ALEX FISHER MODIFYING BRILLIANCE: DRITON SELMANI AT KAHÁN ART SPACE
Curator and writer Alex Fisher reviews Driton Selmani’s survey exhibition, which presents a selection of works from different series in the foundation’s gallery and the public realm. With a penchant for the uncanny and a cunning engagement of subversive poetics, the artist addresses existential concerns on local and global scales.
The lofty title of Driton Selmani’s solo show at Kahán Art Space in Vienna belies the dubious circumstances encountered therein. That title, Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant, exudes collective satisfaction, acting like a sap that coats the works on view.
Curated by Hana Ostan Ožbolt, Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant is Selmani’s first personal exhibition in the German-speaking region. The show, which runs through August 27th before travelling to Kahán Art Space’s second venue in Budapest, features early works by the Kosovar artist (b. 1987) alongside new and recent works. An edition was also created especially for the show, which is available for purchase.
The show hits on multiple registers; the exhibition design is generous, offering different entry points, including by presenting one work on the gallery’s façade—a black flag with white text that reads ‘lucky you’ upside-down in all capitals—and two in the café that abuts the gallery—epigrams on plastic bags, which are part of Selmani’s signature “Love Letters” series. Further afield, a multi-sited public installation displays material traces of the periodic departures and returns made by a relative of the artist. Viewers encounter Selmani’s works prior to entering and after exiting the gallery, expressing that his works—and the narratives they contain—are wont to spread. The disregard for conventional boundaries likewise transmits that his works search for their audience, extending out in order to draw viewers in.
The artist is present in Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant. At one end of the gallery is the only piece in Selmani’s portfolio in which he physically appears. The self-portrait from 2012 captures him doing something the work’s title says is not possible; in “They Say You Can’t Hold Two Watermelons In One Hand,” Selmani balances a ripe pair of the fruits while standing on a bridge at the border between Kosovo and Albania. The border is not marked with security installations or national insignia; rather, it is indicated by a scar in the landscape—a line where vegetation does not grow. The work is a political statement in the busker’s habit. Relations between Kosovo and Albania are tried and true, but discrepancies remain over their depth. A young Selmani performs between the countries in business casual. His semi-formal style conveys that he is serious, but hesitant to come across as trying too hard. The artist is dexterous and self-deprecating, rapt by the question: On what grounds should limits be tested?
The blazer that Selmani wears in the self-portrait is doubled at the opposite end of the gallery, where a tailored coat with an additional set of sleeves hangs on a metal rack. This work, “Hopes & Fears” (2020), addresses Selmani’s dialectic thinking about the expectations that stem from his becoming a father and, presumably, having developed his reputation as an artist. Existential concerns are channeled into an impractical sartorial statement. For this, the work queries the exhibition’s title, making it seem like a sardonic retort. Two sets of sleeves do not double the coat’s functionality. Neither does modifying ‘brilliant’ with a second ‘really’ convince that ‘everything’ is twice as bright.
Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant is full of doubles; in this exhibition, duplication is an artistic act whose contradictions accumulate. Placed on the polished concrete floor of the gallery, “Binum Silentium”(2021) consists of two tortoise shells fixed back-to-back. A few paces away is “Zeitgeist”(2019), a handcrafted wooden cane topped with a gear shift knob. The first work is constituted of a pair, and together the two works form their own plodding duo.
Issues of speed, authorship, and agency are snarled in Selmani’s life-work. As noted, the artist is from Kosovo, whose sovereignty is not universally recognized. One of the consequences of the country’s partial recognition is that its citizens have been subjected to a strict visa regime by the European Union. The regime has isolated the country and stunted awareness of Kosovar culture. The program was recently liberalized; starting in 2024, Kosovars will be able to travel without a visa to the EU. Selmani has spoken at length about the effects of the regime—as well as of real and artificial restrictions on mobility in the Balkan region resulting from Yugoslavia’s violent dissociation—on his practice. The visa application process that Selmani has completed innumerous times is notoriously shoddy, making international travel touch-and-go, coloring the cadence of his career. Often, the results are not communicated until days prior to when a trip is to begin; recipients are supposed to lurch into motion at a moment’s notice. Seen through this prism, shifting gears has been a requisite aspect of the artist’s modus operandi and “Zeitgeist” looks like an extension of his person.
Ostan Ožbolt posits that Selmani’s works herald a move from geopolitics towards “geoselves,” a neologism based on the idea that geography acts on one’s being, taken from the graphic novel The Extreme Self: Age of You. Her interpretation speaks to how Selmani’s practice syncs with the mission of the Dr. Éva Kahán Foundation, which runs the eponymous art space. The family foundation is named in honor of a Hungarian human rights lawyer who settled in the Austrian capital. The foundation’s raison d’être is to serve historically underrepresented communities in Central and Eastern Europe through increasing access to education and upholding the right to artistic freedom. Selmani’s career has dovetailed with Kosovo’s democratization and Euro-integration; his body of work reifies a host of hopes and fears.
In the exhibition, “Zeitgeist” stands of its own accord, as if by the grace of some preternatural force. Or maybe by magic. Selmani’s walking stick is a small wonder, whose presence inspirits the other works in its midst, especially the four works from his aforementioned “Love Letters” series. The series is comprised of messages written on plastic bags collected by or given to the artist. The bags are suspended in Plexiglas displays, which are custom-made in Slovenia. (The “Love Letters” were first framed this way for a show organized by Ostan Ožbolt at the Slovene Writers’ Association in 2019; Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant is their second project together). ‘Three Times Yes’ is written on one of the “Love Letters” in the gallery and ‘Past / Resent / Future’ appears on the other. On the two “Love Letters” in the café, Selmani wonders ‘Where will you spend eternity’ and declares that ‘I would agree with you. But then we would both be wrong.’ With the exception of the declaration on the latter work, Selmani’s texts read like clipped spells cast on reenchanted consumer waste.
In his “Love Letters,” Selmani exhibits an ambivalent attitude towards grammatical standards. For example, he does not put a question mark after ‘Where will you spend eternity’ while one appears in this work’s title—“Where?” (2019). Here, it is worth drawing attention to how Flaka Haliti, a conceptual artist from Kosovo, has challenged the hegemony of grammatical standards, notably with her photo series “I See a Face. Do You See a Face.,” which lent its name to her 2014 solo show at mumok in Vienna. Haliti has remarked that she uses incorrect grammar “as a basis of an antagonistic or subversive relationship to the language which I nevertheless have to use.” Like with Haliti’s series, Selmani’s wondering ‘Where will you spend eternity’ is a question that can also be read as a statement. But whereas Haliti’s doing so protects “the right to be misunderstood and opaque,” in this case, Selmani’s doing so binds his text to the work’s substance. Eternity is the approximate lifetime of a plastic bag.
Yet another ‘doubling’ occurs between the aforementioned work from the “Love Letters” series that reads ‘I would agree with you but then we would both be wrong’ and “Howl” (2021), a nod to Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem in the form of an engraved message on marble. The declaration scrawled on the plastic bag is framed with phone emoticons (e.g., battery icon, wi-fi bars). Thereby, the bag is transformed into a screen, accentuating its function as a surface for communication. “Howl” deploys the same pictorial trope. Over an elliptical text about poetry and drama, a similar set of icons appear. The nearness between these two works is strengthened by the fact that the timestamp on each is almost identical. On the plastic bag, it is ‘23h’; on the block of marble, it is ‘22:44.’ Rendered as such on durable materials, Selmani implies that an end is as near as it is far.
The dominance of duos is checked by a trio of new works that Selmani made with his mother. The three works, from the “Fig. Drawings” (2023) series, demonstrate the artist at his most compelling, combining pithy musings with a barbed caricature of a protest action. For the series, Selmani makes digital sketches that his mother then needle embroiders on textiles. The content of two of the “Fig. Drawings” is, on first glance, innocuous—‘a man leaving the current year behind’ retreats in a scarf bearing the words ‘again & again’ and a herd of sheep graze in a boundless expanse beneath a sign that says ‘stick together,’ ‘reminding themselves of the old proverb.’ The third shows two trucks parked in the middle of a road ‘just because’—a reference to a practice whereby ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo frequently block transport arteries with heavy vehicles, to agitate against Kosovo’s authorities, whose legitimacy they do not accept. The artist underscores the practice’s absurdity by juxtaposing it with the other “Fig. Drawings,” simultaneously prompting reflection of who the ‘sheep’ are in any given situation, and why they are urged to remain united from on high.
The final work in Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant fills the space between the works addressed in the preceding paragraphs. The audio for the work, These Stories (2018), sounds throughout the gallery while it is shown in an adjacent room. These Stories is a single-channel video installation that combines documentation of the Apollo 11 mission with commentary by a relative of the artist on Kosovo’s belated electrification. Selmani’s family village was added to the grid right around when NASA put a man on the moon. The footage is grainy and familiar; the sound is loud and clear. The work calls to mind an edition by Erzen Shkololli, a Kosovar-Albanian artist, curator, and director. In Albanian Flag on the Moon (2005), Shkololli reworks an iconic image of an astronaut from the Apollo 11 mission posing with the American flag, replacing the flag with an Albanian one and inserting a caption stating that the image was taken in July 1999—the month after the war in Kosovo ended. As Ernela Vukaj has observed, “using only photoshop, Shkololli has re-written history and alludes to the idea of a “fresh start,” all the while bringing to light the country’s state of uncertainty after the war.” It is striking to see Selmani reference the same mission a decade later, engaging the moon landing’s mythic status with a similar interest in the significance of dates as markers of development, albeit addressed in an alternate dimension, with distinct implications.
Driton Selmani’s Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant interlaces its viewers into a web of associations. The show tests its titular aplomb in form and content, presenting an artist who is locally grounded and globally engaged, who experiments with modes of expression in a free, yet exacting manner.
Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant
Driton Selmani, curated by Hana Ostan Ožbolt
Kahán Art Space, Vienna, Austria
7 June – 27 August 2023
The show will travel to Kahán Art Space’s second location in Budapest, Hungary, in November 2023.
All photos by Manuel Carreon Lopez (kunst-dokumentation) and courtesy of Kahán Art Space, unless otherwise noted.
Cover image: Driton Selmani – Everything We Do is Really, Really Brilliant, installation view
 Besa Luci, “Travel in the Region,” Other Talking Points, 2022, https://open.spotify.com/episode/2K6bmthcbzRKd3chYWiDYr.
 Aulonë Kadriu, “‘We Are in a Real Ghetto’ – Kosovars Grow Weary of the EU’s Isolating Visa Regime,” Kosovo 2.0, February 9, 2023, https://kosovotwopointzero.com/en/we-are-in-a-real-ghetto/.
 “HOoST #7: Driton Selmani | Places We Leave Behind,” June 11, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.348423712490092&type=3.
 “Flaka Haliti. I See a Face. Do You See a Face.,” mumok, accessed August 5, 2023, https://www.mumok.at/en/events/flaka-haliti.
 Joanna Warsza and Flaka Haliti, “Unrehearsed Encounters and NATO Remains,” BLOK Magazine, June 28, 2023, https://blokmagazine.com/unrehearsed-encounters-and-nato-remains/.
 “Kosovo Serbs Block Road to Main Border Crossings in Volatile North,” The Guardian, December 10, 2022, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/10/kosovo-serbs-block-road-to-major-border-crossings-in-volatile-north.
 Ernela Vukaj, “Exploring Alternative Histories at DAAD Galerie,” Berlin Art Link, July 19, 2019, https://www.berlinartlink.com/2019/07/19/deep-sounding-history-as-multiple-narratives-at-daad-galerie/.
Alex Fisher is a curator and writer from Buffalo, New York, USA. His research focuses on legacy (re)formation and mutual associations of natural, built, and political environments. He received his master’s in Design Studies with distinction from Harvard University and his bachelor’s from the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in Economics and History of Art. In 2019-2020, he served as a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine, during which he conducted fieldwork and organized artistic programs in cooperation with public and private cultural platforms.