Theatre of war and peace

Words by Martin Holman


Entering an artist’s universe composed of light and dark, imagination and reality.


When you step into Petrit Halilaj’s exhibition at Tate St Ives it surrounds you with an impression of Halilaj’s own experience of the extremes of human existence; of war and peace, life and death. His medium for this extraordinary transformation of a single space is drawing. Hung from the ceiling of the largest room at the gallery – the cavernous extension excavated from a hillside, finished with white walls and floor, and a roof that filters in daylight – are row after parallel row of large-scale coloured images that drop from numerous lengths of yarn. Imagine stage scenery in a succession of painted flats and Halilaj’s installation will come to mind. The effect is theatrical and, once inside, the viewer feels naturally drawn into the spectacle.


The huge images do not reach the floor so you have to look upwards, as a child would view the outside world. On the pathway that leads through the show, you pass images of lush foliage in bright tones of red, yellow and green. Tucked among the trees are exotic birds: some hover and others sit on branches with a background of blue sky and mountain peaks. There is a cheerful house with orange and red walls nearby, past which beautiful animals strut. Towards the end of the route, a vast and magnificent peacock takes wing.

The journey is magical: the surroundings belong more to a dream or a memory sugared with romance, rather than an actual setting. The images are obviously drawn and enlarged: black pen outlines are everywhere and colour energetically applied with thick hatched strokes. When the path reaches the plain white wall at the back of the room, you turn to retrace your steps to the entrance. At this point the dream turns to a nightmare. Trees and birds give way to monumental figures of soldiers in battle gear and disturbing blank silhouettes – the scenery shifts to the horror of conflict. Bright colours now signify explosions rather than shrubs and flowers, and lines of bivouacs stretch into the distance instead of hills. In one chilling scene, the ground between the trees has been disturbed into a mound of brown, raked over earth. The house reappears, now in black and white, burned out by flames. Nearby a red blanket, which before could have pinpointed a pleasant picnic, is hoisted sky high like a flag. It billows with the vague indentation of a body lying beneath.


So, what is the imagined story and which the real event? For Halilaj, the contrast is personal and well known. No wonder the artist titled the show Very volcanic over this green feather, citing the geological eruption that can suddenly break cover with catastrophic force. By spring 1999, when he was aged 13, Halilaj was a refugee from his hometown of Kostërrc in Kosovo, in search of safety. He had already witnessed the bloody outbreak of the year-long war between the armed forces of Yugoslavia, a country in the drawn-out process of disintegration, and the breakaway southern province where the Halilaj family lived. Ethnic differences tore the territory apart.


By the war’s end, hastened by NATO’s intervention, the death toll was estimated at over 12,000, with nine-tenths of the Kosovar population displaced. With his mother and other close relatives, Halilaj eventually fetched up in Kukës II refugee camp in neighbouring Albania. But his father was in captivity and the family house destroyed by hostile bombing. The camp provided no school but a team of visiting Italian psychologists began a therapeutic project there. To help the young people express the trauma of what they had seen, they were given paper and felt-tip pens. Halilaj made 38 detailed pictures. Guns, knives and bodies proliferated, and harrowing scenes of tanks blowing up a family’s home, of bulldozers flattening a village – and a heap of earth marked a mass grave.

At the same time, however, vivid landscapes of idyllic peace and tranquillity spilled out of his imagination. Impressed by the teenager’s innate ability, Giacomo Poli, the team leader, kept the drawings to illustrate lectures and display in Italy. Poli also kept in contact with Halilaj, and some years later facilitated the young man’s art education in Milan, away from the instability of Kosovo. “I realised in Italy,” the artist commented later, “I had everyday life without an enemy.”


At that moment Halilaj set out on another personal journey. It has led him to being considered one of Europe’s most sought-after living artists. In 2013 he represented Kosovo at the Venice Biennale, his country’s first appearance at the world’s premier visual art festival and won the prestigious Fondazione Ettore Fico prize. Exhibitions have also taken place since 2010 throughout continental Europe and in the US. Tate St Ives now hosts his first solo project in the UK.

The drawings made in Kukës camp are the visual source of this show. They came to light again in 2020 and Halilaj asked Poli to send him scans but to keep hold of the originals. Perhaps the psychological distance offered by digital reproductions from the violent events in the drawings enabled the artist to again deal with this period in his life at close quarters. Halilaj enlarged his images to the scale of hoarding posters before selecting details such as the birds, trees, soldiers and camps, the raked over ground to be cut from sheets of thick felt on to which they were printed. The modern technology contrasts with the ancient natural fabric, while the yarn the sheets hang from looks homespun and hand-tied at points as if it had been assembled around a family table.


One reason that Halilaj has acquired international attention is the visceral quality of his storytelling, with personal biography always his starting point. Fragments of family history build into broader narratives that immerse his audiences, initially because he often works on a larger-than-life scale. In 2010, he reconstructed the family home destroyed by Serbian militia inside an exhibition venue in Berlin, assisted by his father and other relatives. Using materials collected from the Skenderaj commune where he grew up, the structure remained an open framework hung from the roof like a memory hangs in the air. Adopting unfamiliar viewpoints has a purpose: it can encourage us to question our surroundings in a way that alters our expectations. The spirit of this work was clear, not as a place to inhabit but as a symbol of absence and loss, and of the enduring desire to belong. Houses are shared places where private and communal uses mix and, as such, they constitute Halilaj’s vision of a future society where different peoples co-exist without friction.

Another reason for his growing prominence is his evocative use of simple materials. His installations tend to be conceived specifically for each venue, as in St Ives, although his life-story is the constant subject of his drawing, sculpture, video, writing and performance. While their resonances are complex with meaning, the materials are every day. Wood features in past work, as does earth, water, organic fibres and clay, sometimes juxtaposed with metals like copper and brass. His choice has an emotional charge; imbedded in memory as strongly as the earth in which his family home was rooted. Through these media and the objects he has modelled with them – replicas of his mother’s jewellery made up one show and his grandfather’s walking stick featured in another – the artist tries to communicate thoughts beyond the personal to viewers with very different histories. Possessions have significance for all of us, as does their loss; they stand for more than themselves.


In Venice, Halilaj stacked a thicket of branches against a wall with two narrow openings for visitors. On squeezing inside they could feel enclosed by nature – its texture, fragrance and colour – as a retreat or hiding place from external events. In the past he has included live animals, such as the time he built a hen house in wood in the shape of a rudimentary space rocket. The interior was painted an intense blue and the overall effect was curiously surreal: another ideal environment in which to live lavished on creatures seldom so well treated. The coop was placed outside the museum and the birds could enter and leave as they wished, and wander into the exhibition building itself along with fellow visitors on two legs.


Birds and insects have a special importance for Hallilaj and have featured in several projects. Perhaps he is attracted to their freedom of movement across the globe, stopping at intervals to rest in hospitable locations of their choice. Halilaj knows well that humans are denied that liberty. Recalling his own upbringing and his enforced expulsion from a homeland threatened with extinction, he reminds his audience that identity exists elsewhere than in national emblems. He now moves freely between Italy and Germany, returning to Kosovo to participate in its emergence as an independent state, although one recognised by only half the UN’s member countries. Looking carefully at the hanging drapes in this exhibition, every so often a feather appears, tucked into the stitches sewn into and around the images. The artist has collected them in different places, including Cornwall, and brought them into the gallery from outdoors where they add texture as well as a note of humour.


“Landscape,” Halilaj said recently, “is what remains and gives us dreams of the future.” His installations look towards the future when hierarchies between creatures, identities or ideologies have evaporated and everyone is content with an equal footing. A utopian outlook, maybe, yet it carries a message of hope and resolution into a world riven by dissent and subject to catastrophe. But optimism is balanced by a warning against a backward step. Walking forward and back through the images in St Ives, one figure appears twice. It is a small boy and he stands with his hands lifted to his face. Viewed in one direction, he might be amazed by the wonderful fauna and flora around him; seen from the other, his expression telegraphs his shock. It is the same boy and how many children on this planet have yet to observe these events?


Petrit Halilaj: Very volcanic over this green feather continues at Tate St Ives until 16 January 2022.

tate.org.uk