Artist: Petrit Halilaj
Venue: Wiels, Brussels
Exhibition Title: Poisoned by men in need of some love
Date: September 7, 2013 – January 5, 2014
Full gallery of images, press release and link available after the jump.
Petrit Halilaj, July 14th?, 2013. Excerpt of a three-channel video (full video: 27 min.)
Video and images courtesy of Wiels Contemporary Art Center, Brussels and Chert, Berlin. Photos by Wiels Contemporary Art Center, the artist, Laura Toots, and Kristien Daem.
Petrit Halilaj (b. 1986 in Kostërrc, Kosovo) was too young to remember the Berlin Wall falling, but was just old enough to remember all too well what came in its wake in his homeland: ethnic conflict, war, forced exile, corruption, loss. Having fled with his family to a refugee camp as a young boy during the conflict in Kosovo, Halilaj’s history is as inseparable from war and exodus as is his entire oeuvre. Yet much as
he may mine his experience, he rejects pathos or nostalgia for something at once far more optimistic, materially complex, politically resonant and, ultimately, critical. From the start, the young artist’s use of commonplace materials and childhood memo- ries has been an attempt to understand what such notions as ‘home’, ‘nation’, and ‘cul- tural identity’ could mean. His frequent combinations of earth, rubble, wood slats, live chickens, and delicate drawings evoke a world both intimately personal and utopian, all while revealing the inevitable realities of a far wider sociopolitical sphere.
Halilaj’s project for WIELS, his first exhibition in Belgium and largest solo show to date, entitled Poisoned by men in need of some love, extends the subtle but undeniably ideological implications of so much of his previous work, and continues his ongoing excavation of the remains of the Museum of Natural History in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. For several years now, the artist has been interested in the fate of the taxidermy animals that used to be on display in the museum.
Animals entered the collection of the Museum of Natural History between 1951 and 1971. Thus the establishment of the collection, while not exactly mirroring the period of governance of Josip Broz, known as Tito (Yugoslavia’s charismatic and fed- erating leader at the time, who became Prime Minister in 1943, the first president in 1953, and remained so until his death in 1980), certainly parallels Tito’s own most ac- tive years of rule. In those years, the institution built itself up to become a remarkable and well-loved place, with more than 1,800 individual stuffed animals, including 850 entomological specimens, 27 fish specimens, 11 amphibians, 20 reptiles, 36 mammals, 577 winged animals, and 49 skeletons of other species. The collection included a few extraordinary specimens and an otherwise rich panorama of endemic animal life dis- played in hand-made dioramas or glass cases spread throughout the museum.
But the fall of Communism and the dissolution of the Socialist state after 1989 led to ethnic conflict, cultural tensions, and eventually to a painful civil war that brought the shattered country, its people, and naturally also its museums, into tragic disarray. And with a bloody war over, new priorities for the nation emerged. In 2001,
an official decree ordered that the museum’s entire animal collection be removed and stored in a rather ad-hoc way behind hidden doors in various cellar-like storage facilities, while their ‘home’ in the museum was given over to the display of folk tra- dition and heritage instead. The gesture – part of the effort to shore up a clear sense of Kosovar national identity, to distinguish it from its ethnically diverse neighbours – was officially endorsed as infinitely more pressing than the fate of the taxidermy animals, insects, and other specimens in the collection.
Just before being displaced, however, they were photographed. Roughly eighty such images document a selection of the animals, frozen in their taxonomised pre- sentation positions in the museum, or in an improvised photography ‘studio’ where one can see them as if caught in the headlights of the photographer’s stare. That was just about the last time they would be seen intact. For if the war itself had apparently broken up parts of the collection, with some specimens taken by the Serbians to Bel- grade, the post-war period of disavowal of the significance of the collection wreaked even more havoc. Exiled to a strange purgatory in leaking cellar spaces, and thus ‘stored’ for more than a decade in fluctuating temperatures, in damp and generally abominable conditions, most of the collection did not survive.
If the museum’s early history – built up and thriving during the period of Yu- goslavia’s epic flourishing – mirrors that of the nation at the time, its present fate also sadly mirrors the country’s aftermath. For present day Kosovo (a product of Yugosla- via’s splintered nationalisms) still struggles, more than a decade after the end of the battles that formed it, to solidify itself as an entity and identity, and to come to terms with its war-torn history. It is perhaps only fitting, then, that Halilaj, who has built his oeuvre from the very rubble of this history, would find in the museum the ideal site from which to excavate new possibilities for that nation’s and their collection’s future.
At Halilaj’s instigation, the museum’s storage facilities were opened and the current – almost totally ruined – state of its contents revealed, roughly a decade after their expulsion from the main halls of the museum. Halilaj filmed the entire process of opening the long- closed facilities, creating tangible evidence of the ruin- ous condition of the museum’s once-glorious collection. His attempt to record and pay homage to the former collection points to the consequences of the new nation’s prior- itisation of one kind of ‘cultural heritage’ at the cost of another. It also quietly reveals what nation-formation, the cementing of cultural identity, and ‘progress’ all leave behind.
His vast, new installation, Poisoned by men in need of some love, is comprised of a three-part film, numerous drawings, and hand-sculpted copies of many of the mu- seum’s animal remnants. His sculpted forms 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 from the museum’s main presentation galleries and sent to their storage-facility exile. The artist has repeated the animals’ poses from the photographs and also replicated the incredible detail re- corded in them – whether elaborate feathering or delicate, fur-lined features – in his more than fifty hand- made animal ‘copies’. Copies from photographic copies of already dead originals, they convey a sense of absurdity, levity, but also incredible tenderness.
Link: Petrit Halilaj at Wiels