The dream of life in the magical reality of Petrit Halilaj

The artistic research of Petrit Halilaj (born in Kostërrc, Skenderaj-Kosovo, in 1986) could be considered part of the artistic and literary current of the magical realism where reality and imagination, political and folklore elements, personal and collective memory are mixed.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

Petrit Halilaj operates on a traumatic past that links his personal experience to the history of his country of origin, Kosovo. Born during the war in the ex-Yugoslavia, the artist subsequently emigrated to Italy where he grew up and completed his artistic training. His practice consists in re-elaborating the facts of the past and the reality that constitutes it, transforming it into an imaginative universe in order to wake up the collective and personal consciousness.In a history of violence, the daily experience is interwoven with symbols that obsessively refer to  traumatic events. This characteristic can be summarized in the phrase: “I am here to remind you that that time you forgot something, but you survived” which is repeated obsessively until the everyday life is unbearable and the present is unreal.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

In Halilaj’s practice, the elements of reality that belong to history are transformed, they become part of a dictionary of symbols that includes birds, canaries and chickens, the nest, the ocarina, a Neolithic musical instrument, moths etc. Instead of being removed, these elements are reintegrated into a horizon of poetic creation that returns to act on reality by modifying it. Shkrepëtima, the exhibition presented at the Merz Foundation in Turin in 2019, curated by Leonardo Bigazzi, on the occasion of the awarding of the Mario Merz prize, is the representation of an awakening of consciousness. Shkrepëtima, in fact, is an Albanian term that means ‘lightning’, as in a ‘flash of genius’, or in the expressions “Eureka! I got it, I understand”. It is an expression that indicates the awakening of the mind, in the complete sense of body, soul and intellect. The exhibition was the final event of a project divided into three parts: the first consisting of a large-scale performative effort presented at the Casa della Cultura in Runik, the artist’s city of origin, on July 7, 2018.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

The theatrical performance was part of the final event, of a real and direct intervention by the artist within the space that had been left neglected and abandoned due to the war. Back in Runik, Halilaj decided to ‘occupy’ the House of Culture by reorganizing its spaces and cleaning it from the rubble. With the latter, he then created sculptures that gave birth to the scenography of the performance and which were subsequently installed at the Merz Foundation. The main work of this scenography titled Dreaming on, fast asleep, your face came to my mind.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

When I open my eyes it was nowhere to be found (2018), is a ‘nest-bed’ from which millions of fragments of wood that seem to have exploded branch off in the air. The plot of the show is the story of a boy who falls asleep and dreams of some characters, half man and half bird, who explain to him how he can save the House of Culture. Following the artistic performance, which also involved the citizens of Runik, the space was finally declared as part of the cultural heritage and, therefore, worthy of being preserved. Changing reality through imagination is an act of refuge and escape at the same time. Precisely through the creation of a parallel world we can accept reality and what is its very essence, the solitude and the absurdity of life. The second moment of this project was an exhibition at the Paul Klee Zentrum in Bern, an occasion that eventually represented a link with his previous artistic effort.

Petrit Halilaj
Poisoned by men in need of some love (Falco Peregrinus, Falco berigora), 2013/2020
iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass
57 × 253 × 201 cm (22 ½ × 99 ⅝ × 79 ⅛ inches)

The sculptures of the series Poisoned by men in need of some love are hand-sculpted copies of many of the taxidermy animals once displayed in the former Natural History Museum of Kosovo.
Funded in 1951, the museum existed until 2001, when an official decree ordered that the museum’s entire animal collection would be removed and stored in a rather unsafe way, behind hidden doors in various cellar-like storage facilities. The artist discovered the the lost museum collection and its destroyed animals between 2011 and 2013. The video July 14th documents step by step their rediscovery.
The sculptures are made from a mix of earth and animal excrement, partly from the artist’s native Kosovo, and based on the found photographs portraying the state of the animals before they were removed. Copies from photographic copies of already dead originals, they convey a sense of absurdity, levity, but also incredible tenderness.
Halilaj’s project attempts to give the museum and its specimens another life and a renewed political resonance.

On display were some of the sculptures made in Runik and a video installation, The city roofs were so near that even a sleepwalking cat could pass over Runik without ever touching the ground (2017), where the artist shows the story of the archaeological findings of the Neolithic period discovered in the same region; among these there is also an ocarina, a musical instrument whose sound can be used to imitate the verse of birds, and which recalls the sound of a flute and that now is kept in the History Museum of Belgrade in Serbia. The exhibition also featured some installations of the RU exhibition presented in 2017 at the New Museum in New York. Among these, particularly worthy of a mention is the work Big Wall (2017), a wall built from a set of branches from which small sculptures emerge, as faithful reproduction of the archaeological finds discovered in Runik, to which the artist has added thin bird-like legs, creating half-object and half-volatile mutant creatures, entangled in huge giant nests.

Petrit Halilaj
I don't have a Room, I don't have a Mind. 
Nevermind!, 2014
Canary costume
Dimensions variable

The exhibition at the Paul Klee Center also presented a series of drawings of birds and the same fantastic creatures, object-bird hybrids, this time made on the documents and the accounts of the Theater. Birds are something that may appear seemingly innocent and that that we believe we can dominate and control for life, locked in a cage, perhaps a golden one. But suddenly they wake up, and they wake us up, with their singing and their voice.

Something that at the same time welcomes us and rejects us. Something that looks at us from the other side, they always observe us. No matter what we do, they constantly appear before us as intruders in our city life. The final phase of the Shkrepëtima project is the installation at the Merz Foundation, which reproduces the space of the Runik Culture House and where the sculptures and installations that served for the sets were transferred. Also part of the display were the ‘bird-man’ costumes, used by the actors and personally made by the artist, a figure, halfway between the human world and the natural world, with divinatory and supernatural powers. These characters cross the boundaries between dream and reality and like birds they communicate and they know no barriers or boundaries.

Petrit Halilaj, Alvaro at Night (13.01.2020), 2020
Wood, metal, fabric, speakers, mp3 player, sound, Variable dimension
40 × 23 × 43 cm (15 ¾ × 9 × 16 ⅞ inches) 10 min. 48 sec. loop

Alvaro at Night (13.01.2020) is a sound installation by Petrit Halilaj. In this work, Halilaj built a birdhouse and placed in it a recording of his partner and occasional collaborator, Alvaro Urbano, while sleeping on January 13 2020. 
Embracing the symbol of the nest as a shelter and a protective structure, the work provides a glimpse into the private sphere. Both charming and effacing, Alvaro at Night invites reflection upon the balance of love, the sometimes disruptive consequences of sharing a life as complementary parts of human nature.
The work is an ongoing series continued individually by both artists. Alvaro Urbano’s series Petrit at Night is a series of birdhouses with sound recordings of Halilaj sleeping. Each birdhouse contains a recording from a different night, and has a unique shape.
The two groups of works, which refer to each other, constitute the notion of a continuously developing portrait of a partner.

The bird man with a feathered hat allows everyone to dream, but not in order to close the world outside and not even to close it inside, but to sink into the abyss of the imagination, transforming the world into a possibility when also reality. The textile medium is continuously present in Halilaj’s artistic practice, we have a relevant example in the work Do you realize there is a rainbow even if it’s night? presented at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and at the exhibition at the Hummer Projects in 2018. The artist made a series of moth-shaped costumes by hand with the help of his mother, which were then worn by the artist to interact with the visitors of the exhibition. The costume and the mask are therefore the means that allows Halilaj to communicate what is not immediately conveyable, what in fact can only be expressed through body language, what is needed to find the strength that allows us to manifest our nature without having fear of showing our fragility. Like moths, which transform and evolve in various stages and in various directions. Starting in 2014 Petrit Halilaj began a creative journey together with the Madrid-born artist Alvaro Urbano. The two, in parallel with their individual practice, have developed a research that reflects the possibilities of a coexistence in a humanized horizon of natural elements. Almost at the beginning of their coexistence, Halilaj and Urbano decided to have canaries as pets in their study and to take care of them. But instead of locking them in a cage they left them free, or rather in a condition of semi-freedom. Thus starting a process that closely resembles that used by falconers and that in technical jargon in the breeding of hunting birds is called ‘manning’.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

“For the birds” is the work conceived after a year of residence in Villa Romana in Florence and subsequently presented in the group show “Trouble in Paradise” at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. The installation consisted of a path designed to make the canaries fly from the apartment where the artists lived to their studio, a tubular structure made of a fence net for chickens and of  wire which followed the flight of the birds.

The manning of birds in falconry is a very ancient art. The birds of prey in particular could not and should never be completely domesticated since otherwise they would lose their hunting instinct. In the manuals of the 17th century this coexistence without submission based on mutual respect is obtained through patience, gentleness and love. And still today in Mongolia, and in the regions on the border between Russia, Kazakhstan and in Korea, there are nomadic tribes that live together with the Golden Eagles. Eagles that are not restrained in cages but that share the same spaces as humans, sleeping and eating with them, exactly like the canaries of Halilaj and Urbano.

Halilaj’s research summarizes and expands within a horizon that goes from Surrealism to Arte Povera that then collects the most recent performative heritage that goes from Joseph Beuys to Felix Gonzales Torres. Petrit Halilaj’s art has to do with cure and remedy, even when this involves fatigue and pain. Imagination plays an important role here and can be understood in many ways. In Halilaj’s practice, in fact, he seems to gather the power of a defense mechanism, a barrier between ourselves and the world around us, which protects us when we don’t agree with it or we don’t like it. But it is also, at the same time, a remedy for pain when we cannot find the words to express it. Fantasy detaches from reality and leaves room for the intervention of various symbols that remind us of the power of life. These symbols bring with them what has upset us and how we have saved ourselves. They remind us of how we survived and what threatened us, acquiring the power to subvert and change reality. It is as if they were resurrecting a tree branch, a childhood memory, a piece of straw, and transforming it into something alive, like a nest.

Elda Oreto