Manifesta 14 hits the mark with a show that probes Kosovo’s turbulent past and its asymmetrical power relations with the European Union
“Is it a sin that I was born Albanian in Kosovo? Driton Hajredini asks a Catholic priest in the hidden darkness of a confessional. Born in Prishtina, 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 Kosovars are doomed to live as second-class citizens within Europe? Are they punished?
The question posed by Hajredini in his video work resonates through Manifesta 14, the European nomadic biennial, which opened in Prishtina on July 22. press briefings. We want to travel less, for the environment and our mental health.
It is different for our colleagues from Kosovo. An expensive, lengthy and humiliating visa process is required to travel to the European Union. Not all applications are successful. So we can visit them, but they rarely come to us. This asymmetry is given personal advantage in Estonian artist Luz Broto’s key-cutting kiosk: through posters around town, Broto invites us to “meet a local – swap a copy of your house key” . The performative action is a gesture of trust, while offering the grim security that, as things stand, our house keys are in safe hands thanks to such travel restrictions.
Manifesta no longer makes conservatives. As the ‘creative mediator’ of the arts programming, Berlin-based Australian Catherine Nichols gave the show an unwieldy title: ‘It Matters What the Worlds of the World: How to Tell Stories Otherwise’. On this, my first thought is: I feel bad for whoever had to translate this into Albanian. My second thought is this: let’s put a moratorium on exhibition concepts derived from Donna Haraway. Once you separate it until it is comprehensible, the theme is nevertheless extremely appropriate. Nothing is neutral, so we must be vigilant about the old structures we use to build a new city, a new story or a new civilization.
Each of the 25 places selected for Manifesta 14 has a particular 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 the age of 25.) These places and their history frequently eclipse the exhibitions, raising the question of the place of art in a biennial increasingly focused on the built environment.
Two places date from the Ottoman period; one of them is a pretty wooden house (now the Ethnographic Museum of Pristina) which shows playful and experimental photographs from a 19th century Albanian photo studio. Elsewhere, a solid piece of 1940s Austro-Hungarian architecture houses the much-impoverished National Museum. Here, Mumbai-based Sahej Rahal explores fiction and fantasy as tools for constructing alternative histories: a poignant subject for Kosovars, who have lost archives and artifacts over years of war and oppression.
The highest places date from the Yugoslav era, among them the spectacular many-domed fantasy modernism of Andrija Mutnjaković’s National Library building, and the dilapidated Palace of Youth and Sports, a vast structure that projects huge concrete wings in the air like a vulture. This so-called palace houses a futuristic silver inflatable by acclaimed Korean artist Lee Bul. Installed at London’s Hayward Gallery four years ago, Bul’s cyborg Zeppelin dominates the Prishtina space. Suspended in the building’s spectacular indoor stadium, it now looks like a child has let loose a generously proportioned helium balloon.
For the opening ceremony on Saturday July 23, Prishtina’s arty youth crowded into the Red Hall for a performance by Astrit Ismaili. A child prodigy who performed at local festivals in Kosovo, it was a spectacular homecoming for which Ismaili was joined on stage by their sister (the other half of the mini pop duo) for the finale. Having a non-binary artist to launch the biennial was important in a country where LGBTQI+ rights remain an issue. Playing with twisted metal structures that responded like a musical instrument to the moving bodies of the ensemble, the theme of man-machine hybridity imposed itself on the place.
This was particularly striking after watching Marta Popivoda’s outstanding video work in 2013 Yugoslavia, how ideology moved our collective body. Popivoda’s journey through recent Balkan history is assembled from Yugoslav propaganda films and reports on national celebrations, sporting events, political rallies and demonstrations. There is something terribly seductive about martial hymns and mass choreography: human bodies move together like a perfect machine. Through these historical documents, Popivoda tries to identify the moment when the individual separates from the social group, and the relationship between the body and the state. “The crowd moves, but what moves the crowd?” she asks. Although this is an older work, it was nonetheless my highlight of the biennale.
Manifesta’s central exhibition occupies seven floors of the Grand Hotel Prishtina. Once five stars, it is now big in name only. Climbing onto the roof, Petrit Halilaj, originally from Kosovo, transformed the old signage on the hotel facade into a new light display. The rearranged lettering now reads in Albanian: “When the sun goes away, we paint the sky.” It is surrounded by stars that leap and fall around the building. Halilaj, who in 2013 became the first artist to represent Kosovo at the Venice Biennale, jokingly informed Prishtina Mayor Përparim Rama that he had given his city the world’s first 27-star hotel.
The Grand’s bars, gyms, and banquet halls are still in use, but the building is associated with a dark episode in Kosovo’s history. At the end of the Kosovo war, which lasted from 1989 to 1999, the now defunct Albania Rilindja The newspaper reported that prison and torture chambers, as well as women’s clothing, were found in the basements of the hotel. Here, the question of which old structures to use to build a new country is literal in an extreme sense: how to approach such a monolith in the city center?
A major strand here and at the National Gallery explores war crimes and torture, and post-conflict reconstruction more broadly. Tuan Andrew Nguyen, based in Ho Chi Minh City, presents a film on two screens The sound of cannons, familiar as sad refrains (2021) which is told from the perspective of an unexploded missile discovered by a Vietnamese farmer. by Jelena Juresa Aphasia (act 3), which depicts a notorious Serbian paramilitary man slipping 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) shouts the phrase “You have no idea” to the point of damaging the voice.
During the 1990s, with the conflict across the territories of the former Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Albanian majority was excluded from public institutions by the Serbian regime. A parallel school system developed in private homes. Today, the children educated in this system are Kosovo politicians, diplomats, lawyers, doctors and teachers. The most moving place in Manifesta is also one of the most humble: Hertica School House, an unfinished family home through which 1,300 children passed each day, to be educated in two shifts. As I was leaving, three of the former teachers arrived with the owner of the house, revisiting their own story.
Of the 102 artists presented, around forty are of Kosovo origin and two-thirds in total from the wider Balkan region. Among them are painters of the Yugoslav era. Fabulous 1960s psychedelic works by Nusret Salihamixhiqi and a selection of intense, characterful portraits of women by the late Alije Vokshi shone alongside works by younger artists, some of whom were perhaps a little too green. Local attention comes in response to Kosovo’s continued isolation: Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen is candid about the visa situation for Kosovars. If artists from Kosovo cannot come to Europe, then Manifesta aims to bring Europe to Kosovo. As always, this raises the question of who the biennale is for: visiting art professionals? Tourists? Locals? A handful of international superstars, such as Bul’s Zeppelin, suggest that at least serious attention has been given to the needs of the latter.
Manifesta 14 can now be viewed at various locations in Pristina, Kosovo until October 30.
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