As a young artist from the relative periphery, leaving home is typically the first step towards an international career. However, for Petrit Halilaj, home is not something he left behind. The relationship between his professional life in Berlin and family in Pristina has become the fertile ground where his practice is situated.
The now twenty-five-year-old artist from the rural village of Runik in Kosovo gained the art world’s attention through his inclusion in last year’s Berlin Biennale. For the main space at Kunst-Werke, Halilaj created a replica of the house his family was building just outside of Pristina, increasing its scale by 20 percent. The house in the gallery was inhabited not by the Halilaj family but by chickens who searched for food, built nests and laid eggs throughout the space. These chickens, or ‘bourgeois hens’ as he often calls them, function both as objects for and collaborators in his practice. They also serve as a link back to his rural childhood, and reflect the current exodus from the countryside across former Yugoslavia. These lively feathered characters have previously been a vital part of his practice, like the quirky coop shaped like a space rocket, They are Lucky to be Bourgeois Hens II (2009).
It was a bold decision by the Berlin Biennale’s curator, Kathrin Rhomberg, to allot one of the main venues for the exhibition to a relatively inexperienced artist. In the end, the ambiguously titled The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them (2010) became one of the most successful projects presented there. Halilaj’s ambition was to build two versions of his home simultaneously in two locations: Kunst-Werke and Runik. However, the one in Kosovo couldn’t be completed due to missing building permits. The doubling of this house forged a connection between the two realities, encouraging us to think of one while we visited the other, thus fostering a space for our projections. The success of the work had less to do with Halilaj’s utopian drive than the overwhelming presence of the structure and its feathered inhabitants; a powerful physical rendering of mythological space.
Rather than being completely subsumed by the art world after his success at the Berlin Biennale, Halilaj returned to his family in Kosovo to follow the construction of their new home. He temporarily escaped the pressure to create a new work in order to concentrate on his next move. After solving legal concerns with the local authorities, the house that should have been built during the biennale was finally under way. During the same visit, he also went to the place where he was born and where he witnessed the horrors of war, including having his first home burnt down. To this day, the ruins of that event can be seen on the hill where his house once stood, which his family still owns.
Around the same time, Chert, the gallery in Berlin that represents his practice, was selected to make a so-called Statement during Art Basel this coming June. Inspired by his visits to the family property, Halilaj proposed that the piece of land itself, with all its symbolic and concrete meaning, be the point of departure for his project. Halilaj wants to bring a piece of land from Kosovo to Art Basel that is the same size of their booth. For an artist from a place where land itself has been so contentious, the project appears to be a logical next step. Initially, If all goes as planned, visitors of Art Basel will literallyy be confronted with a piece of Kosovo. A slice of land. For sale.
Johan Lundh is a curator and critic, Berlin/Stockholm
15 through 19 June