Petrit Halilaj (b. 1986 in Kostërrc) was too young to remember the Berlin Wall falling but just old enough to remember all too well what came in its wake in what quickly became the ‘former’ Yugoslavia: ethnic conflict, war, forced exile, corruption, loss. Having fled with his family to a refugee camp as a young boy during the conflict in Kosovo, Halilaj’s history is as inseparable from war and exodus as is his oeuvre. Much as he may mine his experience, he rejects pathos or nostalgia for something at once far more optimistic, materially complex, politically resonant and, ultimately, critical. From the start, his use of commonplace materials and childhood memories has been an attempt to understand what such notions as ‘home’, ‘nation’ and ‘cultural identity’ could mean. His frequent combinations of earth, rubble, wood slats, live chickens and delicate drawings evoke a world at once intimately personal and utopian, all while revealing the inevitable realities of a far wider sociopolitical sphere. A bit like Joseph Beuys’s felt and fat, Halilaj’s mnemotechny of homeland and homelessness is not documentary, strictly speaking, but it is not romantic either. Instead, it walks an elegant tightrope between memory and actuality, the ingenuous and the fictive, the infinitely personal and commonly shared experience.

For the artist’s first exhibition in Belgium and his largest solo show to date, Halilaj extends his ongoing excavation of the Natural History Museum in Kosovo, a formerly remarkable and well-loved place before splintered nationalisms disintegrated what was once called Yugoslavia. At WIELS, he presents a vast, new installation comprised of a film that portrays the state of the ‘lost’ museum, along with a series of hand-sculpted copies of its animal remnants, based on a collection of found photographs and documents portraying the state they were in before they were removed to make way for a more nationalistic display of folk tradition and heritage instead. Halilaj’s new project attempts to give the museum and its specimens another life and a renewed political resonance.

The exhibition is organized by WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels and is curated by Elena Filipovic. An artist book will accompany the exhibition.

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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Quattuor Bubo bubo), Poisoned by men in need of some love (single Bubo bubo)’, 2013. Four + one owls made of iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass structure, single Bubo Bubo with small brass structure. Each owl circa: 33 x 76 x 32 cm. Whole installation circa: 400 x 350 x 50 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Quattuor Bubo bubo), Poisoned by men in need of some love (single Bubo bubo)’, 2013. Four + one owls made of iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass structure, single Bubo Bubo with small brass structure. Each owl circa: 33 x 76 x 32 cm. Whole installation circa: 400 x 350 x 50 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Pavo cristatus)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass, wood. 374 x 99 x 42 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Pavo cristatus)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass, wood. 374 x 99 x 42 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Pavo cristatus)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass, wood. 374 x 99 x 42 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Athene noctua)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass pedestal
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‘She, fully turning around, became terrestrial (stolen canary)’, 2013. Taxidermy canary from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, with brass and paper mask made in collaboration with Alvaro Urbano
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Natrix natrix)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass. 17 x 73 x 1.5 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Pavo cristatus)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass, wood. 374 x 99 x 42 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Plegadis falcinellus)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass structure, wood. 60 x 57 x 14 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Remains I)’, 2013. Remains of the furniture from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, brass plate
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Upupa epops)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass
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Poisoned by men in need of some love – Remains of the furniture from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo with Gallinula chloropus, Microcarbo pygmeus et Mustela putorius’, 2013. Wood drawers and archival paper found in the ex-Natural History Museum of Kosovo, 3 sculpture animals, soil, excrement, glue, iron. 2 wood drawers, each: 78 x 37 x 33 cm
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‘There I wait infinitely for the hurricane to come, Several birds fly away when they understand it (Panel I and II)’, 2013. Cabinet from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, various rests of taxidermy birds. Prints and drawings on inventory cards from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, 2 panels. 185 x 120 x 51 cm Each paper: 30 x 30 cm. Panel: 90 x 90 cm
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‘There I wait infinitely for the hurricane to come, Several birds fly away when they understand it (Panel I and II)’, 2013. Cabinet from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, various rests of taxidermy birds. Prints and drawings on inventory cards from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, 2 panels. 185 x 120 x 51 cm Each paper: 30 x 30 cm. Panel: 90 x 90 cm
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‘There I wait infinitely for the hurricane to come, Several birds fly away when they understand it (Panel I and II)’, 2013. Cabinet from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, various rests of taxidermy birds. Prints and drawings on inventory cards from the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, 2 panels. 185 x 120 x 51 cm Each paper: 30 x 30 cm. Panel: 90 x 90 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Ursus arctos)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass box, wood. Bear: 153 x 88 x 50 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Ursus arctos)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass box, wood. Bear: 153 x 88 x 50 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Platalea leucorodia)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass. 54 x 73 x 18 cm
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Oriolus oriolus)’, 2013. Iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass structure
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‘Poisoned by men in need of some love (Anas platyrhynchos and Anas penelope)’, 2013. 2 ducks made of iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass. Each circa: 69 x 60 x 29 cm
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‘July 14th?’, 2013. Three-channel video, sound, Albanian language with English subtitles. 23 min. Edition of 5 plus I AP