of allowing his hand to wander while he considered matters of state gave him a sense of meditative clarity: “I began to understand that my subconscious was being helped or fed by my hand to stay calm while my conscious had to focus on demanding topics and help me avoid mistakes of misjudgment through shallow concentration.”
Rama’s drawing falls somewhere between haphazard doodling—though it is more visually impressive than that of the average bureaucrat—and Surrealist automatism. In one example, an intricate, mosaiclike composition in marker sweeps across a printout of Rama’s schedule from February 1, 2013, its lower edge curving around some handwritten notes jotted at the bottom of the page. In another, a creaturely hybrid loosely recalling the form of a rearing horse covers a letter from what seems to be, according to my results on Google Translate, the Albanian Miners’ Union. Other drawings served as the basis for a collaboration with Anri Sala, Rama’s former student at the Academy of Arts in Tirana; on the verso of crayon drawings by Rama, Sala added his own colored-pencil responses, selectively echoing Rama’s forms. The final pieces were displayed in frames that projected out from one wall of the gallery at oblique angles, so that they could be viewed from both sides. Rama’s drawings appeared in another guise in the show, as printed wallpaper covering half of one room in the gallery. Originally commissioned for his ministerial office in Tirana, the wallpaper extracts the drawings from their original paperwork supports, allowing them to float freely across the wall, but fragments of text hinting at those supports occasionally remain visible. In the center of the same room were several small ceramic sculptures that Rama loosely based on his drawings. These pieces are placed on specially designed white bases that match their irregular contours, giving the impression that they are sprouting organically from the floor.
Marian Goodman’s New York gallery is a block away from Trump Tower; getting there now requires navigating a maze of police barricades. Perhaps that’s partly why, while walking through the exhibition, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Albania is one of Europe’s poorest countries and is plagued with rampant corruption. Rama is, by all accounts, a committed, progressive politician. However, in emphasizing his own interiority at the office rather than the political struggles he grapples with there, the exhibition came uncomfortably close to suggesting that his ministerial duties are most interesting as an aesthetic prompt. Rama’s drawings are compelling because they come from the desk of Albania’s highest official as he contemplates his nation’s future, but that same fact is also what makes viewing them framed on the walls of a Manhattan gallery feel perverse.