Memento mori project #1, Tirana, Villa Hoxha 2005.
Memento mori project #1, Tirana, Villa Hoxha 2005.

by Joa Ljungberg

The Memento Mori-motif (in the form of a cranium or a skeleton holding a scythe) is often encountered in the history of arts, as a reminder of the impermanence of life. The Stockholm-based artist Henrik Eriksson, has appropriated this motif in his travelling art project: The Memento Mori Project, dealing with architecture and city planning.

When arriving to Tirana, Eriksson first had to choose a building to work with. To make up his mind he studied how people in Tirana relate to and felt about the architecture that surrounded them. Quite soon he realized that any choice of building would inevitably be a politically loaded choice and that subsequently his work, when realised in the context of Tirana, would become a political work of art.

Accepting this condition and (as any foreign visitor) being quite curious about the resent history of the place, Eriksson chose to work with the former residency of Enver Hoxha, a building that appears to house too many memories and associations to be appropriated by and identified with something different than its Communist past. In fact the Villa Hoxha could be said to exist in a state of limbo, no longer the seat of power it used to be, however not yet freed from its past identity as such.

During the days that followed, Eriksson built a miniature model of the Villa Hoxha in balsa wood. When finished he invited the audience to Charle’s Bistro, a recently established and frequently visited bar, located just opposite Villa Hoxha. Here he carefully burnt the model in a controlled way but to the point of being completely charred, and offered it as a Memento Mori of architectural transience.

Below follows an interview with Henrik Eriksson made by Joa Ljungberg, curator of the May edition of 1/60 insurgent space:

JL: In Tirana you built a wooden model of Villa Hoxha which you then burned. One could imagine this act to be quite aggressive and violent; however, in fact you took great care not to damage the model too much. What did this act of burning mean to you and in what way could the charred model be said to serve as a Memento Mori?

HE: A simulation of aggression means aggression but isn't aggressive. I want the border between idea and action to be very clear. Maybe it's perverted to fantasize about destruction: "Don't even think about it", someone might say. "Remember you're lethal", I would reply.

JL: To arrive in a city for the first time, and being expected to realise a new work during a very limited period of time, must have been quite challenging. How did you approach this task?

HE: Well, I tried to approach the task with humour and playfulness. I thought of myself as being Sol Le Witt assigned to make a wall drawing. Fifth sentence on Conceptual Art: "Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically."

JL: Does this project relate at all to your earlier art works or does it rather come out of your interest in architecture and city planning?

HE: Maybe that's up to someone else to say. My works usually have a character of artificial wilderness and they take place in a border area where the well known and well ordered meet with unexpected and randomized processes. I believe this is true also for this work and I also think you might find a similarity in how I combine different materials. Here architecture and fire serve as two colours on the palette.

JL: It is for quite some time that you have developed your ideas for the “Memento Mori Projects” and in the future you intend to realise more of them, in different places. Can you tell us a bit more about your idea and how it first came about?

HE: My first sketch of a burned down model was born out of a physical context I really disliked. I was asked to make a public piece, but my proposal of an almost full scale burned down model was turned down. I'm quite happy with that as it kind of liberated the idea and made me think about every place as a potential place to burn down. For real - yes, but more interesting: as a simulation. "Fake it 'til you make it", however, sometimes the fake is good enough.

I've also had the idea of performing simulations of aggression and violence for some time. I believe the background of this idea being an interest in evil as something very abstract and distant in our society. This distance is a charecteristic of the "risc society" (U.Beck), in which "we can no longer speak Evil", as Baudrillard puts it in his essay Whatever happened to Evil?. On a personal level this means that anxiety is no longer caused by a confrontation with evil, but rather constitutes a consequence of that aggressions in our time has become intangible.

JL: In Tirana you were not only interested in Villa Hoxha, but also considered working with the head quarter of the secret police. What was it that made these two buildings particularly interesting candidates for your “Memento Mori Project?”? And what finally made you chose Villa Hoxha?

HE: You can probably find a reason to burn down most building, but I got interested in the invisibility of the secret police building and the ambiguity of the Villa Hoxha. Then I was looking for a reason, a situation and a good story to puzzle the final piece together. The limbo character of the Villa Hoxha got it all. It is situated in the former closed area of government buildings, which now is a centre of nightlife in Tirana. One part of the building is heavily guarded, while the opposite side hosts a café. Taking photographs seemed prohibited even though most visitors must be passing to get a curious glimpse of the building.

For me it was also important that the piece could be shown in a bar that represents the new power/economy, but that at the same time offered a view of the Villa. As a sculpture I like to view the piece as a memorial of an event that didn't occur some 15 years ago; namely of the fact that this house and many other signs of the former dictatorship weren’t destroyed. It is difficult to be proud of something that hasn't been done, but in this case I hope the citizens of Tirana are.

JL: Since your performance, the charred model has been exhibited next to a grand model showing the Tirana City Council’s ambition of how the Albanian capital shall look in 20 years from now. What interested you with this juxtaposition?

HE: The grand model of what might be, next to my almost ridiculous model of what might have been, strengthens, I believe, the element of dreaming in both models. The gap in-between these models is wide enough for anyone to make up her own vision. I also found it interesting how in the French model, historically interesting buildings like the Villa Hoxha, are included but made anonymous.

JL: Did you receive any responses from the audience that you found particularly interesting?

HE: I didn't have very much time talking to the audience but I'm happy that I got very direct questions, such as "Why are you doing this?" and "Why did you choose this building?". Most people also seemed to understand my non-event memorial idea.

JL: How do you imaging that the Memento Mori Projects will vary when realised in different places?

HE: I’m not sure I could answer this, but I can mention that I'm currently planning a “Memento Mori Project” in Stockholm. Instead of five days of active research and only a few days for building a model, I can here rely on ten years of experience of tendencies in the city, and I have plenty of time making the model as big and detailed as I wish. The story of the Stockholm project has its background in the rebuilding of Stockholm’s city centre in the mid 20th century, which caused a widespread anxiety directed towards modernist buildings and rebuildings.