The artistic work of Petrit Halilaj is linked to his personal history and that of his country, Kosovo, inevitably scarred by the war and the complex management of its independence. Using sculpture, video, performance and drawing, Halilaj has developed a profound reflection on the mechanisms of construction of cultural identity, on the value of memory and on the role of art in the formation of collective consciousness in today’s society.

The Shkrepëtima project presented at the Fondazione Merz continues the artist’s investigation into the historical roots of Runik, the little Kosovar town in which he grew up, from its Neolithic origins to its recent past. The exhibition is the culminating and conclusive moment of the project, entirely produced by the Fondazione Merz. The first and fundamental chapter of the project was the performance held on 7 July 2018 in the ruins of the Runik Culture House, which for over thirty years had been the symbol of the cultural identity of its citizens. Dating back to the era of former Yugoslavia, the building once housed a library with over 7,000 volumes, a theatre in which regular performances were organised, and the headquarters of the village social cooperative. These activities had already been interrupted with the worsening of the political situation before the war and the building was then partially destroyed during the conflict. The structure had been totally abandoned before the action of the artist who, together with some members of the community, cleaned and renovated it for the event. The performance is the most important intervention in a public space ever undertaken by Halilaj and involved about a hundred people, including performers, musicians, actors and villagers.

The exhibition opens with the first of a new series of sculptures and monumental installations that re-contextualise the settings, costumes and stage props of the performance inside the exhibition space. The work is composed of the bed in which, at the beginning of the first act, a boy falls asleep dreaming of being able to give new life to the theatre of Runik. The bed is positioned above a platform that had the function of sliding it out of the building, suspending it in the theatre space. In the performance, the boy’s dream becomes reality and the theatre is ‘awakened’ thanks to the sound of fifteen ocarinas, while mysterious bird-like creatures build a nest around his bed with elements taken from the ruins. The ocarinas, supported by elements extending from the bed in all directions, were created by the artist on the model of the Runik Ocarina, one of the oldest musical instruments ever found in the Balkans. A find of great symbolic value because, despite the requests for restitution on the part of the Kosovar government, it remains in Belgrade at the Museum of Natural History and therefore inaccessible to the citizens of Runik. Hundreds of fragments recovered from the rubble removed during the redevelopment project of the building are arranged organically from the ceiling to the bed. Tiles, bricks and wooden beams of the building, which were nothing more than useless, bulky rubble, find a function as historical testimony, becoming an expression of a precise will to remember the past in a context in which the desire for removal is very strong. Through his dreamlike and visionary language, Halilaj has achieved a surprising balance between the weight of the history of these fragments and the physical lightness arising from their suspension.

Inside the Fondazione Merz, a former 1930s industrial structure, the artist then reconstructed the proportions and volumes of Runik’s Cultural Centre building using the wooden stage sets of the performance. Halilaj has managed to relate the two buildings and two very different realities, which certainly represent a point of reference for the communities that were born and grew around them. His intervention reminds us not only of the centrality of the places of memory in the construction of our identity, but also that their potential is not necessarily limited to a city or a nation, and can be expressed in various forms, generating a space of shared reflection.

The red curtains and the painted backdrops used in the performance are arranged along the longitudinal axis of the building and transform the exhibition space into a stage. On them alternate the stories of the second act, in which Halilaj reenacts fragments taken from some of the most important Albanian dramas that were recited at Runik by amateur companies. The texts were selected by the artist to question problematic issues concerning Albanian identity and some of the models that still regulate its social structure. Topics include the struggle for personal and collective freedom (Toka Jonë), female education (Cuca and Maleve), gender resistance (Nita), machismo and efforts to overcome a traditionalist and reactionary mentality (Hakmarrja). The stories are so strong that the curtains do not seem able to hold them back and the props escape to impose themselves on the spectators’ gaze.

From above the birds, in the form of sculptures made with the costumes worn by the actors in Runik, observe the whole scene. Birds are a recurrent animal in the artist’s imagination and works as a metaphor of the ability to be free and go beyond geographical boundaries and cultural barriers. Their fundamental role in the performance is to realise what does not seem possible and, like in the text fragment of the traditional song that closes the performance, make dreams come true.

The exhibition itinerary continues by entering the theatre building in virtual fashion. Here, a series of conceptual drawings and studies of the performance are presented on old documents found by the artist in the rooms of the Cultural Centre. These are commercial invoices that were part of the archive of the local Cooperative, testimony of a daily activity of a reality that no longer exists. Here we discover neolithic bird-like artefacts, jokes taken from theatrical scripts, studies for bird costumes and props used in the show. These drawings represent a conceptual storyboard of the performance and a visual portrait of the cultural history of the village in which the past meets the present.

On the lower level, a video is presented in which fragments of filming of the performance overlap with those made by the artist inside the ruins of the Cultural Centre before it was tidied up. A subjective reconstruction of the action that restores the objects that have animated the exhibition to their original function. The musical score consists of ANDRRA (Fatime Kosumi) and Christoph Hamann, in collaboration with Petrit Halilaj, and arises from a selection of sounds of stones, bricks, tiles and other materials found among the ruins combined with the sound of the ocarina.

By intervening directly on the processes of construction of the collective history of his community, bringing it closer to its origins, Halilaj also proposes a universal reflection on the potential of art and its power to transform reality. As is also suggested by the title of the project, which in Albanian means “flash” and, by extension, a sudden and intense thought that works as an activator of consciousness, Shkrepëtima is a “spark” able to restart a process of reflection on our identity. Only through a deep awareness of the past can we assume the right responsibility for building the future.

Installation views. Photographs by Renato Ghiazza.