Manifesta, also known as the European Nomadic Biennial, is currently on view in Prishtina, Kosovo, through October 30, 2022. This 14th iteration, “it matters what worlds world worlds: how to tell stories otherwise,” addresses the idea of reclaiming and reimagining public spaces. Developed by curator Catherine Nichols with Manifesta staff and other contributors, the show features more than 100 artworks by international artists installed in a former brick factory, the largely unused Grand Hotel Prishtina, and other spaces; in addition, 15 outdoor public art installations are placed around the city. These three mini-interviews highlight the sculptural works of three participating artists from the host country—Doruntina Kastrati, Flaka Haliti, and Petrit Halilaj.
Robert Preece: Visitors encounter your installation Ring the bells my land (2017/22) on the eighth floor of the Grand Hotel Prishtina. How did you go about working with the site?
Doruntina Kastrati: The installation is located in the “ecological component” of the multi-floor thematic exhibition “The Grand Scheme of Things.” At the entrance to my environment, you see that it is populated by goat-like creatures, which graze near a lonely satellite dish accompanied by the sound of rubble crunching underfoot. The view of the city from the windows transports you to a post-human version of our planet. Ring the bells my land responds to the disturbing situation of life on earth, which is becoming more uncertain every day, and at the same time, it touches on speculations about moving to and beginning a new life on the red planet, Mars.
RP: You have a diverse practice and use a wide range of materials and approaches. Did this work present unique challenges?
DK: The selection of materials and working techniques mainly depends on my research and concept for the work. With Ring the bells my land, which I first made in 2015–16, my biggest challenge was presentation. I was skeptical about bringing it back since I felt that I had lost my communication with it, but somehow I had the feeling that it fit the ecology component. It’s very challenging for an artist to deal with previous works and see how they adapt over the years.
Robert Preece: How did you approach installing Under the Sun—Explain What Happened (2022) on the roof of the Palace of Youth and Sports?
Flaka Haliti: To find the right location was not easy, since the work needs to have the sky or a distant view to serve as a background within its frame. Prishtina doesn’t offer many choices because new construction transformed the city after the war. The Palace of Youth and Sports was one of the last locations that we considered. It was not my first choice, though, because I was concerned about how an artwork could enter into dialogue with such a monumental historical building—neither dismissing its iconic visual appearance nor being eaten up by it. To what degree can this kind of visual dialogue be possible and still be respectful?
The installation process itself was difficult, too—there is no easy access to the roof, and it cannot be reached by a crane. Then, severe weather at the end of July brought damage across the city, including to the work, which had to be reinstalled. As it was seen on the preview days of Manifesta, Under the Sun—Explain What Happened consisted of three main elements: scaffolding, metal clouds, and light boxes, made from discarded military materials.
Kosovo doesn’t have its own military, so for now, it is under the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR). I was interested in critical questions about transnational versus national politics in the representation of Kosovo, as a continuous cycle, a time lapse that loops in relation to the status quo. As a gesture of demilitarizing aesthetics, I appropriated and re-arranged discarded plastic window panels from a KFOR camp hangar, now home to the Autostrada Biennale in Prizren. Activating the object in relation to new spatial information about what is present, and through the power of imagination or abstraction, can change our perception, which becomes a way of overcoming or rethinking history.
RP: Could you explain the design of the work?
FH: Over the course of more than 20 years, the plastic panels were burned by the sun, which resulted in something resembling a wavelength of horizon colors. That’s basically where my interest started. This enigmatic process inscribed itself in the material, leaving magical traces as witnesses to time passed—an inanimate object, present but not existing in the present tense. Perhaps it’s haunted by the specter of something, carrying a story left to be told.
As poetic as the title sounds, Under the Sun—Explain What Happened is still posed as a question. I intended to form an uncanny horizon as a sunset against the sky that glows or burns slowly. Placed in contrast with cut-out patterns taken from military camouflage that form a radiance of clouds at the edge of sky, the work stimulates the imagination with an abstraction of how things could be.
Robert Preece: Could you translate the text that you installed along the roof of the Grand Hotel Prishtina? And what is the significance of the stars?
Petrit Halilaj: The sentence, written in Albanian, is “Kur dielli të ikë, do ta pikturojmë qiellin.” It means, “When the sun goes away we paint the sky.” The inspiration came from a short story by Njomza Vitia, who was a teenager in Prishtina when her book was published. I have slightly modified the sentence, replacing the first person singular “I” with the more collective “we,” which was aimed at addressing inhabitants of the city and the country more explicitly.
Together with the letters of the new sign, the stars of the hotel were plugged in again and multiplied—from 10 to 27. They had been turned off and taken down one by one as a consequence of the former luxury hotel’s changing status; they were left lying on the rooftop for a long time. The work reactivates them for the duration of the exhibition.
The project also has a participatory aspect. People from Kosovo were invited to make and display stars of their own—some were created independently, others in workshops that we organized in Prishtina and Prizren before the opening of Manifesta 14.
RP: What sorts of issues are you exploring in this work?
PH: Broadly speaking, it inquires poetically into the identity of a young country, affirming the agency of its inhabitants in driving the future through collective dream and practice. It also poses questions about which future we want to build together—the freedom we want to achieve, the possibility of exploring new modes of living—basically building our own identity in spite of international expectations and/or normative pressures. I think this aspect particularly emerges in the disposition of the 27 stars, which climb and tumble around the building, occupying unexpected spaces of the Grand Hotel. Their placement questions expectations in terms of geometry, the architecture of the building, and the hierarchy of the space in general. The work can be seen like a sculpture in expansion, which mirrors the idea of expanding freedom in society, and of exploring new modes of being.