Interview: Petrit Halilaj with Angelika Stepken, 2014

You spent ten months in Florence as a Villa Romana fellow 2014. How does this stay/period of time relate to your personal existence which is already somehow stretched between Berlin, Mantova and Pristina and all the other places where you are invited to work as an artist?

Florence felt a bit like going back home, to one of my homes, in Italy. I know the Italian reality quite well, having been living there since I was 18 years old. Though, being at Villa, in an art microcosmos, with international artists and having our studio there, felt a bit like being protected from the outdoor, city reality, its social life and the problematic Italian political life. Villa was like being in a protected island.

Territory, earth are repeating elements in your work. Mostly they refer to land and memories from your Kosovo youth and family life. Is this one reason why the idea of being resident is always connected with both extremes: longing and fleeing?

Longing and fleeing… an interesting couple. The pieces probably reflect this dichotomy such as the trees: half rockets/space shuttles, half trees. Trees are a symbol of time, memory, tradition, land… a space shuttle is a hope in the future, a utopian attempt. These pieces carry both ideas, they are filled with coloured pigment, like a precious memory of your past. Part of it stays inside, part of it falls on the ground, something you would leave behind. It is a precarious equilibrium. This is somehow part of the life of any immigrant, you keep a bit of your own culture, and try to embrace a new one as well, and most of the time end up being a weird point in between.

A being which in a way overcomes gravity – thanks to its flying capacities – is the bird, crossing territories without borders. In Florence you constructed a seventy meter long wire tube connecting your studio window with that of your apartment. Your family of canary birds enjoyed flying there, although only back and forth… Again this ambivalence? A space of freedom and a gigantic protected cave? A very beautiful and poetic one, I must say…

Ahah. Yes, they were a bit freer, and even more in a cage if you think of it. An illusion of freedom, they were even more tied to us, a long corridor going from home to studio… all the places where we lived. But thinking that canaries would die if they were really given total freedom, I believe this was actually an attempt to give them more autonomy and still protect them. But it is actually ambivalent; the floating connection between two different spaces is for me a love relation and a mental connection, it is a reflection on materials and the possibility you have to make this connection.

In Paris you recently installed a life-size plaster horse, earlier you did the project at the Museum of Natural History in Pristina, in Berlin 2012 there were the first hens. What do animals stand for? Are they close and alien at the same time? A figure of the “other”, the “you”?

Shkelzen Maliqi wrote for the catalogue about the Venice pavilion: “The chickens place themselves in a symbolic role of nature and naturalness of art. The bourgeois hens and their eggs seem to play their roles in this work just like actors do in amateur movies: they are untrained, they spring from life itself and usually play themselves’”. And I like that but at the same time they are the other for us.

The fragility of body and intimacy, the difference between interior and exterior are other aspects of your work. I am thinking, for example, of the hidden jewelry of your mother which you enlarged… There is also the idea of donation, of giving something – as you did in Florence initiating the “Hajde!” project and inviting young artists from Kosovo to stay for a while at Villa Romana. Is this a permanent movement of displacing memories and their current or future inhabitants?

I admire the possibility of extension, exchange or acceptance with others. I think for me it was important to initiate the Hajde! project (and hopefully to continue it in the future) because I know the importance that the fact of being able to study abroad can give. I was lucky enough to come to Italy when I was 18 years old, to the Poli Family from Bozzolo (MN), we met years ago in Albania, in the Kukes refugee camp. I know how this changed my life and I am not saying I would not have been an artist otherwise, but this experience (and all that followed) helped me so much to be aware of my practice. I wish more young artists could have the opportunity to do the same: to travel, to grow in their artistic practice thanks to a confrontation with a more international public. In Kosovo we unfortunately still have serious VISA problems, I cannot change the politics and the EU decisions, so I try to help as best I can with this exchange programme. But I also admire the fact that, while Shqipe Jonuzi, Yll Xhaferi and Qendresa Deda came to Villa Romana and developed their work there, one of four artists invited, Dardan Zhegrova made a different proposal instead, he decided to stay in his city and initiate a residency called Hajde. Here, renting a space and organizing a programme with the intention of creating new possibilities, to continue to work or address a local public there! This is a different approach and represents another point of view and the possibility of talking about us and the world around us without necessarily leaving or moving away! For me it was very interesting and valuable to be part of this, and I am very proud that Villa embraced this project with enthusiasm and made it possible!