(Over)Identification by Maja Ćirić
Inextinguishable Stars by Raino Istro
THE CAT ABOVE AND THE MOUSE BELOW
The poet Aesop describes in his Fables an unequal war between cats and mice. The latter try to organise their physical weakness by military appearance, but fail because of the forces of the cats. They are eaten.
The US animated television series Tom & Jerry, produced for the cinema between 1940 and 1967, focuses primarily on a duel between tomcat Tom and house mouse Jerry. Through their bizarre, brutal chases and miniature wars, however, it’s usually the little mouse who gets the upper hand here. We see this too in the video clip the cat above and the mouse below, presented by Olson Lamaj in continuous loop. This is an exciting transfer of action from the private sphere to the place of maximum sophistication, the opera house. Tom appears as an opera singer attempting to perform a ambitious aria, but is hampered by Jerry and eventually replaced by him. The small, weak mouse Jerry finally shines as an opera star, while Tom must endure his singing from under the stage floor.
What would these stories look like in the real world outside the theatre? Who would be the little mouse, who is the big, strong tomcat of our time? Who stands on the stage and who is under the stage floor?
When the artist was walking through Vienna in 2017, he inevitably stumbled upon a local phenomenon: throngs of young men dressed as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, standing in front of Vienna's landmarks and trying to sell concert tickets, mainly to tourists. He began to get to know these men, who were mostly Albanians from Kosovo. In these conversations, he not only came to understand the harsh reality of life in Vienna for most students, but also their incredible cultural awareness, their linguistic sensitivity and their communicative abilities. One of them, Artan, a young man from Kosovo, mentioned the first time he encountered classical music: in the film series Tom & Jerry, which used to be shown on Albanian television.
At the exhibition, these ticket vendors are now talking to a new audience. The fact that they speak many different languages does not necessarily mean that they themselves have a language. If they could really talk, who would listen to them? At what stage do you hear their thoughts? Are they cats or mice in the globalised tourism precariat?
Lamaj subtly explores these questions within the tourism industry: an industry characterised by mass consumption and exploitation, especially by the large abbreviations - abbreviations of complex cultural phenomena and systems, which shrink in the international fluctuation to pure symbols. Just like Tom and Jerry on the traditional opera stage, much of the world struggles to get along with Western, Eurocentric ideas of taste, art, and culture. Of course, not even Vienna lives up to these ideas.
Now to a completely different stage: a church in the Albanian Shkodra.
In his installation magical palace, Lamaj examines the transformation of this church into a sports palace during the communist regime. During religious eras, a person preached from the stage to the masses, while in secularised times the masses celebrated themselves in a cult of the body. In both cases, a community was organised.
Lamaj is less concerned with a comparison than he is with the decontextualisation of the symbolic level on which the two systems operate. Thus not only are ornamental structures hybridised, but actual symbols are transformed too. Gymnastic rings hang from the ceiling in his room installation. Their luminous circles inevitably recall attributes of the saints. Do the martyrs of sport achieve inner enlightenment?
Let’s go back to the beginning. In Aesop's Fables, the mice try to organise. They disguise themselves as generals and go into battle. But cats still defeat them. Due to their heavy and unwieldy costumes, many of the mice can no longer escape behind their protective ramparts and are killed.
Olson Lamaj is not so much interested in the winning cats, as in the efforts of the weaker mice. His work is not about the portrayal of one or the other; instead, it is a multi-layered depiction of how their realities and their representation are entangled.
In his art practice, the artist devotes himself not only to these phenomena of social life, but also to national cultural structures and how these phenomena are intertwined in the interplay between daily life and superordinate systems. All power structures work at both the macro and micro scales. In the end, neither cats nor mice—neither Tom nor Jerry—are self-determined individuals; rather they are players of an opaque game whose rules we can only decipher piece by piece.
Text by: Markus Waitschacher, Curator