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WIELS Contemporary Art Centre presents Petrit Halilaj: Poisoned by men in need of some love

WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels presents Petrit Halilaj: Poisoned by men in need of some love on view 7 September 2013–5 January 2014.

Found image from the Museum of Natural History, Pristina, Kosovo, ca 2001. Photo: Lulzim Luigji Bejta. Courtesy Petrit Halilaj and Chert Gallery, Berlin.
Found image from the Museum of Natural History, Pristina, Kosovo, ca 2001. Photo: Lulzim Luigji Bejta. Courtesy Petrit Halilaj and Chert Gallery, Berlin.
Petrit Halilaj (b. 1986 in Kostërrc) was too young to remember the Berlin Wall falling but just old enough to remember all too well what came in its wake in what quickly became the ‘former’ Yugoslavia: 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 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, his use of commonplace materials and childhood memories has been an attempt to understand what such notions as ‘home,’ ‘nation’ and ‘cultural identity’ could mean. His frequent combinations of earth, rubble, wood slats, live chickens and delicate drawings evoke a world at once intimately personal and utopian, all while revealing the inevitable realities of a far wider sociopolitical sphere.

For the artist’s first exhibition in Belgium and his largest solo show to date, Halilaj extends his ongoing excavation of the Natural History Museum in Kosovo, a formerly remarkable and well-loved place before splintered nationalisms disintegrated what was once called Yugoslavia. 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 after the war. Halilaj filmed the entire process of opening the long-closed facilities, pointing to the consequences of the new nation’s prioritisation of one kind of ‘cultural heritage’ at the cost of another.

At WIELS, his vast, new installation, Poisoned by men in need of some love, is comprised of the resulting three-part film, numerous drawings, and hand-sculpted copies of many of the museum’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. The artist has repeated the animals’ poses from the photographs and also replicated the incredible detail recorded in them in his more than fifty hand-made animal excremental sculptures, which sit on shimmering brass bases. The transmutation that is suggested, like some alchemical experiment in which dirt and shit gives way to gold (or almost), gives strange, new life to the animals and a renewed political resonance to the Museum of Natural History’s collection.

Like Beuysian felt and fat, Halilaj’s mnemotechny of homeland and homelessness—in this as in previous projects—is not documentary, strictly speaking, but it is not nostalgic or romantic either. It also inevitably continues two central and recurrent threads found throughout Halilaj’s work: a thematic one, in which the life of animals reflects on or allegorises the life of their human counterparts, and also a formal one, in which the most seemingly mundane or crass materials are the building blocks of an imagination that reaches towards the sublime.

The artist and WIELS thank the Museum of Natural History of Kosovo, the Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Chert Gallery, and the Embassy of the Republic of Kosovo for their support of this project.

Petrit Halilaj (b. 1986 in Kostërrc; lives and works in Berlin, Kosovo, and Mantova) studied art at the Brera Academy in Milan. His work has been featured in solo exhibitions including Pavilion of the Republic of Kosovo at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013; Who does the earth belong to while painting the wind?! (Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, 2012) and Petrit Halilaj (Kunstraum Innsbruck, 2011); as well as in group exhibitions, including The New Public (Museion, Bolzano), It doesn’t always have to be beautiful, unless it’s beautiful (The Kosovo Art Gallery, Pristina), Lost and found (a nomadic initiative for contemporary art, Antwerp), 30 Künstler/30 Räume (Kunstverein Nürnberg/Albrecht Dürer Gesellschaft, Nürnberg; all 2012), Ostalgia (New Museum, New York, 2011) and the 6th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (Berlin, 2010).

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