Currently on view at Kamel Mennour in Paris, artist Petrit Halilaj has brought a nuanced body of works that explore the constitution of both history and society through its youngest members. Exploring the phenomena of early childhood, the various cultural touchstones and worlds created from young minds, and their analogs in the world around them, Halilaj’s work is a striking and empathetic exploration of both violence and youth, memory and time.Halilaj’s work is intimately connected with that of his home nation of Kosovo, the war-torn European nation whose scars from the 1990’s conflicts still linger in its national identity, and his pieces still bubble over with a sense of abstracted, underlying tension. Often relying on his own experiences and memories as a way to reach towards common ground, the artist’s works mine varied shared iconographies and images, historical experiences and political situations. For this show, he drew specifically from the “Abetare,” a children’s picture book used to teach children the alphabet through pictorial associations. The result is a wallpaper familiar to any who attended the Venice Biennale where he was awarded a special mention prize by the exhibition jury. Posing the fundamental constructs of socialization through shared educational systems, Halilaj traces how the foundations of society are continually reinforced and reconstituted.
From these images, Halilaj traces subtle personal narratives, including his own experiences chasing butterflies around his home city of Kosterc in one image, or including his own name on another page, creating subtle visual and linguistic riddles as to how the author inserts and expresses themselves in the broader network of social identity.
Alongside these works, Halilaj has also included a large-scale site-specific installation, featuring desks covered in doodles and scribbles by generations of students in the town of Runik. Turning these doodles into massive sculptures, Halilaj’s mining of these absent-minded scribbles and productions of the culture around these students turns them into reflections of time itself, of the shifting awareness and identity of its authors. One scrawl on the ceiling of the show reads only “EMINEM,” a distinct cultural reference that feels quite embedded in the landscape of the late 90’s, both in its representation and affinity with the social fragmentation and asocial rage that the artist himself represents.
These are images that serve as echo chambers for the original writers, showcasing their own emotional states, their fragile, developing worldview, and their responses through whatever material is on hand. Allowing time and society to co-mingle so loosely in these scenes, Halilaj’s work manages to both expose the pain and tension of an era, while extending narrative connections and empathetic responses outwards towards a universal viewer. As much as these are specific scenes, specific worlds, and specific people, the artist allows their shared connections to speak volumes.
Halilaj’s work is on view through January 27th.
— D. Creahan
Petrit Halilaj: Abetare (Fluturat) [Kamel Mennour]