2013 will close with a more than positive result for Petrit Halilaj (Kostërrc, Skenderaj-Kosovo, 1986, lives and works in Berlin and Mantova) who at the moment boasts of a large solo exhibition at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, the national participation in the first Pavilion for the Republic of Kosovo at the 55th Biennial of Venice which is closing in a few days, and the winning of the Ettore Fico prize for the presentation proposed at the Chert gallery in Berlin at Artissima that just finished.
Halilaj’s work shows some tangencies, perhaps superficial but visually captivating, with the formalizations of Land Art and Arte Povera from the sixties, at least for what concerns the use of specific materials – such as dirt, branches, metal, animals, stuffed as well as live – that seems to eco the works of masters such as Walter de Maria, Robert Smithson, Jannis Kounellis and Gilberto Xorio. However, the content of the thoughts that are brought forth by the artist from Kosovo brings us towards other dimensions, rooting itself in a more intimate matter, often tied to mnemonic re-elaborations and mental reconstructions that have to do closely with the artist’s past and identity. Being a son and witness of the war in the nineties that brought to the breaking apart of ex-Yugoslavia, Halilaj, even having lived and studied in Milan, still carries the live image of his origins amplifying the memory in an impartial and never sadly melancholy remembrance.
Since the beginning of his artistic study, the use of “poor” materials and childhood memories, has transformed into an attempt, well-made to add, to explain and represent a few fundamental concepts: that of “house”, “nationality” and “cultural identity”. “Halilaj’s mnemotechny of homeland and homelessness” explains Elena Filipovic in the exhibition’s introduction at the WIELS Centre, “is not documentary, strictly speaking, but it is not romantic either. Instead, it walks an elegant tightrope between memory and actuality, the ingenuous and the fictive, the infinitely personal and commonly shared experience.”
You only have to think that for the sixth edition of the Biennial of Berlin (2010) the artist had moved all the materials that were needed to rebuild his house from Pristina that was destroyed in the 1999 bombings (boards and bricks), that were then left unused due to mafia interferences with the contractors and local corruption. Building a real-scale phantom monument, animated by the presence of live chickens running around the space, Halilaj presents a mental reconstruction that conforms with situations he actually lived, of what was his last home before the war.
In the same way, for the Republic of Kosovo pavilion at the 2013 Biennale of Venice, the artist “deported” dirt and branches from his homeland – even in Kostërrc (CH) for “Statements”, Basel 2011, he had taken sixty tons of dirt from his homeland and had re-arranged them in a stand making it impassable but at the same time simply unique – to reconstruct a cavernous and live plant environment: birds of different species are let free in the exhibition halls as absolute inhabitants, in a space that is made to be overloaded and asphyxiated, in which the visitor moves with difficulty.
For the exhibition at the WIELS Centre, Poisoned by men in need of some love, Halilaj again draws from personal suggestion and experiences deciding to bring back to life the heritage (samples of animal species, for the most part insects and birds) held at the Museum of Natural History in Pristina. Emptied of everything that characterized it for becoming the outpost and the instrument of direction for the new national identity after the war, the Museum was, in fact, reconverted into an official container of national and folkloristic heritage of the newborn Republic of Kosovo, and stripped of its stuffed inhabitants, readily and quickly stored away in its basements. The artist recuperated the unused elements (collection cases for insects and butterflies that still carry their rigorously handwritten identification cards) and, contextually made new samples of zoomorphic outlines composed of natural materials such as dirt, grass, glue and animal excrements (gasp!). Organic sculptures that are profiled as shadows and ecos of the real inhabitants, meaning the stuffed bodies that are typical of every respectable Natural History Museum, scattered in the space like ghosts of themselves, in dialogue with shiny bronze structures that dictate their relationships and build architectural and spatial choreographies.
A large installation made of a film in three parts tells of the Museum basement’s opening that since 2001 has kept the stuffed animals. Furthermore, drawings, delicate and evanescent, seem to transform the museum inventory cards into representations of exotic creatures with fanciful feathers, that mask the real identity and provenance of the birds shown in the museum, originally chosen as sample types of the surrounding geographical scene. The same etymology of the word Kosovo includes, as a matter of fact, an ornithological meaning 2.
Halilaj’s work presents itself, therefore, as a stinging and not given for granted reflection on political and ideological transformations of national identities that were born at the end of the war, a moment in which the symbolic affirmation of national identities is placed as an urgent and fundamental topic. The stuffed animals, their occultation and their re-proposal in the shape of simulacra composed of residue and tossed materials compose a thinly metaphorical symphony of the social and political situation of an entire country.
The province takes its name from the area of Kosovo Polje (Fushë Kosovë in Albanian), 8 km southwest of Pristina, stage of the namesake 1939 battle, symbol of the Serbian resistance against the Ottoman empire in the Balkans. In Serbian Kosovo Polje (Косово Поље) means, literally, “Field of the blackbird” (or “Plain of the blackbird”), kosovo being the possessive form the Slavic and Serbian word Kos (Кос) “blackbird”, or rather “of the blackbird”.
Republic of Kosovo pavilion
Commissioner: Erzen Shkololli. Curator: Kathrin Rhomberg. Location: Arsenale Pavilion.
Venice, Giardini e Arsenale, 1 June > 24 November 2013
Hours: 10.00 — 18.00 — Closed on Mondays.
Petrit Halilaj : Poisoned by men in need of some love
WIELS Centrum voor Hedendaagse Kunst
Avenue Van Volxemlaan, 354 Bruxelles
from 7 September 2013 to 5 January 2014