“Is it a sin that I was born an Albanian in Kosova?” Driton Hajredini asks a Catholic priest from the hidden darkness of a confessional booth. Born in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, Hajredini is, as he tells the priest, a Muslim. Could this man of a Christian God explain why he and his fellow citizens are doomed to live as second-class citizens within Europe? Will they be punished?
The question Hajredini poses in his video work resonates throughout Manifesta 14, Europe’s Nomad Biennale, which opened in Prishtina on July 22. The art world can be indifferent to travel: we complain about delayed flights, disturbed nights, dodgy coffee, and wordy press briefings. We want to travel less for the sake of the environment and our mental health.
It’s different with our colleagues in Kosovo. Traveling to the European Union requires a costly, time-consuming and degrading visa process. Not all applications are successful. So we might visit them, but rarely do they come to us. This asymmetry is given a personal touch in Estonian artist Luz Broto’s locksmith kiosk: through posters all over the city, Broto invites us to “meet a local – exchange a copy of your house key”. The performative action is a gesture of trust while offering the somber reassurance that, from today’s perspective, our house keys are in safe hands thanks to such travel restrictions.
Manifesta no longer makes curators. As the “creative mediator” of the artistic program, the Australian Catherine Nichols, who lives in Berlin, has given this show a cumbersome title: “It matters what worlds world worlds: how to tell stories else.” My first thought is: I feel sorry for the who had to translate that into Albanian. My second thought is: let’s introduce a moratorium on exhibition concepts derived from Donna Haraway. If you have taken it apart to understand it, the topic is still very apt. Nothing is neutral, so we must be vigilant about what ancient structures we use to build a new city, story, or civilization.
Each of the 25 selected locations of Manifesta 14 has a specific resonance for this young country. (Kosovo is doubly young: independent from Serbia since 2008, more than half of the inhabitants of its capital are under 25 years old.) These places and their history repeatedly overshadow the exhibitions and raise the question of what role art plays in an increasingly built environment focused on the Biennale.
Two venues date back to Ottoman times; One of these is a beautiful wooden house (now Pristina’s Ethnographic Museum) that displays playful, experimental photographs from a 19th-century Albanian photo studio. Elsewhere, a solid chunk of 1940s Austro-Hungarian architecture houses the severely impoverished National Museum. Here, Mumbai-based Sahej Rahal explores fiction and fantasy as tools to construct alternative stories: a poignant subject for Kosovars who have lost records and artifacts over years of war and oppression.
The most sublime venues date back to the Yugoslav era, including Andrija Mutnjaković’s spectacular, imaginative, multi-domed Modernist building and the ramshackle Palace of Youth and Sports, a massive structure that tosses huge concrete wings like a vulture. This so-called palace houses a futuristic silver inflatable boat by acclaimed Korean artist Lee Bul. Installed four years ago at London’s Hayward Gallery, Bul’s Cyborg Zeppelin dominates the space in Prishtina. Suspended in the building’s dramatic indoor stadium, it now appears as if a child had released a generously sized helium balloon.
At the opening ceremony last Saturday, July 23, Prishtina’s artistic youth crowded into the Red Hall to see a performance by Astrit Ismaili. A child prodigy performing at local festivals in Kosovo, this was a spectacular homecoming, with Ismaili joined on stage by her sister (the other half of the mini-pop duo) for the finale. The biennial’s launch of a non-binary performer was significant in a country where LGBTQI+ rights remain an issue. With twisted metal structures reacting like a musical instrument to the moving bodies of the ensemble, the theme of man-machine hybridity for the place was spot on.
This was particularly noticeable when looking at Marta Popivoda’s outstanding video work from 2013 Yugoslavia, how the ideology moved our collective body. Popivoda’s journey through the recent history of the Balkans is compiled from Yugoslav propaganda films and news footage of national celebrations, sports performances, political rallies and protests. The martial anthems and mass choreographies have something incredibly seductive about them: human bodies move together like a perfect machine. Using these historical documents, Popivoda attempts to identify the moment of separation of the individual from the social group and the relationship between the body and the state. “The crowd moves, but what moves the crowd?” she asks. Although a bit older, it was still my highlight of the Biennale.
The central exhibition of Manifesta occupies seven floors of the Grand Hotel Prishtina. Once rated five stars, it’s now great in name alone. On the roof, Petrit Halilaj, who originally comes from Kosovo, transformed the no longer existing signage from the hotel facade into a new light show. The rearranged lettering now reads in Albanian, “When the sun goes down, let’s paint the sky.” It is surrounded by stars that leap and tumble around the building. Halilaj, who became the first artist to represent Kosovo at the Venice Biennale in 2013, has jokingly informed Prishtina’s Mayor Përparim Rama that he has given his city the world’s first 27-star hotel.
The Grand’s bars, gyms, and event spaces are still in use, but the building is associated with a dark episode in Kosovar history. At the end of the Kosovo war, which lasted from 1989 to 1999, today’s defunct Albania Rilindja The newspaper reported that prison and torture chambers and women’s clothing were found in the basement of the hotel. The question of which old structures to use to build a new country is literally extreme here: How do you address such a monolith in the inner city?
A significant strand here and at the National Gallery examines war crimes and torture, and post-conflict reconstruction more broadly. Tuan Andrew Nguyen from Ho Chi Minh City presents a double screen The sounds of guns, familiar like sad refrains (2021), told from the perspective of an unexploded rocket discovered by a Vietnamese farmer. Jelena Juresas Aphasia (Third Act), describing the descent of a notorious Serbian paramilitary into a post-war career as a DJ is almost unbearably painful, as is a performance by Selma Selman, in which the artist (of Roma origin) yells “You have no idea”. up to the breaking point.
In the 1990s, due to conflicts in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, the Albanian-speaking majority of Kosovo was barred from public institutions by the Serbian regime. A parallel school system developed in private households. Today the children brought up in this system are politicians, diplomats, lawyers, doctors and teachers of Kosovo. Manifesta’s most moving venue is also one of its humblest: Hertica School House, an unfinished family home visited every day by 1,300 children who are taught in two shifts. As I was leaving, three of the old teachers showed up with the owner of the house and recounted their own history.
Of the 102 artists shown, around 40 are of Kosovar origin and a total of two thirds come from the wider Balkan region. Among them are painters from the Yugoslav era. Fabulous 1960s psychedelic work by Nusret Salihamixhiqi and a selection of intense, characterful female portraits by the late Alije Vokshi gleamed alongside works by younger artists, some of whom were perhaps a little too green. The on-site focus accommodates the ongoing isolation of Kosovo: Manifesta Director Hedwig Fijen is open about the visa situation for Kosovars. If the artists of Kosovo cannot come to Europe, Manifesta wants to bring Europe to Kosovo. As always, this raises the question of who the Biennale is for: Artists as guests? tourists? Local people? A handful of international star turns, such as Buls Zeppelin, suggest that at least the latter’s needs were given serious attention.
Manifesta 14 is now on view at various locations in Pristina, Kosovo, until October 30th.
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