Rescuing Butterflies
Tea with Petrit Halilaj

Petrit Halilaj is conquering the art world with his poetic installations and fantastic drawings. Yet his work is also quite political and based on hard experiences: war, expulsion, forgetting. The young Kosovar artist is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf visited him in his Berlin studio.
“Take another good picture of it, tomorrow the school will be gone,” says the little boy. Although there is something aloof about this remark, it is also menacing. But the video for Petrit Halilaj’s exhibition ABETARE 2015 at the Kölnischer Kunstverein begins very innocuously. In 2010, he revisited his old school in the Kosovar village of Runik, which he attended from 1992 to 1997. He must have loved it. According to his biography, he had his first solo exhibition there at the age of ten, apparently curated by his teacher. Just a year later, in 1998, following the outbreak of the Kosovo war, Halilaj was fleeing with his family. Years later the artist, now working internationally, returned to his hometown, as luck would have it, a day before the school building was torn down to make room for a new edifice. He filmed the activity – the workmen on the roof sorting out recyclable building material, elementary-school children frolicking around the abandoned building, collecting themselves, then speeding into different directions like a flock of birds. Intuitively, the children seem to sense that Halilaj is different. At first a little timid, they now become aggressive. They put their hands over the lens, grab for the camera, grimace, start screaming. Latent violence is in the air, somewhat more than is usual in a schoolyard. Halilaj can barely keep them in check and follows a group into the building on a wild-goose chase that culminates in a moment of pure destruction. Owing to the presence of the camera and the artist, things start to escalate. The children smash windows, spray paint, rip up posters and cards, tear pictures down from the walls. Halilaj is stunned, and, while filming, repeatedly says “Stop it!” as he tries to get the children under control. “Who is this guy?” a brawny boy asks hypocritically as he stomps on a framed photograph of an athlete or a politician. “I don’t know, but you’re destroying his face,” replies Halilaj dryly. And a fundamental conflict suddenly emerges: a silent, secret battle between nerds, outsiders, eccentrics, and representatives of purported normality, who seem to always have the upper hand. At this moment the film suddenly has a subversive irony that characterizes Halilaj’s entire oeuvre, even drives it.   

ABETARE are the school booklets that every child in Kosovo knows and that Halilaj grew up with. The film showing the destruction of the village school is repeatedly interrupted by book pages with idealized illustrations, letters, and writing exercises, like a foil that no longer matches reality. For his installation at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, the artist created a different kind of alphabet out of these overlapping levels. He used thin steel rods to reconstruct, on a much larger scale, the doodles, drawings, and comments covering the furniture and the classroom, which in the film he appraises together with the children. Three dimensionally, these giant scribbles, hearts, stars, machine guns, birds, and insignias like KFOR and UCK pervaded the sun-flooded postwar modern building. They were concentrated on the ceiling, encircled doorframes, clung to banisters, cast shadows, and created mirror images. In the basement, old desks were piled on top of one another. The artist gave some of them legs so long that they rise up through the stairwell to the upper floors. It looked like the aftermath of a bombing. With his intervention, Halilaj filled the museum with these scrawls, creating a direct, semiotic experience. Thinking of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, the famous treatise by the poststructuralist and semiotic theorist Roland Barthes, one could say that Halilaj brought together something like fragments of a language of war and conflict – all the standards and constraints, the clichés and gender roles children are confronted with from a very early age. In addition, the installation has an imaginative and poetic aspect that cannot be pinned down, that flutters lightly like a butterfly, and from a position of vulnerability produces something new and original.

He himself, says Halilaj, was a rather special child. “My mother told me that apparently when I was four or five I loved butterflies and when my parents didn’t lift me up to catch them I cried like what they referred to 'as a crazy girl.’ I caught them and took them to my room. In my room there were always about ten butterflies. And my mom had to laugh and said: 'We were so happy when you started going to school because you became more normal'.” But Halilaj was never really “normal.” At a refugee camp in Albania, staff from an aid organization offered each child a colored pencil to draw with. Halilaj asked for two because he was ambidextrous. A little later, camera teams filmed the then 13-year-old refugee rendering different kinds of birds with both hands.  

Years later, you still have the slight impression that you are sitting across from a child prodigy. The artist, who is only 30, is extremely open and friendly, almost soft. It’s a rainy winter evening in Berlin. We’re drinking tea in his studio in Berlin Wedding. It is nothing like what you would imagine that of a budding art star to be. He works in a modest, manageable shed in the backyard. There is giant table full of books, magazines, drawings, and sheets of paper, and a couch on which his little sister is currently spending the night. Her visa will run out soon and then she’ll have to return to Kosovo. Halilaj and his assistant are sitting across from each other at two small desks.  

It’s hard to believe that he realizes all of these projects here. It all began in 2010, with the Berlin Biennale curated by Kathrin Rhomberg. In 2013, he was the first artist to represent Kosovo at the Venice Biennale, and he had a large solo exhibition at WIELS in Brussels. That was followed by a double dip in the Rhineland. Almost concurrent with ABETARE at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, Halilaj showed She Fully Turning Around Became Terrestrial at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany. When we meet to talk, his rather monumental show Space Shuttle in the Garden is on view at the renowned Pirelli Hangar Bicocca in Milan. With the exception perhaps of the Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo before him, Petrit Halilaj is the only young artist to become a darling of curators in just a few years. What he and Vo have in common is the fact that from a past characterized by flight and migration, they have developed their own conceptual visual language that is reduced yet also biographically and psychologically charged. Halilaj, too, incorporates fragments of his family history and historical artifacts in his work and questions gender roles and cultural identities. And he, too, engages with absence, with the loss his home and a sense of belonging.

What differs is Halilaj’s earthiness, in a literal sense, the clay and excrement he works with, the filth he roots around in. An example is the 60 tons of soil from the property of his parent’s destroyed house in Kosovo that he had dumped without comment in the “Statements” sector of Art Basel – the load was so heavy that the floor of the hall almost collapsed. Or the menagerie of animals he molded out of clay and cow dung and mounted in minimal, geometric installations made out of golden shimmering copper rods for the exhibitions at WIELS and the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany. Both of these exhibitions were preceded by the adventurous discovery of a complete ethnology museum that had disappeared.

When Halilaj was organizing an exhibition in a project space housed in the ethnology museum in Pristina, he made a strange discovery. “The night before the opening I was cleaning up and moved things to storage, and there I discovered these amazing wooden cases filled with what used to be butterflies. I was really fascinated because you could still see the pins that were used to fixate them, but the butterflies had decayed and had started to disappear. I just could guess that they had a very tough history. There were splashes of cement, paint, grain, dust everywhere on the cases. To tell you the truth, I was getting kind of obsessed by them. So I simply took the butterflies and really thought I was rescuing them as obviously nobody wanted them. But in the morning the curator of the contemporary art center that shares spaces with the ethnological museums arrived and asked me: What the hell have you done? I answered: But they are neglected and I want to have them. And he responds: No, we bring them back in the night when the museum guards are not there. He told me they were not his and he is not supposed to touch them, they are from the ethnological museum. And I asked myself, why would an ethnological museum have butterflies? And then I visited the museum and there was no sign of any animal. So I was wondering if these were special Albanian or Serbian butterflies?”
When he returned to the project room one day, he found an old, soaking-wet notebook. Opening it, he read the words “Pristina Natural History Museum.” Halilaj relates how he pulled out all the stops to keep the butterflies and find out what had happened to the ethnology museum. He sent “love letters” to the curator and director, but to no avail. Only when the museum appointed a new director did he make headway. Halilaj met the former director of the ethnology museum, a biologist, who, like in a Kafka novel, lost his job and thirteen years later was still sitting in an office in the building. He found out that the natural history museum was vacated in a cloak-and-dagger operation to make room for an ethnology museum, which from now on would give insight into Albanian folk traditions. Which was understandable, says Halilaj. It was clear that in their young nation, Kosovo Albanians wanted to show their history more than domestic fauna. But what happened then was a true scandal. “During the war the Serbians took a lot of the archeological artifacts but they left the collection of the natural history museum completely intact, untouched. When the system changed they took the collection out. The first party ignored it; the second party just let it down without even caring what was happening. It was a mix of arrogance, ignorance, and laziness. They didn't even take the time to think about how to store the animals correctly.“              
Halilaj’s film Poisoned by Men in Need of Some Love (2013) shows the recovery the artist pushed through. The path down to the basement is like a descent into an Egyptian burial chamber. Guiltily, aggressively, with bureaucratic or scientific zeal, the museum’s staff tried to prevent entry to the exhibits until the last moment, and to conceal their shame about what had happened to the collection in the moist, overheated rooms. The situation was reminiscent of a scene at a school. Halilaj represents the nerd, the crackpot, the child who wants the butterflies. He refuses to go away and innocently asks time and time again: “What in the world are you doing here?” During our conversation, he says that it’s okay to unsettle people and create difficulties for them. You can understand why when you see the workmen ripping open boxes, revealing incredible damage. The sight of the stuffed animals, covered with mold and cracks, is strangely beautiful. With their dried limbs, bills, and snouts, the beaver, deer, and herons look like mythical creatures. The groups of owls and ducks pressed together, the drawers full of snakes, which have almost disintegrated to dust, are symbols of neglect. In the film, in his installations in old display cases, and in his animal bodies molded out of excrement, Halilaj achieves the feat of making this decay visible as a social state without wagging his finger didactically.

Instead, one can view his art as a labor of love. The birds and animals that Halilaj copies in minute detail, including those in his works in the Deutsche Bank Collection, based on old documentary photographs from the natural history museum, are much more than reconstructions of reconstructions. He imbues these forgotten creatures with fantastic, art-nouveau-like feathers, like the actors in a decadent play. He gives one stuffed, eyeless canary in his installation an operetta-like, frivolous mask that is suspended at a distance from its beak – a metaphor for the interplay between seeing and being seen, subject and object, but also a symbol of a different, queer look. The animals he renders using cow dung and clay and implants in modernist structures made of shimmering gold brass rods underscore his manner of working – the alchemical idea of obtaining gold from excrement, from things that are absolutely worthless. In alchemy, this material process is an inner spiritual path that leads to wisdom and knowledge. “In a way one could say that my work is sometimes about our way of dealing with shit, ignoring it and letting it go. When I was dealing with the museum I asked myself, should I let it go? I knew the whole museum was in storage. And it was a very bad story to be ashamed of. Should I touch this thing or should I ring my friends and make an amazing trip and create some kind of artwork out of it? I couldn’t really decide as it would put other people on the line as well. But after all, it was and it continues to be all about confronting myself.”