Manifesta 14: an unflinching look at Kosovo’s turbulent history and ambitious future
In Prishtina, the nomadic biennial Manifesta 14 draws on Kosovo’s past and future through ambitious art and stunning architecture
The theme of this year’s Manifesta, the itinerant European biennial known for its fusion of art and urbanism, revolves around “new practices and forms of collective storytelling” – a focus that found fertile ground in Kosovo and its capital Prishtina. Since the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, the young country has long been the focus of fiercely competing historical narratives for sovereignty.
It can be unnerving when European art biennials and cultural visions venture so explicitly into highly contested political terrain; these events often barely disguise their implicit purpose of being tools of soft power for Western political interests. But in this special context the cards are on the table – and the Kosovars are not afraid to use Manifesta 14 as a platform for their topics. In the opening speeches by politicians and organizers, art and culture journalists were expressly called upon to raise awareness of how unfairly Kosovars are affected by travel restrictions and strict visa regulations in European countries. As Manifesta’s digital media coordinator, DJ and activist Oda Haliti, explains, about a third of her fee for a DJ performance abroad would go towards issuing a visa, which does not guarantee she will receive it. As Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen put it: “If Kosovars cannot travel to see art, we must bring it to them.”
But there are also local concerns, particularly around the loss of public space to privatization and the urgent need to reclaim and regenerate derelict buildings, many of which are Brutalist gems. “We kind of forgot what it means to run a public institution,” says Yll Rugova, who led the bid to bring Manifesta to Prishtina in 2018. He added that Kosovars are having to relearn how to use and care for public space because of the Serb repression, during which Kosovo’s Albanian population – some 95 percent – were barred from public institutions and even schools.
Ready to be vulnerableMetallized balloon, 2015, 2020. © Lee Bull. Photography: © Manifesta 14 Prishtina, Ivan Erofeev
Manifesta hired the Turin-based office Carlo Ratti Associati as “architectural facilitators” to conduct a study of the city (Manifesta prefers the term facilitators to curators). One of Ratti’s interventions to transform Prishtina beyond the Biennale’s 100-day run is the Green Corridor, a pedestrian park with benches and newly planted trees along disused railway tracks. Walking through the city in the midst of a heatwave, the need for shaded, car-free zones became abundantly clear.
In another such intervention, the shopping street leading to the Grand Hotel Prishtina, one of the main Manifesta venues and visible from anywhere in the city center, was closed to traffic. On the hotel’s roof, Berlin-based Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj created a simple but poignant work entitled When the sun goes down, we paint the sky. The once-glamorous hotel has been in decline for decades; Halilaj took the five stars from his signage and recombined them to create a cascade of glowing stars that shone brightly across the Grand and surrounding buildings.
When the sun disappears we paint the sky 2022, © Petrit Halilaj. Photography © Arton Krasniqi
The main part of the exhibition is installed inside the hotel. Curated by artistic facilitator Catherine Nichols, she introduces her vision of storytelling as a tool for regeneration, which means there is plenty of video work to be seen in the dusty spaces. Albanian artist Driant Zeneli presents an enchanting trilogy of films based on Aesop’s Fables, in which robotic animals explore brutalist utopian architecture in the region, including the National Library of Kosovo in Prishtina in a work entitled No wise fish could escape without flying (2019). The Bosnian artist and activist Selma Selman, who lives in Amsterdam, addresses the oppression of the Roma in her work with poetic humour Mercedes matrix (2019). There you can see the artist, together with her family, who collect and sell scrap metal for a living, dismantling a Mercedes Benz, one of the most well-known status symbols in the Balkans and beyond.
Many off-site venues are dedicated to site-specific installations by individual artists. The 15th-century Great Hamam, an important heritage site that has fallen victim to privatization and botched attempts at renovation, was recently repurchased by the city and there is hope that it may one day become an exhibition space. Inside, Berlin-based Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota weaved an intricate web of red yarn that fills what used to be the main steam room area. Handwritten family stories, which the artist collected from Kosovars, are woven into the thread network. In the former printing and publishing house Rilindja, Turkish sound artist Cevdet Erek subtly pays tribute to the building’s history as home to three daily newspapers in Turkish, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian and today’s use as a techno club with a throbbing sound-and-light installation.
tell me your story2022. © Chiharu Shiota. Photography: © Manifesta 14 Prishtina, Majlinda Hoxha
The Center for Narrative Practice is another permanent architectural conversion. The 1930s building and its garden have been completely renovated to house artworks including hand-woven carpets by Jakup Ferri, who is currently representing Kosovo at the 59th Venice Biennale. It will remain an arts center after Manifesta, and the garden café is sure to become a popular meeting place for Prishtina’s young creatives (over 50 percent of Kosovo’s population is under 30). The space’s new name can be read as a reference to the fact that both art and nation-building rely on storytelling; Which voices are heard, which create new worlds, is particularly crucial at this point in Kosovo’s young history.
No wonder, then, that Manifesta has included the Hertica school building as one of its official venues. In the 1990s, when Kosovo Albanians were barred from all forms of public education by the Serbian regime, secret schools in private dormitories began to appear. This parallel system was boldly maintained in the 1990s and put those involved at risk. Today, the three-story Hertica schoolhouse is a heap of rubble, but it still stands as a memorial to this chapter in national history, and video interviews with former students and teachers are installed in the various classrooms as a living archive. “You can see why Kosovo excels in all creative fields,” said Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti in his opening speech, promising to dedicate one of the Manifesta venues to establishing a contemporary art museum. When it opens, it is clear that filling such a museum with works by local voices will not be a problem. §
school without school 2022 © ETEA Photo © Manifesta 14 Prishtina Majlinda Hoxha