Petrit Halilaj and the big dream with "Runik" in Mexico

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"It was a bit of a joke, partly utopian. He said, 'Oh, maybe I can do something about it. Aeroméxico is very supportive of the Tamay Museum. I come from Eastern Europe, and in the Balkans logical things are impossible, but big dreams can come true", says Petrit Halilaj when he talks about his work on the airplane of the airline company "Aeroméxico", which flies during the exhibition of his "Runik" is still open in Mexico City

Mexico City, February 27 (ARTNews) – If you are lucky enough to travel with the airline Aeroméxico, you may find yourself on a plane that carries a work of art of its own. The painting, which appears on the side of the plane, shows a chicken that seems to fly as the plane takes off, while "From Runiku with love" reads the text in Albanian written on the body of the plane.

The artist behind this work is Petrit Halilaj, the young Kosovar artist who remains a sensation, with his large installations appearing in biennials and museums across Europe. Halilaj has never been one to follow the rules set by institutions – he once used funds from the Berlin Biennale to build a new house for his family – so it makes sense that his first exhibition in Latin America exists not only within the walls of the museum, but also in the form of an airplane that travels around the world.

Image from Petri Halilaj's exhibition, "Runic", 2023-2024, at the Tamayo Museum, Mexico City. Photo: Gerardo Landa Rojano

Now, you can ride that Aeroméxico plane to Mexico City, where, at the Tamayo Museum, Halilaj is doing something with a career analysis. The exhibition includes a range of artworks that testify to his different styles: giant flower sculptures, bird-like avatars, and larger-than-life chicken feet. All are set within the iconic atrium of the Tamayo Museum, which, like Halilaj's art, draws the divide between natural and industrial ambiguities.

All the art that Halilaj produces has a fantastic energy, as if it could not be located in our universe. But when Halilaj spoke this week from his Berlin apartment via Zoom, it became clear that his art is simply a reflection of his world. His walls were covered with green plants, and he talked about the joy of keeping 12 canaries indoors during quarantine.

"I really believe in exploring the idea of ​​what life is and what work can be," he said with a smile. "You know, some of my projects have made my life better."

To learn more about the exhibition at the Tamayo Museum, "ARTnews" spoke with Halilaj, who is also about to prepare a work upstairs for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Image from Petri Halilaj's exhibition, "Runic", 2023-2024, at the Tamayo Museum, Mexico City. Photo: Gerardo Landa Rojano

ARTnews: The architecture of the Tamayo Museum, located in Mexico's Chapultepec Park, has a rich history. How much did you take this fact into consideration during the realization of this exhibition?

Hallelujah: I really needed to know the space. I needed to know [artist Rufino Tamayo, the museum's founder]'s intention, how the museum had its own identity, how Mexico related to international voices. Knowing the space, the animals, the dogs in the park, the birds – it was very important. There is an unparalleled relationship between interior and exterior space, between nature and man-made works that are haunting. I was very excited when the director of the museum [Magalí Arriola] told me that someone puts flowers every week in the courtyard. She has not seen who puts these flowers because it happens during the weekend. I was thinking: Wow! And I didn't want to know, either. Maybe it's one of the guards or one of the people who work in the museum's warehouses.

ARTnews: You've often pondered the idea of ​​what makes a home, and indeed the exhibit at Tamayo even includes a sculpture that aims to replicate the structure of your family's home in Kosovo.

Hallelujah: José [Esparza Chong Cuy, curator of the exhibition] and I started talking about the difference between a house as an object and a house as an entity. This is where my difficulty getting into Mexico comes into play. I could not apply for a visa because Mexico does not have diplomatic relations with Kosovo. I haven't been able to go to Mexico for many years – only when I got an Italian passport through Álvaro (Urbano, the artist Halilaj is married to). When I finally got my passport, we decided to honeymoon in Mexico. Magali gave us a tour of the space and invited us to do the exhibition. I was already imagining the chickens and every detail of the display. He asked me, "Are you enjoying the space?" And I replied: "I love him". My first step was to put chickens and other animals around the museum and start the garden. But because of the collection, this was not possible.

ARTnews: The exhibition is titled "Runic", after a Neolithic settlement in Kosovo, which you have treated several times in your art. The Mexican public, perhaps, has nothing to do with the Runic story. Does this bother you?

Hallelujah: The title of the exhibition refers to a precise place in time and geographical space, which is as far away as an imaginary land can become. Twenty-nine percent of visitors have never heard of it. Also, Mexico, like many other countries in the world, does not recognize Kosovo. I knew that Albanians from Kosovo would not come to the exhibition, because they could not enter.

Image from Petri Halilaj's exhibition, "Runic", 2023-2024, at the Tamayo Museum, Mexico City. Photo: Gerardo Landa Rojano

ARTnews: How was the commissioning of "Aeroméxico" realized?

Hallelujah: From the beginning I wanted to do something that wasn't in a museum. I was happy to have the opportunity to integrate Pierre Huyghe's Mexican fishes [part of a permanent work in the museum] – usually, other artists would close that piece during their exhibitions. But I was talking to José and I said: "I can't believe that no one can come from Kosovo to see my exhibition. "Maybe you should send an Aeroméxico flight to Kosovo once, then bring it back." It was a bit of a joke, partly utopian. He said, “Oh, maybe I can do something about it. 'Aeroméxico' supports the Tamayo Museum very much". I come from Eastern Europe, and in the Balkans logical things are impossible, but big dreams can come true. So, I understood that logic. The conversation became a meeting. That meeting became another conversation, and the Aeroméxico people accepted it as an idea.

I used the same technique as some drawings I had done as a child in a refugee camp. I remember chickens as my friends. I wanted to know what it means when people on a plane can fly with a piece of art, but I also wanted to ask questions about immigration and who can fly and who can cross borders. I like the idea that her wings disappear into the wing of the plane and that the writing is in Albanian.

ARTnews: It's clear that birds feature as symbols for you, as they have for over a decade in your art. Do you feel their meaning has changed for you over the years?

Hallelujah: A lot has changed. I wanted to play with this idea of ​​home as a place of protection, but also as a place of imagination. All my feelings about birds are united in this exhibition.

ARTnews: For the opening in November you wore a bird costume, something you've done a few times before. How was the reaction to that?

Hallelujah: That suit is really important to me with everything going on. I feel more comfortable as a bird than as a human being. We must learn how to reframe public space and geopolitical relations. It's a moving thing and the bird has really saved me from that idea and thoughts about it.

Taken from "ARTnews". Translated by: Enis Bytyqi. The title belongs to the Editor