PRINT November 2021


Petrit Halilaj, The history of a hug, 2020, steel, fabric, feathers, leather, wood from Kosovo, silicone, paint, hair. Installation view, Palacio de Cristal, Parque de El Retir, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: ImagenSubliminal (Miguel de Guzmán and Rocío Romero).

IN FEBRUARY 2020, a transparent envelope arrived through my letter box. There was no paper inside, just some tiny seeds. Stamped on the outside were the names Petrit Halilaj and Alvaro Urbano and a date: 26.03.20. It was an invitation to the couple’s wedding celebration, hosted within Halilaj’s installation in the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid’s Parque de El Retiro. The seeds hinted at what guests would find in the Palacio: monumental cloth flowers, lilies, tulips, poppies, carnations, and cherry blossoms, hung from the high glass ceiling to form a canopy. Each sculpture, made collaboratively by Halilaj and Urbano, was based on a flower the lovers had given each other during their courtship. Brass bird’s claws were planted in the middle of the space, huge thin legs stretching up toward the sky. Halilaj had assembled thickets of branches within the light-filled conservatory; in among these were brass bird feeders filled with seeds. The windows were open so that birds would come in from the park, feast, and fly off to perch on the outsize cloth petals.

As magical as it sounds, the project was actually incomplete, because the wedding celebration could never take place. Covid made the festivities impossible in Madrid. Pandemic notwithstanding, it would have been unthinkable in Halilaj’s home country, Kosovo, where same-sex marriage is illegal. Halilaj and Urbano had been planning to dress as animals for their union, and one element of the ceremony remained in the installation, which opened to the public, after delays, in mid-July 2020: Wandering the space was a hired performer dressed as a white raven and clutching a branch. This was the same branch Halilaj’s grandfather had held decades earlier when he was told, while working in the fields, that his wife had given birth. Men were not supposed to express their feelings, according to the mores of the time, but the new father could not contain his joy and randomly embraced this stick. He later gave it to his grandson, perhaps recognizing that the stigmatization of male emotional expression would have to end if the traumatic past were to be confronted.

Most visitors to Halilaj’s exhibitions are unfamiliar with the history of Kosovo, but they can viscerally feel the resonances of that history through his work.

View of “Petrit Halilaj: To a raven and hurricanes that from unknown places bring back smells of humans in love,” 2020–21, Palacio de Cristal, Parque de El Retir, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: ImagenSubliminal (Miguel de Guzmán and Rocío Romero).

Since the early 2010s, Halilaj, born in 1986 in a rural village near the town of Runik, has emerged as one of the most interesting artists in Europe, with solo shows at museums and kunsthalles in Berlin, Milan, Brussels, Bonn, Cologne, Turin, and Venice and with important outings in Los Angeles and New York too. The Madrid show was characteristic. He creates fantastical scenarios drawn from personal and cultural histories in order to dream of new possibilities, and he does so with extraordinary material and spatial sensitivity. For Halilaj, as a Kosovar who lived through civil war and who was only able to express his sexuality when he was well into adulthood, imagination serves as a critical tool rather than as a means of escapism or self-mythologizing. He does not express nostalgia for an idyllic past he knows never existed, nor idealize a homeland in which LGBTQIA+ people still struggle for acceptance.

In 1998, when Serbian forces began to persecute Albanian Kosovars after a decade of flouting Kosovo’s independent status, Halilaj’s family fled along with thousands of others, winding up in the Kukës II refugee camp in Albania. Halilaj was seen as a kind of child prodigy in the camp thanks to his remarkable ambidexterity and his ability to draw two different pictures simultaneously. He was noticed by an Italian psychologist, Giacomo “Angelo” Poli, who supplied him with felt-tip pens and paper and to whom he gave many of his sketches. After some months, Halilaj returned with his parents and four siblings to Runik, but at the age of eighteen he traveled to Italy to live with Poli, whose family fostered him. They lived near Milan, and Halilaj was able to enroll in the Brera Academy, an art school in the city. His work is clearly influenced by postwar Italian art: Pino Pascali’s blue spider and cleaning-brush-bristle worms; Mario Merz’s sculptures modeling nomadic dwellings; Giuseppe Penone’s environments of branches, leaves, and cast-metal forms; Alighiero e Boetti’s turn to “feminine” traditions of embroidery. Land art also seems to have made an impression.

View of “Petrit Halilaj: She, fully turning around, became terrestrial,” 2015, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn. Photo: Thekla Meusel.

Halilaj moved to Berlin in 2008. I first saw his work when Danh Vo selected him for a summer show at New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery in 2014. Like Vo, who also became a refugee as a child, Halilaj reflects on questions of displacement, on the intersections of personal and global histories, on income inequality and queer identities. But where Vo often repurposes objects with extraordinary provenances, Halilaj works from situations that he discovers, and his installations are almost like stage sets—the viewer becomes a kind of protagonist within the environment and explores the story physically and imaginatively. Most visitors to Halilaj’s exhibitions are unfamiliar with the history of Kosovo, but they can viscerally feel the resonances of that history through his work.

The first of Halilaj’s projects to gain attention was his contribution to the 2010 Berlin Biennale. Given funds for a sculpture, Halilaj turned the money over to his parents, who had dreamed of moving from the countryside to Pristina and of building a larger house. The house was duly erected, and Halilaj retained the wooden slats that had been used to cast its concrete frame. These slats were trucked to Berlin and attached to the ceiling on the ground floor of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art to create a ghostly upside-down echo of the Pristina residence. Chickens meandered about under the slats, as they had done next to Halilaj’s house when he was a child. Without striking an accusatory tone, the artist pointed to the economic disparities between Germany and Kosovo. A year later, he realized another displacement: Digging a rectangular hole near his childhood home, he created a kind of negative sculpture à la Michael Heizer. The dimensions of the hole were keyed to those of his Berlin gallery’s booth at Art Basel. The earth was trucked to Switzerland, so a little patch of Kosovo occupied the pristine space of the art fair.

Petrit Halilaj, _RUEgretta cerulea, Limosa limosa, 2017, reproductions of Neolithic artifacts from the region of Runik, Kosovo (clay, plaster, resin, pigments), brass, left: 28 3⁄8 × 11 × 20 1⁄8“, right: 22 7⁄8 × 8 1⁄4 × 15 3⁄4”.

Living abroad, Halilaj gained a perspective on Kosovo that enabled him to explore histories whose ramifications might not be so easily legible to those living in the country. One of these stories concerned the fate of the extraordinary collection of taxidermied animals once proudly displayed in the Natural History Museum of Pristina. The collection had been moved into a warm, damp storage room right after the war ended in 1999, when the museum was repurposed to bolster a nascent sense of Kosovar identity and its galleries given over to traditional costumes and folkloric artifacts. A skeptic of all forms of nationalism, the artist was worried by this development. On one of his visits to Pristina, he asked to see the taxidermy collection. He found the stuffed animals rotting in the darkness. In response to this terrible sight, he re-created each specimen, sculpting the beasts and birds with a mixture of mud and animal dung. He acquired a number of the museum’s original vitrines and created an installation, first shown at Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels in 2013 and reprised two years later in Bonn at the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. The vitrines were open and empty; the animals appeared to have escaped. Some seemed to roam around the floor; others were perched on beautifully crafted stands Halilaj had sculpted in brass, a material to which he has repeatedly turned for its lustrous appearance as well as for its fragility and susceptibility to tarnishing. Entire exhibitions have been devoted to the ways in which artists have deconstructed vitrines and the other apparatuses of museum presentations, but this installation felt incredibly fresh, mainly because of the wonderful contrast between the rough corporeality of the sculpted animals and the smooth golden-hued metal. The material juxtaposition elegantly captured the collision of a depressing present-day reality and Halilaj’s poignant vision of resurrection and escape.

The Brussels and Bonn projects were also animated by the formal contrast of the heavy cases and the elegant brass structures elevating some of the animals, and this sculptural dynamic of groundedness and flight similarly inspired the artist’s next major installation, first realized at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in Cologne 2015 and reprised for the Mario Merz Prize in Turin in 2018. Again, these arose from a situation that Halilaj encountered in Kosovo. On one trip back to Runik, he passed by his old school and came upon a group of desks that were about to be destroyed. They were covered in teenagers’ graffiti: classroom jokes, hearts and the names of crushes, erect cocks, eminem and messi, but also with drawings specific to the location and to the experiences of young people growing up in the wake of a civil war. There were insignia of local political parties, depictions of military equipment, slogans in both Albanian and Serbian.

Petrit Halilaj, Abetare, 2015, steel, desks from Shotë Galica school. Installation view, Fondazione Merz, Turin. Photo: Renato Ghiazza.

Halilaj rendered some of the graffiti as huge black wire sculptures and installed these so that they seemed to fly off the original desks, which he’d salvaged. In Cologne, they filled the main room and tumbled down the staircase; in Turin, they climbed the walls of Merz’s former studio, where the Italian artist’s neon Fibonacci numbers would once have been. At both venues, most of the desks were laid out in neat rows, as they had been in the classroom, but in Milan one was also suspended above the floor. It was a beautiful way of memorializing the mundane daydreams and escapist hopes of a generation of Kosovar kids while attending to the powerful impact of political discord on their imaginations.

Very different and much older artifacts were at the heart of a project Halilaj realized in 2017 for his first institutional show in the United States, at New York’s New Museum. Archaeological explorations near Runik in 1968 and 1983 had unearthed hundreds of figurines and musical instruments, evidence of a significant Neolithic settlement. The instruments, called ocarinas, were small globes with apertures that when blown into produced a breathy note like a birdcall. The discoveries were shipped off to Belgrade and never shown to the local people, who had no access to this part of their cultural heritage, except for a few objects that had been missed by excavators and unearthed by farmers during plowing. Halilaj researched the collections that had been removed from their local context and made copies in clay of more than five hundred objects. He turned each little replica ocarina into a bird’s body, giving it thin brass legs and claws. At the New Museum, he hung a set of huge nests made of branches and mulch from the walls; the replicas were arranged in the nests and on the floor. It was a striking sight, one laden with historical and political meaning. The work’s creation was triggered by Halilaj’s reflections upon internal colonialism, the ways in which modern states despoil and exert crypto-imperialist control over provincial territories. Rather than offering an explicit argument for the restitution of these artifacts, Halilaj showed how their loss allowed them to be reimagined. Ocarinas and figurines metamorphosed into a flock of migratory birds, landing in their temporary nests in New York before departing for other climes. The work seemed to suggest the value of historical fragments in constructing a national self-conception that avoids the pitfalls of identitarianism and militarism, one that acknowledges change, transience, and a kind of strength in vulnerability.

View of “Petrit Halilaj: RU,” 2017–18, New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

It’s no wonder that birds—tethered to specific places yet peripatetic, resilient yet seemingly fragile—loom large in Halilaj’s art. He is drawn not to eagles and hawks but to less predatory and mostly smaller creatures, from the chickens that wandered around his childhood home and the canaries he kept as pets to the parrots and peacocks he sketched as a child. His 2014 artist’s book, of course blue affects my way of shitting, is filled with images of his collages. These start with old black-and-white photographs of birds over which he drew extra colorful wings or stems and branches, sometimes pasting on fragments of fabric, making real animals into mythical creatures. It is easy to understand why a child in a refugee camp might identify with small birds and their capacity, despite their size, to fly wherever they wish, borders notwithstanding. This is a symbolism that is Halilaj’s, but not so far from that of other artists: One might think of David Hammons’s “Flight Fantasy” assemblages of the 1970s and ’80s, or of the feathered Ciguapas that populate Firelei Baez’s paintings, or Joan Jonas’s performance and installation Stream or river flight or pattern, 2016.

Petrit Halilaj, Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night!, 2017, Dyshek carpet from Kosovo, flokati, polyester, chenille wire, stainless steel, brass. Installation view, artist’s studio, Callie's, Berlin.

Halilaj’s identification with winged creatures, vulnerable ones especially, has been a way to express his queerness in a traditional and homophobic culture. This aspect of his art became more prominent in his contribution to the 2017 Venice Biennale. Invited by curator Christine Macel to make a work in the dim and lofty spaces of the Arsenale, he remembered his childhood love of moths, his awe at their transformation from larvae and the enchanting sight of their patterned wings. He embarked on a series of moth sculptures, which were also costumes that he sometimes wore in performance. The antennae were made from fuzzy chenille wire; the wings were fashioned from traditional woven Kosovar qilim, dyshek, and jan carpets and boasted trailing cascades of colored fabric. Halilaj made these works in collaboration with his mother, Shkurte Halilaj, and the process enabled the pair to talk through his sexuality, which he had only recently revealed to his family. The sculptures were installed in the Arsenale under flickering electric lights, some resting on the walls, others in the rafters. It was a captivating installation that won Halilaj a Special Mention (full disclosure: I was on the awarding jury). The moths flew from Venice to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where they landed in 2018.

At Tate St Ives, Halilaj was thinking about the ways in which psychodramatists have helped survivors of war, genocide, and natural disasters to stage their own stories.

Petrit Halilaj, Paesaggio Fantastico (Fantasy Landscape), 1999, felt-tip pen on paper, 8 1⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

A couple of years ago, on one of Halilaj’s regular visits to his Italian foster family, Giacomo Poli showed the artist a folder of the felt-tip drawings that Halilaj had made as a child in the refugee camp some twenty years earlier and that Poli had guarded ever since. Back in the camp, Poli had encouraged children to draw whatever they wanted, but also what they had seen, knowing that many would be unable to verbalize the traumatic events they had witnessed. The thirteen-year-old Halilaj must have been very open to this encouragement. He drew precise pictures of palm trees, parrots, sunset-drenched landscapes, peacocks. He also drew tanks, military aircraft, and equally precise pictures of crowds of Kosovars huddled together while being held at gunpoint, with lone figures separated from the group, kneeling down to face brutal beatings or execution.

Maquette for “Petrit Halilaj: Very volcanic over this green feather,” 2021–22, Tate St Ives, UK. Photo: Angela B. Suarez.

Around the time Halilaj rediscovered these works, he became aware that Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, was claiming that the massacres of the Kosovar war had never happened, that the stories of atrocities had been fabricated. Faced with this revisionism, Halilaj felt an urgent impulse to return to his juvenilia. He conceived an installation connected to his childhood drawings for his next institutional outing, a show currently open at Tate St Ives, UK. Certain elements of the drawings—trees, birds, soldiers, refugees—were scanned, digitally cut out, enlarged to many times their original size, and printed on huge felt sheets, which were also cut, silhouettelike, to conform to the contours of the images. These will hang in rows in the St Ives space, much as painted flats would be arranged on a stage. While most of Halilaj’s installations evoke theatrical sets, he wanted to emphasize this resemblance here because he was thinking about the ways in which psychodramatists have helped survivors of war, genocide, and natural disasters to stage their own stories so as to bear witness and work through trauma. Crucially, Halilaj chose to separate the imagined scenes from the recollected ones by suspending the fantasy images facing forward, toward the entrance to the gallery, and the soldiers and refugees facing backward. This means that only when you turn around to exit will you see the images Halilaj once witnessed.

Little boy detail from Petrit Halilaj’s 1999 drawing for Kofi Annan.

All but one of the felt sheets will hang suspended at varying heights. The exception, the only one of these felt works to touch the floor, is also the only one printed on both sides. It’s an image of a child, and it comes from a rather special drawing. When Halilaj was living at Kukës II as a boy, he heard that Kofi Annan was coming to visit the camp and prepared, on cardboard, the most ambitious picture he had made up to that point. It showed a child watching a massacre. Annan, who had superhero status in Halilaj’s eyes, actually asked to take the drawing to the UN, but Halilaj kept hold of it. The figure might be a kind of proxy for the viewers in this new exhibition, a character with whom to identify, so that it might be possible to understand what such children see, and what their dreams are made on. 

“Petrit Halilaj: Very volcanic over this green feather” is on view at Tate St Ives, UK, through January 16, 2022. 

Mark Godfrey is an independent curator based in London.