Spiders inhabit Petrit Halilaj’s installation in Madrid’s Crystal Palace, or so suggest the webs clinging to the poplar thickets. For the exhibition, To a raven and hurricanes, that, from unknown places, bring back the smell of humans in love, Halilaj transformed the 19th-century landmark into a deconstructed nest, which expresses queer and nonhuman intimacy.
Upon entering, visitors veer left through a narrow tunnel of tall branches into the transparent, light-filled space. Enormous canvas-and-wire flowers hang from the columns and roof, and gargantuan, golden bird legs descend from the central dome to the floor. Yet the rest of the installation activates the perimeter: a mysterious, birdlike figure gazes north towards the chestnut trees, two other cloisters of branches line the palace’s symmetrical wings, and, most subtly, nine windows have been opened for the first time. Staff tell me they replenish feed on golden plates throughout the branches to attract so-far elusive birds. I remember a lone croon piercing the visitor chatter.
Creatures romp through Halilaj’s art, which unsettles the boundaries between human habitation and the natural world. Often drawing from personal experiences, including memories of his hometown in Kosovo and its history of conflict and displacement, Halilaj reimagines attachments to family, sexuality, and home. For such urgent subjects, Halilaj takes a risky whimsical approach, wagering on art to yield a sense of communion. To a raven… riffs off the structures bowerbirds build and ornament to attract mates. Halilaj often enlarges spatial details to shift relationships to place, and the branches, nailed together and to the floor to appear delicately woven, remind us of our smallness within ecosystems.
The monumental flowers similarly tease the palace’s grandiose architecture. Crafted by Halilaj and his partner, Spanish artist Álvaro Urbano, they publicly commemorate a relationship that crosses restrictions of citizenship and marriage. Spain, among many countries, does not recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty, and Kosovo recently began controversial reforms to recognize same-sex unions. The museum’s placard argues this visibility of excluded identities counters the palace’s colonial history of exhibiting Indigenous peoples and vegetation from the Philippines. Halilaj’s intervention confronts taxonomy with kinship; wind and migrating bodies erode the vitrine into a membrane. Yet for an artist who deftly mines material histories, the work waxes symbolic. The institution’s critical reminder of colonialism does not distinguish creating an inclusive space from decolonizing it.
I was more drawn to liminal gestures that emphasized sensation over the display of identities. The talons of the bird legs in the sculpture “Here to Remind You” (2020) hesitantly touch. In “History of a Hug” (2020), the blue-veined hands of an anthropomorphic raven grip a wooden post that Halilaj’s grandfather hugged in the fields when he heard his wife had given birth (he feared expressing emotion would break codes of masculinity).
Halilaj’s art houses feelings that elude identification, seeping into the wood. Recalling Laura Aguilar’s boulders, Diedrick Brackens’ catfish, and Feliciano Centurión’s invertebrates, queerness in his work demands not mere inclusion, but the forming of tender relationships towards our surroundings.
The installation recasts home, too, as a site of openness, and for exchanging tenderness. Halilaj’s work inaugurated the Reina Sofia Museum’s reopening at a moment when pandemic shelter-in-place protocols reified both the primacy and inaccessibility of the safe, private home, exposing our uneven interdependence beyond it. In September, the working-class, immigrant communities of Madrid’s outskirts disproportionately affected by outbreaks protested a selective quarantine of their neighborhoods. Their green spaces closed, but many workers still had to commute to maintain the city center. In verdant Retiro Park, Halilaj scattered the edges of his installation with branches, panes, and molding, as if tracing a storm. Left unfinished, the habitat suggests that to celebrate gathering anew we must undo existing borders. Perhaps more than the lush flowers, these apertures beckon hope in an unexpected art of crisis.
Petrit Halilaj: To a raven and hurricanes, that, from unknown places, bring back the smell of humans in love continues through February 28, 2021 at the Palacio de Cristal, Museo Reina Sofía (Paseo de Cuba, 4, 28009 Madrid, Spain). The exhibition is curated by Manuel Borja-Villel and Soledad Liaño.