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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Out of Darkness BY GEOFF RIPS Perspectivesl47: Adrian Paci Contemporary Arts Museum Houston June 24 October 2 As you get older, epiphanies become harder to find. When you’re 20, you can run into transcendence on any street cornerthat lit tle wave of deep understanding that can carry you along three inches off the ground until it deposits you on the shore of a briefly transfigured world. Maybe it’s too much work, too little time, Iraq, Bush, Rove, the “check engine” light on my dashboard, college tuition for my kids, that twinge in my knee. Sometimes I still go looking, wander out into the far field, but what I usually find is the great gray heron lifting off from the marsh as I walk upnature’s way of telling me I’ve just missed it. So imagine my surprise one day in muggy Houston in late July, after taking my daughters on a brief car tour of the swells of River Oaks, where the only signs of life were gardeners pruning the azaleas, and before a planned visit to the memorabilia from the Baseball Hall of Fame, parked temporarily at the Museum of Fine Artsimagine my surprise, when I descended into the basement of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and into its darkened viewing room only to be slowly and profoundly gathered in by a short film by Albanian artist Adrian Paci. This first U.S. solo exhibition by Paci includes paintings inspired by early Pasolini films and a film called The Weeper, in which a professional mourner weeps and prays over Paci’s rigid body. As that film progresses, you sense an almost imperceptible bond growing between the hired mourner and the laid-out body. But enough of that. I want you to enter the darkened room where Pad’s video PilgrIMAGE is playing. Here’s the story: An iconic painting of the Virgin and Child disappeared from Paci’s native village of Shkodra in the 15th century as the Turks were about to invade. It reappeared not long afterward in a church in a village near Rome and became known as the Madonna del Buonconsiglio. For centuries, the village mythology surrounding the icon deemed the conveyance of the image miraculous, and for more than five centuries the village has awaited its miraculous return. With the fall of the odd, isolated, iron-fisted Communist dictatorship in Albania in the early 1990s, the time seemed ripe for a return. And so Paci, now living in Italy, went to work. You have to remember, this is the mountainous, reclusive Balkan country, overrun and controlled by the Turks for 400 years, ruled by a dictator between the two World Wars \(Who war by a Communist government that aligned itself with China and banned all religions. Even so, 70 percent of its population identifies itself as Muslim, 20 percent is Greek Orthodox, and 10 percent is Roman Catholic. Paci’s idea was to facilitate the return of the icon through film. He filmed the painting in the church in Italy, then showed the film against an ancient stone wall in Shkodra. A small crowd of villagers is shown arriving at the stone wall, drawn by the magnet of collective memory. They stand in evening light, watching the film in silent reverence. Paci films the villagers watching the icon. Later he shows the film of the villagers on a screen in front of the icon in the church in Italy. So Paci has given us a pilgrimage of the image back to its home in Albania and a pilgrimage by film of the Shkodrans to the icon in Italy. All a very neat idea. The closing of a loop opened more than five centuries ago with the Turkish invasion. But transcendence comes not in the idea but in the execution. It begins with the attentive faces gnarled and beaten by poverty, biting winters and years of domination. Faces devoid of teeth and teeming with character. A small onion-headed boy is held above the crowd, his skin almost translucent. It’s the same face that you see in Jacob Riis photos of the Lower East Side or floating up in images rescued from the Warsaw ghettothe innocent trying to keep his head above the rising waters of history. But that’s not quite it either. The camera moves from the watchers to the nearly destitute city itself and, as it does, Bach’s sacred music begins to play. It accompanies a herd of sheep passing a mechanic’s shop on a main highway, a baby wandering back and forth through puddles, a gang of small boys playing by a muddy highway, a man working to fix a machine, an old suitcase floating down a trashed-out river. This is Shkodra. Poor, cold, gray. But the vaulting sacred music is playing, and you realize you’ve been watching this play out in a chapel in Italy, and it hits you that the beaten and kicked people of Shkodra are now beatified. The film within the film ends. The filmmaker shows himself putting away the screen and closing the gates of the chapel. And you find your way out of the darkness and ascend the museum steps and emerge into the bright Houston sun, and the world seems slightly better. Former Observer editor Geoff Rips frequently writes about the culture and cultures of Texas. 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 26, 2005