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Petrit Halilaj

Petrit Halilaj, emerging contemporary artists

If the happiness of chickens could somehow be measured, those inhabiting Petrit Halilaj's installations are likely to feel fairly content with their lot.

The structures comprising They are Lucky to be Bourgeois Hens (I,II,III) range from a lofty wooden 'space rocket' (left) to living quarters in the middle of a Turkish fairground (shared, in this case, by the artist himself). All provide comfortable shelter, warmth and security; or at least, on a temporary basis.

The 'They are Lucky...' series not only creates unconventional dwellings, it also references the artist's former domestic life.

As a child in Runik, a village in Kosovo, he often played with the family's chickens. He also (having been born in 1986) experienced the horrors of the Kosovan-Serbian war, and the trauma of having his own home burnt to the ground.

Petrit Halilaj

Deported, then reunited with his family at the end of the war, Halilaj later travelled to Italy, then Germany, to pursue his education in art.

Always something of a refugee, it's unsurprising that the creation of inhabitable spaces has dominated his practice to date, and that the symbol of the nest or roost - provided most obviously by his hen-houses, or an over-sized cradle of twigs and branches (above) - segues into similar manifestations of physical and psychological shelter.

Petrit Halilaj, new contemporary art

Requesting "a room of his own" within his gallery's booth at the 2008 Artissima fair, visitors were welcome to pass by his personal space filled with artworks and belongings, although equally, the room was secured with locks and hidden from public view.

Far less easily overlooked, a massive lumber installation first exhibited at the 2010 Berlin Biennale clearly depicts the structure of a house.

Duplicating the framework of the new home built by his family at the end of the Kosovo war, its skeletal appearance also seems to invoke the ruins of their former, burnt-out residence (left).

A further work recalls the temporary accommodation Halilaj constructed in a Berlin building prior to its redevelopment. Due to receive a visit from his father, Halilaj set up basic amenities and gathered together a few items of furniture to create an environment shared by father and son.

Reconstructed evocations depict piping along a tiled wall, together with a cheap IKEA shower curtain rail (below, left).

Petrit Halilaj

While the urge to define some kind of personal space - and not necessarily his own - is clearly a salient feature of Halilaj's practice, the commentaries implied by such actions are far less clear-cut.

It has been suggested, for example, that the 'bourgeois hens' populating his bespoke coops and accompanying drawings signify the migrating rural population of his homeland, lured from former lifestyles by the promises of big city life.

It's hard, however, to fully equate illustrations of puffed up, strutting hybrids and grotesques (below, left) with nothing more than a satirical dig at those who simply seek a better life - an escape which Halilaj himself has undertaken.

Petrit Halilaj, emerging artists
images © Petrit Halilaj

What does seem to unify the artist's work, however, is an underlying sense of threat or, at the very least, instability.

It seems obvious - perhaps overly so - to ascribe this to the artist's troubled history, yet uneasy contradictions insistently permeate Halilaj's work. The replica of his family home, for example, hovers partly above the ground in challenging equilibrium. The heartening nature of a father-son reunion is far from clear in Halilaj's commemorative installation, which instead evokes impermanence, poverty, or more ominous readings, such as clandestine concealment.

And those bourgeois chickens? The space-ship coop suggests journeys into the unknown; the drawings hint at the dangers of trading one space - psychic; geographic; historic - for another, and losing one's identity in the process. A salutory warning, because even the luckiest, best provided for chickens may end up in the cooking pot one day.

February 2010

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