Viva Arte Viva
57th Biennale di Venezia
Curated by Christine Macel
Arsenale, Venice
13 May – 26 November 2017

How can fiction and imagination participate in a social debate, in politically committed art? How can one share one’s innermost feelings in a context that hinders individual expression?, asks Petrit Halilaj. He was only twelve when his family fled the Kosovo war to seek refuge in a camp in Albania. After studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, he worked in Prishtina, Bozzolo and Berlin. His monumental and profoundly autobiographical installations tell of exile, war, abandoned territory, without ever giving way to drama or pathos.

For the Venice 57th International Art Exhibition, Petrit Halilaj and his mother have made some monumental performative sculptures of moths using traditional Kosovar fabrics. The use of costume and performative sculptures in his practice testifies the poetry and the humor that characterize his work and also his interest in ethnic materials, which itself raises questions about Heimat and identity.

Moths have occupied a central place in Halilaj’s imagination since childhood, when he used to chase them around the light bulbs hanging in the family home in Kostërrc. They also refer to the beginning of his artistic career when, invited to a first monographic exhibition at Stacion – Center for Contemporary Art Prishtina in 2009, he discovered the Lepidoptera collection from the former Museum of Natural History in a forgotten reserve. This discovery led him to a series of works entitled Cleopatra, with swirling light bulbs imitating the movement of the insects in the dark. In 2016, with his mother he produced a first moth costume which he donned for a performance during which he walked around a lamp and hid in the corners of the room while a voice-over read a scientific text and poems about moths.

Like in fairy tales, the bestiary that fills Halilaj’s work becomes a personification of human nature. And animals are indeed omnipresent in his work. Through disguise as a delicate moth and by the symbolism of metamorphosis associated with this insect, Petrit Halilaj implements a catharsis of his emotions, his feelings of love. The vulnerability of the moths concealed in the Arsenale is an allusion to his own identity, to the discovery of his sexuality and to the view taken of this by society and by his family.

Petrit Halilaj spends most of his time in his studio. His creativity finds its source in his inner world and in the memories of his childhood, peopled with animals. The irreverence of a cat, the bravery of a family dog or the freedom of the canaries flying in his studio are attitudes with which the artist identifies. Anecdote and personal history are intertwined with collective history: invited to the Berlin Biennale in 2010, he rebuilt the structure of his family home inhabited by chickens (The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real, 2010). Two years later, he made the enlargements of jewellery buried by his mother in their garden as they went into exile (It is the first time dear that you have a human shape, 2012). Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night!?, 2017, also bears witness to this same aspiration for remembering.

The making of the costumes becomes a pretext for an intimate conversation with his mother and a return to the innocence of childhood, to a world that is both personal and utopian. For Halilaj, this process reveals a nostalgia, a desire to slow down a modern world undergoing constant progress and leaving no room for dreams and intimacy, and stresses the artist’s desire to return to the authenticity of a more intense relationship with the world and others.

M. S.

(From the catalog of the 57th Venice Biennale).

Petrit Halilaj, “Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night!?”, 2017 Qilim Carpet from Kosovo, Flokati, Polyester, Chenille Wire, Stainless Steel, Brass, Installation view at the 57th Venice Biennale, Photo: Andrea Rossetti

Petrit Halilaj, “ABETARE (wallpaper installation”), 2015, wallpaper, scans of pages from the ABETARE book repeated on gallery walls, Dimensions variable. Exhibition view at the 57th Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Rossetti