To describe this (or the artist’s various other projects) is to notice that, a bit like Beuyxian felt and fat, Halilaj’s mnemotechny of homeland and homelessness is not documentary, strictly speaking, but it is not nostalgic or romantic, either. Instead, it walks an elegant tightrope between memory and actuality, the ingenious and the fictive, the infinitely personal and the commonly shared experiences of all of us who inevitably know what it is to have lost our innocence, and yet keep marveling at the magic still left in the world.
— Elena Filipovic, from her introduction to catalog essay for Petrit Halilaj: Poisoned by men in need of some love
I am always hesitant to include biographical information on artists in reviews of work. The risk is that the biography will loom over their work. Often, this results in a kind of cannibalization where the work becomes a mere foot note to the narrative and identity of the artist. When writing about artists whose history and homelands are marked by wars based on ethnic difference, the narrative looms larger. And yet, there is no way to write about the work of Petrit Halilaj without including the artist’s history and background.
Petrit Halilaj’s family fled the Kosovo War. He grew up in a refugee camp. His work is marked by this primary experience and yet his work is not bracketed by nationalities or ethnicities, or at least not on the surface. Exploratory in nature, Halilaj’s various projects are forays into comprehending what happened in the conflict?. His works are excavations of the history of his homeland and, as such, these works perform both a deep desire to know while, at the same time, a resistance to any simple reductionist interpretation. That he has continued with this lifelong line of inquiry speaks to his refusal to succumb to any overly simplistic retelling.
One example of Halilaj’s work following these themes is his project “Poisoned me in need of some love” (2013) in which the artist documented the items from the former Museum of Natural History, Pristina, a museum of natural history in the Republic of Kosovo that was dismantled in 2001 when, after the war, the museum changed its focus to collecting and displaying, the country’s folk traditions and heritage. The archive of taxidermied animals was removed from the museum, the items stored in a series of makeshift warehouse storage facilities where many of the pieces fell to ruin as the result of water damage and inconsistent temperature. Halilaj’s project involved documenting the transport of these taxidermied animals when, after a decade, the warehouse was opened to the public. This project, like his others, speaks to the issues of cultural identity and nation formation without ever speaking directly to them.
In Halilaj’s current exhibition at the New Museum, Petrit Halilaj: RU, the artist again explores matters of excavation as a means to explore issues of nationality. The one-room show on the first floor is divided into two spaces. The first “room” is dark with a film projected on six screens attached to a wall: The city roofs were so near that even a sleepwalking car could pass over Runik without ever touching the ground (2017), a two-channel, high definition video. The work is a 26-minute film in which the artist interviews several people about a recent excavation that occurred on their land. In the footage, various members of different families (or perhaps members of one extended family; it remains unclear) explain how a group of archeologists came, dug up artifacts from their land, and then left. The excavated items were taken to Belgrade, Serbia.
The film moves from person to person — including children, grandmothers, men — in one town, Runik. The various testimonies portray a series of excavations occurring in secret. Though the town members assisted in some of the work of digging and saw some of the items discovered, they were not told what the pieces were or what the archeologists were looking for. The items discovered in the digs are kept in the Natural History Museum in Belgrade and the Kosovo Museum in Pristina — out of the reach of the people of Runik. Like his previous projects, this project presents and performs issues of cultural identity without explicitly addressing cultural identity while allowing viewers to work, excavating perhaps, their own questions and answers.
The two rooms are divided by what appears to be a large chunk of earth with roots sticking out giving the main room a sense of being underground. In the second room are a series of similar, smaller chunks of what appear to be earth embedded with plants and shoots, and with ceramics and other small, sculptural objects set upon them.
The issue of translation is paramount. First, the artist is “translating” his history and the history of his culture vis-à-vis his exploration of the archive, questioning what items are archived, who is allowed access to such objects, and what artifacts are presented to the public. Furthermore, the project itself has been “translated” for an American audience, an audience that may not be familiar with the history of Kosovo.
I wondered about the artist’s decision to make bird-like shapes out of plants, shoots, and ceramics, then understood that the act of “translating” the artifacts into birds creates a remove, distancing the work from history and reality, a strategy that appears to be an integral part of the exhibition. The choice to translate the artifacts into “birds” seemed to be a move toward animation, and thus, entertainment. And, indeed, the playfulness of the second room does defuse the urgency and seriousness of the film and overall aesthetic of the first room. My discomfort with this move, this further “translation,” is useful because this feeling forced me to ask myself what kinds of translations I am comfortable with and what ethical concerns arise regarding translation, because it’s difficult to get a perfect one to one ratio in translation — there will always be error in translation which means the original can never be fully communicated.
This question parallels the artist’s original questions regarding ownership — who owns history and who gets to tell it, who owns the artifacts from one’s land, who gets to decide what is displayed to the public, and who has access to such objects when not on display. There are no easy answers to these questions and it isn’t the artist’s desire, as far as I can tell, to give us any, either. To attempt to reduce the issues examined in the work to one conclusive answer is to repeat the very same practice that helped to create the Kosovo War in the first place. Instead, his job is to excavate these difficult questions, present them to the viewer, and allow enough space for the viewer to work out her own answers.