A FEW THOUGHTS AFTER PETRIT’S WITHDRAWAL
FROM THE 58TH OCTOBER SALON / BELGRADE BIENNALE
by Ilaria Marotta and Andrea Baccin
“In a parallelism between the artistic dimension and the real world, Petrit Halilaj’s piece Shkrepëtima (2018) becomes the stage of a performance built around the figure of a dreamer, involving a dreamlike, ritual and propitiatory set up to address the rebirth and resurrection of the House of Culture of the city of Runik in Kosovo, therefore restored to its original function. It is a dream within a dream. Petrit Halilaj’s work, withdrawn from the exhibition, tells of a dream which has yet to come true, the full recognition of his history, his political and cultural identity.”
(excerpt from the curators’ text in the exhibition’s catalog)
There are two words that have been running through our minds in the last few days and in the last few weeks: “real” / “presence”.
Hoping that Biljana Tomic and Dobrila Denegri won’t mind us borrowing the title of the artistic and cultural event, Real Presence, launched by them at the beginning of the 2000s, that after the long and painful Balkan War and the bombing of Belgrade in 1999 has marked the rebirth of the cultural life in the city of Belgrade. When Real Presence opened its doors in 2001, Harald Szeemann, invited by the two curators, said: “I remember when I prepared the Biennale in Venice in 1999, the bombing of Belgrade stopped the evening before the opening. We all were relieved. Now assisting in the opening of “Real Presence”, I saw the night before the opening what clever and stupid bombs did in 1999 to the city. What Biljana and Dobrila wanted and achieved wasn’t an addition to the already overloaded art agenda, it was a piece of given life to the capital of an improved nation. It was fantastic to see how hundreds of students and young artists from all over the world approached the Tito Museum near his mausoleum with their bags and rucksacks, ready after a first meeting to spread out in the city taking it over, in many locations as an ideal territory for their works, actions, performances, events. I was lucky to be there. The oldest Biennale in the world, the Venice Biennale is nowadays not only an art exhibition but an occasion and possibility for many new and old nations to show their interest in a complex and many-layered Europe. But the Biennale cannot just passively wait for the others. It has to go where the Real Presences are and be part of their energies... Thank you Biljana and Dobrila for what you gave to 300 young artists and showing them that Belgrade is alive.”
(excerpt from the Real Presence website, http://www.ica-realpresence.org/texts.html)
Twenty years after these words, the decision of Petrit Halilaj to withdraw from the 58th October Salon / Belgrade Biennale is a serious and radical matter, and above all it represents a personal and professional disappointment for us, who have tried in the past few months to be the cultural mediators between the artist and the Cultural Center of Belgrade.
We have always valued Petrit Halilaj as an artist of which we appreciate the rigor and that delicate poetic vein, that only belongs to great artists. We met him in person the year after publishing one of his works in one of the first issues of CURA. in 2009, when a collector from Rome who had spotted him through the magazine acquired his work, and so introduced us over dinner in Basel.
In the exhibition The Dreamers Petrit’s voice – his real presence – was and would have been of great importance, not only because his production is all about dreamers, but mainly because a dreamer is the main character of Shkrepëtima, the work that would have represented him in this context.
The affinities of Petrit’s work with the topic of the Biennale were more than a few: given the aspects that the exhibition intends to investigate, the House of Culture of Runik that has a central role in Shkrepëtima – reactivated and revived thanks to the artist – is in many ways comparable to the Cultural Center of Belgrade, core of the local community and essence of its cultural life.
In our minds, Petrit’s dreamer has characterized the emblematic figure of the overthrow between dreams and reality, between art and its transformative power, a citizen ad honorem in that place of freedom that only art can allow.
As curators of the 58th October Salon / Belgrade Biennale 2020, that due to the pandemic had already risked to be canceled once and now it will be postponed in 2021, we had been invited by the Board of the October Salon to envisage an exhibition that, following the long tradition of this event, could portray the Serbian art scene in an open dialog with an international context. For months we have worked alongside a professional, cooperative, eager and open team under mutual trust and the interest for each one of the artists invited and always shared with them, with the common goal of providing a glimpse on the contemporaneity as wide and complex as possible, a variety of voices concerning the intricate times we live in.
This has included artists from all over the world, many of which from the Balkan areas, young Serbian artists to whom their first international stage is given, or others from Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Albania, constantly aware of the complicated geopolitical situation that to this day coexists with its contradictions and fights to heal and process wounds which are still open.
We would love to say that the reported facts were not true, but those are the facts we had to suddenly deal with, trying to find a mediation and then, as free people, make decisions. Political elections and protests, happening those same weeks, a sudden new outbreak of the pandemic in Serbia made the last mediation attempts impossible.
Never as today and after this experience, we understand how much freedom is an achievement that needs to be protected all the time. A recent and tormented history serves as a witness, and even more for this reason we would have imagined with Petrit a more effective, constructive, real action.
In a city like Belgrade, still afflicted by a heavy political and cultural heritage, the opportunity to show the work by Petrit Halilaj would have taken on an almost revolutionary meaning, without a doubt liberating for a city that today is building a sense of freedom, empowerment and truth on multiple levels, essential to clear itself from its history without denying it, so that, generation after generation, the sins of the fathers shall not be visited upon their children. We are convinced that history always deserves a second chance, and this was the chance we could offer as art curators, acting through art, artworks, and the exhibition itself. It was the attempt of a new dialog where not only Petrit’s work, but each of the works selected or produced for the show, and the presence of each of the invited artists could represent a visionary perspective of a changing world.
Of course, to bring Kosovo in the heart of a city that politically doesn’t recognize it as an independent nation would have created that space for expression, debate, confrontation, that exhibitions like The Dreamers have to be able to offer, actively establishing that “bridge” that we talked so much about. Just as Petrit did in a beautiful show recently opened at the Museum of Reina Sofía in Madrid, where another institution was able to include his country of origin next to its own name, despite the fact that Spain as well doesn’t recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
If the international diplomacy still hasn’t succeeded in obtaining a dialog between Serbia and Kosovo (as shown by the last unsuccessful encounters in Brussels and Washington), we strongly believe that the last chance could be through art.
As curators of the show we tried to mediate among something that in our opinion was an evident right of Petrit’s but also being respectful of the institution that invited us, and also of other points of view, other perspectives. Petrit thought a lot before his decision, but he thought he didn’t have an appropriate space to show his work in response to what happened and he was not sure he could reply in a strong way, and like all free birds, he decided to fly away.
The curatorial team of the Cultural Center of Belgrade has never banned Petrit Halilaj’s work or even his participation, they would have never allowed a misreading of Shkrepëtima, nor a manipulation of the piece. They truly wanted to welcome Petrit in the context of the exhibition, and still today they renew their invitation to him. The Cultural Center of Belgrade is an institution that, with all the difficulties, attempted a political mediation, that was unfortunately unsuccessful. Progress is also made by unsuccessful attempts.
Even Petrit’s letter was aimed at opening a debate. This was his attempt. We hope it will offer all of us an important opportunity to build something concrete, despite inevitable reactions from all the parties risk worsening an already poor communication situation and the building of new barriers, that will be hard to knock down by the people who are involved on one side and the other. We still believe his message should have been rather addressed to a concrete gesture in the field of art, a possibility that was offered to him in different ways, directly forwarding it to Serbia’s new generation who really deserves to see new perspectives and to listen to other voices, and then to the international audience.
If we believe in the transformative power of art, it is exactly here that Petrit’s work would have made even more sense. It would have also been important so that art in Belgrade wouldn’t only be reduced to a social, fashionable, status-symbol, power, business-oriented meaning, just as often happens in the countries we live in, but maybe within the pure expression that art represents in multiple levels lays a bulwark of freedom through which a debate that goes beyond politics can still be encouraged. It is in this context that the Cultural Center of Belgrade represents a stronghold for the cultural resistance, producing three-four exhibitions a month, with a wide involvement of the public, in the four galleries within the cultural center that constitute the lively heart of the local community.
We don’t think that the Cultural Center of Belgrade can be defined as an institution that “doesn’t allow artists to dream”. We think that artists dream despite institutions. They have the incredible ability to do so and to go up against institutions themselves.
It is true Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country, together with other 96 countries of the 193 members of the United Nations, including Spain, Greece, Romania... If we do not believe that art can go beyond geographical, political, gender, race, and religion limits, then we think we should all ask ourselves about our failure, which is not a personal or professional failure, it is not the failure of an exhibition, of an institution or of a specific case, but it is a structural failure.
The omission of all the countries of origin of the artists, even if partially taking away the complexity of the voices in action, was a common and discussed decision, that was taken not after Petrit Halilaj’s withdrawal, but before, and it was not linked to his absence but to the wish of his real presence and, a wish kept also after, to leave a trace of a passage and of a viable future, in accordance with the exhibition’s statement, where the dreamers become the inhabitants of the “passage area” that Walter Benjamin called the “threshold,” distinguishing it from the idea of “border.”
Shkrepëtima, performance on 07 July 2018, at the Former House of Culture in Runik courtesy the artist, ChertLüdde (Berlin), kamel mennour (Paris/London), Fondazione Merz (Torino)