Petrit Halilaj in the Fries Museum

Small stories make big nests - a portrait of artist Petrit Halilaj

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2022
Neo-90s

Petrit Halilaj is a citizen of the world, but in his practice, he emphatically relates to the area in Kosovo where he was born and still regularly resides. Maisa Imamović, who grew up in Bosnia and Kosovo, talks to the artist about his work and is inspired by the ways in which he deals with feelings of loss and alienation.

Having recently obtained a permanent Dutch residence permit in the Netherlands leaves me with a medium-sized chunk of time to think about my upbringing in the two countries during their post-war states (Bosnia 1994-2001 + Kosovo 2001-2013). Yet it seems my train of thought keeps halting. My first impulse tells me to locate the source where it’s blocking, then fix it. Fix what?

Feelings of estrangement have followed me for as long as I couldn’t afford to invest time into understanding them. Unused to the situation of confronting them, I start rewinding, thinking that this must be the right way to do it.

I rewind to the images of my childhood in Kosovo. Different scenarios appear and disappear. I fast-forward. My pupils dilate as if trying to catch something reportable. A scene I particularly pay attention to contains the hands of my parents forming a big circle in the sky. Its size is comparable to the size of the plan they wish me to follow: Chase the American dream, settle for the European one - Supersize. As the scenes shift from the sky and move back to the ground, the hands of other parents forming circles in front of their kids appear. The field is densely populated by big plans. The kids’ bodies stretch taller as they slowly walk in the direction behind their parent’s locked hands. But in the blink of an eye the tall kids are gone. They have migrated. Scenarios after their migration do not hint at their return.

Fast forward. It’s 2022. I live in Amsterdam. During my recent travels back to Bosnia, ambivalent feelings triggered by a personal detachment from the country’s current socio-political reality are turning into a monster whose shape I do not like. I would like it to look a bit more sophisticated. While sitting on a sofa somewhere in Bosnia, a sudden urge to do something about something kicks in. Everything around the sofa consists of zero support structure through which I could channel the kicks. A moment dulled by a personal inability to even describe these somethings follows. The emotional currents condition me into passivity. I become a sofa.

Passivity is a classic interiority of a young folk living in a Balkan country. Kosovo, Bosnia, or any other country with a recent history of violence. But this tale is also becoming a classic. It’s time for a different story.

When studying a certain context in his artistic practice, Halilaj wonders: “What has not been discovered? What is yet to become?

Petrit Halilaj in the Fries Museum

Telenovelas

Petrit Halilaj’s art breaks the pattern of dominant narrative maintenance and sets a different example in the cultural context. Halilaj (Kostërc, 1986) is a Kosovar artist whose practice materializes and reflects on the personal tools and means by which he dives into the communication of Kosovo’s recent history. Although the meaning of communication in his practice unravels multiple layers, Halilaj is specifically interested in confronting the war trauma through a social body that is left to deal with the consequences of political and cultural tension.

The shapes which translate his endeavours and his position in them are reflected in his art installations which contain subjects such as birds, chickens, flowers, doodles from children’s textbooks. Often, these blown-up objects portray a shared experience of war confrontation, they portray Halilaj’s personal detachment from the social body and depict an alternative individual path.

Diving into his work brings back memories of integration in Kosovo. I remember making a first friend and discovering a mutual passion for Spanish telenovelas. The Spanish language quickly became a non-fluent linguistic tool that helped us get to know each other. Similarly unexpected tools are discovered and created in Petrit’s practice. Reviving their importance is what I intend to cover in my Zoom meeting with Halilaj .

It’s Monday afternoon, a time for us to officially e-meet and discuss his work through my sense of his work. I’m feeling a bit nervous to converse with someone whose work persistently channels the usefulness of alternative narratives and who seems to have established a deep sense of self in relation to the traumas of war. Despite the nervousness, I come to realise that what I want more than recovering my semi-forgotten belief in preferred realities, is to get closer to the means by which Halilaj approaches a shared trauma.

As we soften the air behind our screens by making jokes in the Albanian language, we slowly tune into the layers of his art. When studying a certain context in his artistic practice, Halilaj wonders: “What has not been discovered? What is yet to become? What has not touched the surface yet? What gaps remain?He contemplates the methods in which humans appropriate, manipulate, show, interpret the cultural heritage inherited from Kosovo’s present and war-marked past. For him, Kosovo’s current condition depicts a context filled with gaps (timely or linguistic), which are yet to be understood and which are closely linked to a past awaiting to be fully processed.

Petrit Halilaj in the Fries Museum

Petrit Halilaj in the Fries Museum

Autonomous artefacts

As an artist, Halilaj feels the responsibility to find the means through which new realities emerge and give shape to them. He explains to me that different operational bodies (institutional, governmental, and native) simultaneously contribute to the making of new shapes in his work. Intertwined voices are a viable contribution to making a collective step in the further processing of history.

Two projects exemplify the outcome of such mechanisms. As part of Halilaj’s current exhibition at the Fries Museum, his works RU (2017) and Shkrepëtima (2018) are shown. For him, the relation between these two works is their similar concept of digging, be it as an archaeological gesture or as an act of reminiscence. Halilaj thoroughly guides me through both projects and his current reflections on them.

RU (2017) was initiated in 2015 in Runik - a region with a history of Neolithic settlement close to the village where Halilaj was born. The development of the project entails Halilaj’s discovery and consecutive study of 505 elements from a publicly inaccessible imagery archive of Neolithic artefacts owned by the National Museum, as well as elements hidden in the houses of Runik that are inhabited by friends and neighbours. Getting close to these inhabitants resulted in eventful investigating endeavours in which Halilaj drank a lot of tea (qaj) and Turkish coffee with citizens who showed him their Neolithic possessions (such as goddess figurines) and shared stories about their own histories. Some of the Neolithic artefacts were passed on as presents, while others were used as kids’ toys. In several other cases, Halilaj learned that the artefacts that were attempted to be returned to the museum would not guarantee the donator with an authorization certificate. This scenario brought forth the absence of institutional care and trust in relation to the people. Halilaj saw this concrete example as an opportunity to increase awareness of the various relations and operations between institutional and citizen bodies.

The nests represent geographical points of reference which choreograph the movement of objects. The metaphorical birds represent a collectively built social body that does not belong to one specific site

Petrit Halilaj in the Fries Museum

After two years of collecting the shapes and intimacies for a potential new history, Halilaj presented an installation of migratory birds in a solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York in 2017-18. The installation was made of two parts. The first part consisted of a video work which covered personal stories of friends and neighbours about the Neolithic artefacts that were found in Runik. The second part of the installation was a large immersive experience that offered a view of the bird-like migration paths of these artefacts, physically translated into the space between large bird nests. The largest nest covered the back wall of the room, while the smaller ones were located on the floor and ceiling of the space in front of it. The nests represent geographical points of reference which choreograph the movement of objects. The metaphorical birds represent a collectively built social body that does not belong to one specific site. They thrive in-between places as they migrate back and forth. The work aims to make us wonder what the historical objects would mean beyond their fixed nature gained from belonging to one space. Instead, what if we considered them as independent bodies in the constant redefinition of their representation?

A spark

Getting to know Halilaj’s work demystifies personal estrangement. The reason why I can’t locate the source of my detachment to inherited histories is that there is a gap I’ve been blind to, which makes clear that what I’ve been missing are the means and tools necessary to find a comfortable place in them.

To further understand how Halilaj works with and inside such gaps, Halilaj and I discuss the second project, titled Shkrepëtima (2018). For this project, the artist organised a performance on the ruins in the building of Runik’s old House of Culture. For the development of the project, Petrit decided to move to Runik, where he lived with the citizens for six months. Although Runik is a small village where one would not expect to find traces of cultural production, Petrit met teachers who shared stories about past cultural events in the village. Thanks to them, he learned about a cultural community that was established through the village’s cinema and library. After learning this, Halilaj could easily recognize people coming from shared cultural backgrounds. They were well informed and, back in the day, they also informed other citizens about the local happenings. Their communication tool was a magazine called Shkrepëtima, which also became the title of the project. What fascinated Halilaj about the magazine was its production process: The makers would secretly borrow printing machines from their offices located in a neighbouring town called Skenderaj, and take them home after their shifts. They’d spend the whole night writing and making copies, after which they’d return the machines to their offices and continue working. Halilaj loves the fact that they made the magazine spark out of nothing. Accordingly, Shkrepëtima translates to a spark, a flash.

Halilaj loves the fact that the villagers made the magazine spark out of nothing. Accordingly, Shkrepëtima translates to a spark, a flash

Petrit Halilaj in the Fries Museum

Petrit Halilaj in the Fries Museum

The story does not end there. Halilaj tells me that later on, the makers of the magazine became famous actors. In their new roles, they’d jump on a tractor and go on a ride around the village to distribute the magazine amongst the people. He tells me that listening to these past stories told with sparkly eyes made him forget about the war. Without hearing what he heard and being interested in hearing more of it, the project wouldn’t have been realised. Without these tales, he wouldn’t have felt responsible for culturally activating Runik and showcasing the importance of cultural production.

The performance, marked as Runik’s first cultural event in years, happened on the 7th of July in 2018. The production and the happening of the piece involved a total of 80 people, amongst which were the citizens of Runik, professional dancers, and costume designers. Halilaj wrote a publicly accessible libretto for the piece, which everybody could follow. Apart from giving a collective moment to the citizens, what the project gave to Halilaj was an artistic exploration in the direction of music, sound, and dance - mediums that shape the stories we pass onto each other.

Although both projects materialise the gap between what one sees and what’s already there, the two were never shown together. For his upcoming show at the Fries Museum, Halilaj wants to give a tangible form to the relationship between citizens and their cultural identity.

Migration

Compared to Bosnian stagnancy of in-country cultural production and Kosovo’s hyperactive production due to the unfortunate immobility regime, what seems to be a persisting element in the Western-European cultural production is a public obsession with institutional wrongdoings, which sometimes leads to a widespread artistic passivity. Hovering over the three recognised cultural states from which I can choose my position in history and the making of it, is the answer to why I sometimes feel like a sofa.

Halilaj’s work shows me ways in which I could feel differently about my stagnant views on Bosnian cultural production. Although Halilaj is deeply aware of various institutional mistreatments of artists and refuses to work with institutions that are specifically interested in using his work as national propaganda, he greatly believes that we should fight for a freedom in which we can freely distribute our cultural contributions. Most importantly, what Halilaj’s work suggests is that producing culturally means having a relationship with different operational bodies, which also exist in relationship to other bodies. Every encounter can wound us or destroy us, but it can also protect us from the chaos of having absolute freedom.

Halilaj explains to me that travelling and migrating from interiority to nature and from public to private nourishes a need to survive. It’s a human necessity

Petrit Halilaj in the Fries Museum

Halilaj explains to me that travelling and migrating from interiority to nature and from public to private nourishes a need to survive. It’s a human necessity, especially when there are so many gaps in our existential questioning. Some gaps are impossible to grasp; some differences never meet. Embracing gaps as potential non-meeting points is an exercise to which culture and art can give space.

That’s why what I love the most about Halilaj’s work is what intuitively and perpetually flashes as an image when I think of it: a bird. Birds make me think of fragments of time traced by their migration and return. In their migratory experience, similar relational experiences are injected to become memories.

I’m looking back at the scenes in which parental hands form circles in the sky. They don’t look so big. Behind Halilaj’s motive, there is an urgency to show methods by which we can resist big narratives and focus on the small stories. Big, solution-less ideas we inherit enter our lives just to keep us busy. To keep them alive and pass them on is a responsibility of many static selves. However, the self is always in the process of developing through experiencing the self, not through tempering the self. That’s why, despite what we, as artists, offer to a community/context, it’s a collective care to decide which narratives live on. As artists, we cannot be in control if our alternative ones don’t. Small stories make big nests, with or without the bird’s presence.

Stay birdy, xx

A SHORTENED DUTCH VERSION OF THIS TEXT WAS PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED IN METROPOLISM NUMMER 2-2022 PLATTELAND.

Petrit Halilaj's exhibition is on view until March 5th, 2023, at Fries Museum

Maisa Imamović
is a writer, artist, designer and webdeveloper

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2022