While butterflies dancing on a sunlit breeze may epitomize the ephemeral as well as beauty, hope, and transformation, for Kosovan installation artist Petrit Halilaj, the oft-forgotten moth is a far more resilient and tenacious totem. In his eponymous Los Angeles debut currently on display at the Hammer Museum, this celebrated conceptualist shines a light on these nocturnal insects and their many symbolic meanings. Here Halilaj collaborates with his mother to present a poignant collection of oversized moth costumes made with traditional Kosovar tapestries, including qilim and dyshek carpets.
Originally exhibited at the 2017 Venice Biennale, these elegant, flowing ensembles simulate the effect of flight through their various suspension heights. Halilaj also bathes his creations in whimsical flickering lights resembling stars and fireflies. For the artist, these moths embody eternal notions of childlike wonder, gaiety, renewal, and camouflage.
Just like iconic director David Lynch’s insect-ridden multimedia paintings at Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Halilaj’s moth robes also reflect on Franz Kafka’s surreal and grotesque novella, The Metamorphosis (1915). However, rather than reference this literary work to point to the dark awkwardness of adolescence, here the artist imbues these pieces with an optimistically poetic take on transformation. Here he crafts these gargantuan fabric moths to recall a beloved childhood memory of chasing moths around light bulbs in his family home.
A few years ago, Hailaj even donned one of his moth costumes as part of a performance where he exquisitely recreated this moment of dancing around a lamp in order to tap into notions of nostalgia, vulnerability, and identity.
Nature has always held great significance for Halilaj. Not only has he playfully adopted other animal personas in the past, such as birds and dogs, but his seminal 2010 Berlin Biennale installation included several live chickens. Titled The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I do not know how to make them real, this immersive piece recreated the house Halilaj’s family built after the Serbian-Kosovar war leveled his childhood home. This bare-bones structure offers grief-stricken commentary on the rapid migration of the Kosovar people to urban centers. Halilaj here mourns the loss of his family farm as well as the national abandonment of the rural countryside.
Winged animals are also of crucial importance to Halilaj for another reason. As a 13-year-old boy living in an Albanian refugee camp in during the war, Halilaj garnered a great deal of attention for his artistic ability. Being ambidextrous, the budding artist could draw roosters, chickens, and parakeets with both hands. Soon, journalists covering the war and living conditions in the camp turned their attention to young Halilaj.
Wholeheartedly embracing spontaneity and childlike joy even in the darkest of times, this Hammer exhibition presents an intimate selection of Halilaj’s moth sculptures, all of which are appropriately titled, Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night!?. The pieces differ slightly based on fabric color, rug variety, antenna shape, and how they hang on the wall. In 2017’s dark pink moth, the visitor witnesses the insect’s shimmering, crimson tail resembling fresh, flowing blood. This wound-like extension hangs from a burgundy hood encompassing the wings. As moths in nature typically possess an eye-catching geometric pattern on their wings, so do Halilaj’s costumes. Here the artist replicates these sublime patterns using traditional Kosovan rugs. Not only do the intricate designs on these tapestries speak to notions of the home and hearth, but they also conjure up images of national culture and unity.
Halilaj expands on this idea in 2017’s Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night!? (grey and warm yellow). This time, a majestic golden train flows downward from a burgundy qilim carpet. Originating in Turkey, the Balkans, and Central Asia, these ancient tapestries have long served as both decoration and prayer rugs. As these carpets rely on a delicate crochet technique called flatweaving, they naturally unravel quite quickly. Just like childhood itself, qilim rugs are often fragile and temporary, forcing us to appreciate every moment we have with them.
The viewer will also witness this loose, unraveling quality mirrored the moth’s antennae as a tangled mass of black strings surround each one. The swirling, chaotic trajectories of these wires also seem to echo Halilaj’s performative dance around the light.
In this Hammer Museum project, the artist celebrates and recontextualizes this traditional craft of weaving to encompass ideas of escape, childhood reverie, and cultural identity. He argues that while youth and the physical structure associated with this transitory period may fade, the memories themselves are eternal as they exist within. We as humans are able to recreate these moments of love and happiness, and therefore create a sense of home wherever we go. Through this binding of familial and community customs, Halilaj reveals that it is indeed possible to have both roots and wings.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.