Critics’ Picks

View of “Petrit Halilaj: RU,” 2017–18.

New York

Petrit Halilaj

New Museum
235 Bowery
September 27–January 7

Petrit Halilaj’s complex exhibition merges issues of identity, collective narrative, and echoes of past battles in a dreamlike environment populated by flocks of imaginary birds. In the two-channel video The city roofs were so near that even a sleepwalking cat could pass over Runik without ever touching the ground (all works 2017), Halilaj interviews people living in the titular village in Kosovo, where he grew up—an area that contains important Neolithic settlements found during archeological digs in 1968 and 1983. After the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the artifacts became displaced. The most valuable pieces are currently stored in Belgrade’s Natural History Museum—inaccessible to the people of Runik but vividly alive in their minds. With handheld cameras, Halilaj visits rural neighborhoods and farms, and walks in fields where women, men, and children still dig up fragments of ancient pottery and animal bones. They share recollections of their discoveries with an intensity that highlights a deep attachment to the symbolic values of their heritage.

We watch the video reclining on soft fabric sculptures in the shape of large fowl, which takes us to the following room, where Halilaj’s research on the habitats of migratory birds becomes a metaphor for a utopian free world. Here we find the sprawling installation RU, made up of about five hundred objects and fragments collected from Runik’s historic sites. Small pots, vases, and cups are placed on thin bronze legs and appear as odd avian creatures perched on intricate branches, either sitting around a pond or scattered on the floor. The delicate poetry of this fantastic landscape shifts nostalgia for a lost past to a lively present, where memories and legends give shape to a new world, devoid of borders.