Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj’s sculptures are a 3-dimensional manifestation of his childhood memories and artistic endeavours as a youth. But beyond the autobiographical nature of expressing a childhood lost from war and forced displacement, they also have deeper significance; they are common icons which have been redefined to express the disconnection from reality that his world had become, the deconstruction of iconographic mythologies inherent within them.
The Abetare (2015) exhibition in Paris, is full of steel sculptures which seems to be a manifestation of single line drawings or doodles he once did as a child. That they are now recreated out of steel rods at ‘life size’ gives them a characterization as well as bringing to life that period of time in his life.
Incidently the word ‘abetare’ in Albanian means children’s book, which is what fills some of the walls in the space. In any other context, it probably wouldn’t mean anything, but it seems the Kosovo of the 1990s when Halilaj was using them, was about as far removed as one can get from the scenes depicted in these books. Painting a happy, friendly, socially harmonious existence where exploration, discovery and learning are the order of the day, these scenes are literally a fantasy in contrast with Halilaj’s reality at the time, being exiled due to war and growing up in a refugee camp.
That there is no mention of the horrors of war or human displacement, the reality of life for the adult parents of the children who read these books, points to a level of disconnectedness that borders on absurdity.
Certain icons which are containers of mythologies, keep appearing in Halilaj’s installations over and over again, such as the rocket, the chicken and the house.
In The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I do not know how to make them real (2010), the front portion of an unfinished house seems to be suspended from the ceiling, floating in mid-air, with chickens running around underneath.
That an empty shell of a house would be associated with what’s implied in the title, the artist’s ‘utopian dream’, points to the uncertainty surrounding Halilaj’s life growing up, of trying to do something with one’s life but being unable to ‘make it real’, just like the unreality of the floating house. But why would a utopian place be boring? Aren’t utopian places full of joy and teaming with life?
Perhaps this utopian dream only covers his professional life, which is a lot of hard work getting there and might be considered to be ‘boring’ once there, since it is all work and no play according to the traditional view of what work is. On the other hand it might also refer to the migratory nature of his life right now, living between Berlin, Italy and Kosovo, one where the notion of a ‘home’, as in where and what it is, remains vague, illusive, even unattainable.
In It ́s the first time my dear that you have a human shape (bracelet) (2015) a giant metal ring filled with earth, which is apparently modeled after rings worn by Halilaj’s mother, lies on the floor but some of its earth has spilt out, leaving one to wonder what it all means. How can the ring suddenly have a human shape and what is a human shape anyway?
Perhaps the ring when worn on his mother ear, glimmering with its shiny metal reflections, was too perfect for the situation, too other-worldly. With it unhinged and earth spewing out all over the place would represent an image more closely aligned with the destruction and brokenness experienced in the aftermath of war. Besides, gold is something taken from the earth to begin with.
It is probable that Halilaj grew up with chickens and other farm animals, since everything else, the house, his mother’s ring and the steel ‘sketches’ are all from his childhood. He once lived with chickens in a pen during an exhibition ‘Art Is My Playground’ in Istanbul. So to have chickens running around in an art exhibition could be a microcosm or a representation of human beings in action, running around underneath this huge wood frame ‘house’ which is a dream, suspended from the ceiling or running around a giant rocket.
But these chickens are distinct from others in that they are ‘bourgeois’ chicken meaning that they are the more ‘lucky’, well-off ones compared to others which might not have enough to eat. The common definition of being ‘bourgeois’ or ‘the bourgeoisie’ seems to be an urban dwelling, materialistic, (upper) middle-class type. But it is the usage of the word that is more telling; frowned upon by Karl Marx as a product of capitalism, ‘the bourgeois’ mainly appears in Marxist writings and also has a connotation of being mediocre, someone who ‘doesn’t see the light’ and just runs around day to day oblivious to the suspended incomplete house, and this huge rocket beside them.
The rocket is another controversial, ambiguous iconographic symbol. Depending on which period of time it is located in, it can be either a symbol of hope or of despair. For instance in the 1960’s during the space race, the rocket symbolized state of the art technological achievement, while during the Kosovo war in late 1990’s, the rocket was a symbol of something to be feared, for it was something that could take away one’s home.
All of these symbols used here, the chicken, the house, the rocket, the ring are loaded with preconceived meanings from popular culture; according to French philosopher Roland Barthes, they have been ‘mythologized’ into our sub-conciousness to mean something. But here, Halilaj deconstructs these iconographic mythologies to introduce another meaning where the chicken becomes a bourgeois person, the house becomes a distant dream, the ring becomes a wall, an earth retainer and the rocket something that people to run in and out of or even live in.
Nowadays, the image of the rocket, on the back of a truck running down a parade or firing up from a clearing in a forest or from a beachhead, has been mythologized to being a threat of nuclear war and the annihilation of continents. On another level it depicts a subtle request to ‘give me some face’ (and what I want) and the subtle response to ‘stand down because I can kill you with my guided missiles’. One is saying ‘I can kill you all’, while the other is saying ‘I can kill you’. Both are signs in a mythology, spectacles within a story, actors within a fictional account of good versus evil.
If this was not true, why would Londoners even bother to boo Justin Gatlin for winning the 100m finals at the World Championships, if the end of the world is next week? This is another mythological tale in which the preferred script, the one where the tall, drugs-free hero wins his last race and rides off into the sunset but didn’t play out. Instead the ‘evil villain’ Gatlin had to win, spoiling everything, and going against all ‘sense of justice’ in the world. I have never seen a more disappointed look from a gold medal winner standing on the podium, which is an ironic twist to Tracy Moffatt’s Fourth series of pictures.
Back to the ‘rocket and end of the world’ myth, there is even a date set for the spectacle – 15th of August 2017, which happens to be a public holiday in North Korea. This day would either be the start of Korean War 2.0, which would see the annihilation of certain parts of the Korean peninsula and an invasion, or it’ll just be another spectacle to watch 4 missiles drop into the ocean and a lot of talking heads on TV. But in Do you realize there is a rainbow even if it’s night!? (gold) (2017), Halilaj is acknowledging the ambiguity of the rocket symbol, that its mythology could be used for something constructive, something even beautiful like a rainbow happening where or when one doesn’t expect it to happen like at night time.