View of “Petrit Halilaj,” 2017. Photo: Julie Joubert.

View of “Petrit Halilaj,” 2017. Photo: Julie Joubert.

Petrit Halilaj

View of “Petrit Halilaj,” 2017. Photo: Julie Joubert.

Wallpaper composed of the pages of ABETARE, an Albanian spelling book, was arranged in a grid over the two long walls of the Kamel Mennour gallery’s first room. At one time, such books were tools of resistance: In 1998, when Petrit Halilaj, age twelve, fled Kosovo to take refuge in Albania, the Serbian government was forcing people to speak Serbo-Croatian and forbidding them to learn Albanian. Each page of the book not only depicts an individual letter but also accompanies it with stereotypical representations of Albanian usage and customs. 

A metal butterfly affixed to the wall pointed visitors to the next room, which housed an installation composed of two elements. On one side were twelve desks from the Shotë Galica elementary school in the village of Runik, north of Kosovo, which the artist attended from 1992 to 1997. On the other side were numerous sculptures in steel wire of varying depth and sizes derived from some of the drawings left on the desks. Having accumulated over the years, these sketches seem as ancient as cave paintings, so it’s not surprising to learn that Runik is the site of important Neolithic archaeological finds, which Halilaj has recently addressed in other works.

These capricious scrawls—it is sometimes unclear if they constitute letters or drawings, numbers or figures—amount to a canny encyclopedia of childhood. They testify to a youthful impulse to leave a trace of one’s passage: scribbles and scratches, inscriptions and boundary lines, curses and declarations of love, tables and numbers with anthropomorphic shapes, hearts and sex organs, allusions to pop music and soccer (Eminem, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo). If those references imply an awareness of an international culture disseminated in part by the internet, the works also contain insinuations of the country’s searing reality, from the dragon on the Albanian flag to acronyms of military groups and faithful reproductions of weapons accompanied by their technical names.

Halilaj’s three-dimensional drawings, or sculptures without depth—which seem to have escaped from Calder’s circus—inhabit the space in heterogeneous fashion, gathering in a corner or forming a heap in which the shapes are difficult to distinguish from one another. Here, too, one recognized the spelling book, where a child gives three-dimensional form to a letter that seems bigger than he is. Contrary to the pedagogical intention of the spelling book, the writings on the benches and walls transgress the order imposed by the school as an institution intended to shape future citizens. While the benches are arranged symmetrically, as in an actual schoolroom, the teacher’s desk has disappeared, and a desk with extremely long legs rises up, as if ready to be catapulted outside over the gallery’s veranda—an ironic and fantastical reference to the artist’s exile.

In the neutral space of the gallery, Halilaj thus created a microcosm of his fractured childhood. The image also referred, more generally, to the childhood of all people, who are born not equipped with language, but “in a circle in which infancy is the origin of language and language the origin of infancy,” as Giorgio Agamben observes in his 1978 book Infanzia e storia: Distruzione dell’esperienza e origine della storia (Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience). Naively considered as something that precedes language and ceases to exist with the learning of the word, infancy is what pushes human beings to assume the form of subjects in language. And as Halilaj has clearly intuited, this is what truly turns us into historical beings.

Riccardo Venturi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.