Hera Büyüktaşciyan, My Eye’s Pupil Is Your Nest, 2021, construction netting. Installation view. From the Autostrada Biennale.

Hera Büyüktaşciyan, My Eye’s Pupil Is Your Nest, 2021, construction netting. Installation view. From the Autostrada Biennale.

Autostrada Biennale

Multiple Venues

“What if a journey . . . ,” the title of the third edition of the Autostrada (Highway) Biennale, curated by Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu and Joanna Warsza, called to mind both movement and suspension. It was an apt combination, emerging amid pandemic travel bans and collateral flights of fancy, and even more so in a geopolitically charged area like the Balkans, where highways stretch across troubled pasts and present lines of demarcation. Featuring the works of thirty artists and collectives and spread across three main cities of Kosovo (Peja; Pristina, the capital; and Prizren, the biennale’s lively epicenter, rich in Ottoman heritage), the exhibition found its unifying theme in the use, care, and reactivation of public space. Venues ranged from bus and gas stations to a former power plant, a castle, an ex-cinema, a café, a workshop, a bridge, a square, museums, and a former KFOR (international peacekeeping force) base, now turned into the biennale’s education and production center.

Different locales triggered different scales of intimacy. With its poetic simplicity and showstopper appeal, Agnes Denes’s Sunflower Fields, 2021—installed in front of Pristina’s derelict Palace of Youth and Sports and along the banks of the Lumbardhi River in Prizren—testified to the human capacity for “seeing reality and still being able to dream,” as the artist wrote in the catalogue; the work also called for a wiser management of natural resources. Hera Büyüktas¸ciyan evoked the memory of lost streams and ancient water channels with her Land art installation My Eyes Pupil Is Your Nest, 2021, a cascading stretch of blue fabric running from the hilltop Prizren castle along green slopes into an unfinished house at the foot of the cliffs, where it erupted from the entrance like a blue tongue or a quiet wave. Petrit Halilaj and Alvaro Urbano grafted monumental fabric flowers onto the interior of the central dome of the National Library of Kosovo, designed by Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjakovic´. The installation Forget Me Not, 2020–21, queered the library’s Brutalist spaces in support of the campaign for gender equality promoted by the local LGBTQI+ community, demanding a reform of the civil code in line with the progressive values of Kosovo’s constitution promulgated in 2008.

What’s more public than the public arena? In the garden of the Albanian League of Prizren three circles of old school chairs turned upside down formed the installation Democracy, 2021, by Agron Blakçori, who positions education at the root of all debate and consensus building. With their archival exhibition Who are Ferit and Nakiye Bayram?, 2021, Sezgin Boynik and Tevfik Rada retraced the life, writings, and passionate activism of an influential couple of Turkish leftist intellectuals from the beginning of the twentieth century under Ottoman rule to Yugoslavia in the mid-1960s. Vahida Ramujkic´’s Disputed histories, 2006–, is an expanding library, open to consultation and activated by workshops, holding more than three hundred history textbooks published since the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The collection reveals the constant process of suppression, exclusion, revision, and rewriting that we call history. And art history is no exception: Among the most captivating works of the biennale were the black-and-white tapestries of Valbona Zherka, a Pristina-based artist who has spent most of her uncompromising professional life at the margins of the art system and yet at the core of social engagement, as a teacher, social worker, and editor. Two older tapestry pieces of hers (Resistance and Resistance Towers, both 1978) had been restored for the occasion, while the artist created a new one, installed in the atmospheric Ottoman Gazi Mehmed Pasha Hammam (1574). It was titled Hope, 2021, because, Zherka writes, “As long as there is a journey, there is hope.”