In his installations and sculptures, Petrit Halilaj charts the ways in which geographic and temporal locations shift matter and meaning. Embedded in his experience of war and dislocation, Halilaj explores diasporic memory by revisiting the dwellings and symbols of his homeland and personal history. Historian Eric Hobsbawm urges us to ‘protest against forgetting’; in Halilaj’s work, this protest is taken up––however, memory is neither nostalgic nor traumatic. Halilaj’s speculative worlds are symbols of possibility and transformation. As curator Kathrin Rhomberg wrote when she curated Halilaj’s work in the first Pavilion at the Republic of Kosovo at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2012, “his art can be seen as building bridges between different worlds and realities, ideologies, different generations and phases of life.”
In Kostërrc, Halilaj’s installation for Art Basel Statements in 2011, Halilaj transported a cross-section of land from his family’s property in Kostërrc, Kosovo, to literally fill the gallery’s booth. On display was the green and yellow grass, the dirt and soil now thousands of miles from its home. Also on view was a photograph of the hole left in the Kosovar countryside, making tangible the interdependency, and providing an alternate perspective of the effects of departure. This work is now a permanent installation on Callie’s grounds—as it continues to grow and adapt to the habitat in Berlin, its history becomes integrated. With Halilaj’s work, the exhibition space becomes a habitat of change, allowing us to consider waves of migration, flux, and motion.
Anecdote and personal narratives frequently intertwine with intimate collaborations in Halilaj’s work. From January to March 2017, Halilaj had his first residency at Callie’s to prepare a large-scale installation for the 57th Biennale di Venezia. Collaborating with his mother, Halilaj created large performative sculptures of moths using traditional Kosovar textiles. Moths are a frequent reference point in Halilaj’s work, symbolizing the delicate, hopeful state of chrysalis. The moth also draws on early memories of chasing them as they flocked to the light in his childhood home. In 2016, he made his first moth costume and an accompanying performance: dressed as a moth, he moved in relation to a lamp, alternately coming close to the light source or hiding in the darker corners of the room. For this project, Halilaj was awarded a Special Mention from the jury of the 57th International Art Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia in 2017.
In 2019 Halilaj returned to Callie’s to work on a new body of work in collaboration with artist—and Halilaj’s life-partner—Alvaro Urbano. The two artists created monumental painted canvas and steel flowers commemorating all of the flowering plants that played a role in the lovers’ courtship. The project was prepared for Halilaj’s solo exhibition for the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, titled To a raven and the hurricanes that from unknown places bring back smells of humans in love (2020). Halilaj and Urbano turned the Palacio de Cristal into a joyful bouquet. Birds are a recurring motif in Halilaj’s work; not only do they symbolize return and migration, but the artist-couple has also lived with them and so they have a personal significance. Within this open structure of the Palacio de Cristal, the artists installed feeding areas for the birds, creating a multi-species oasis.
Petrit Halilaj represented Kosovo at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. He received the Mario Merz Prize, and the special mention of the jury at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. In 2018, he was awarded the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship.
Halilaj was born in 1986 in Kostërrc, Kosovo. He studied fine arts at the Brera Academy in Milan. Solo exhibitions include Tate St Ives, UK (forthcoming, 2021); To a raven and hurricanes that from unknown places bring back smells of humans in love, Palacio de Cristal, Reina Sofia, Madrid (2020-21); Shkrepëtima, Paul Klee Zentrum, Bern, Switzerland (2018); Petrit Halilaj, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, USA (2018); Shkrepëtima, Fondazione Merz, Torino, Italy (2018); Ru, New Museum, New York, USA (2017); Abetare (Fluturat), kamel mennour, Paris (2017); Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night!?, kamel mennour, London (2017); and Astronauts Saw My Work and Started Laughing, Stacion, Center for Contemporary Art, Prishtina, Kosovo. He has participated in group shows such as Power ! Light !, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2020) and Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2019); You, works from the collection Lafayette Anticipations, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France (2019); Far Back Must Go Who Wants To Do A Big Jump, ChertLüdde, Berlin, Germany (2019); Friend of a Friend, ChertLüdde hosted by Foksal Gallery, Warsaw, Poland (2019); Enfance, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France (2019); Materialism: in praise of slowness, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden (2019); and Art and Alphabet, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg (2018). Halilaj lives and works between Berlin, Mantua, and Pristina.