Whitehot Magazine

Prishtina’s World: Kosovo and Balkan Stories are Centered at Manifesta 14

When the sun goes away, we paint the sky, 2022, Petrit Halilaj, © Manifesta 14 Prishtina. Photo: Hana Agimi, Yll Çitaku

, October 2022 

Prishtina, Kosovo — After rumbling into the Prishtina bus station an hour later than expected, I rushed to meet a friend who was leaving the next morning. As we walked in the city center’s gathering dusk towards what I soon would identify as the Grand Hotel, I pointed to the illuminated Albanian text topping the building’s roof and its many shooting or falling stars, and, like an idiot, asked if the hotel was always like that. “No, that’s art!” retorted my friend. 

It was, of course, the Kosovo artist Petrit Halilaj’s epic installation, When the sun goes away, we paint the sky (Kur dielli të ikë, do ta pikturojmë qiellin), which he created for the 14th edition of Manifesta, the European Nomadic Biennial, by repurposing, rearranging, and adding to the letters of the Grand Hotel’s own signage and stars that had been out of commission, lying flat on its roof, for years. And yet, although I had come knowingly to Prishtina for the biennial, many of its artworks and interventions still appeared to me as Halilaj’s first did, as something wonderous, strange, yes, but also completely at home in a city whose architecture and spaces are remarkable all on their own, even if in various stages of neglect or transformation. As often as I asked myself why there was no toilet paper in any of the biennial’s listed bathrooms, I asked myself if I was looking at art.

Are the men lounging on their beds in the Grand Hotel, laughing and smoking with the door ajar, part of a performance piece? No, those are residents. Is the attendant with the toothy grin, manning a gas pump and sitting under an umbrella’s shade within the Partisan’s Martyr’s Monument, really there to fill up your tank? No, he’s paid to sit there as part of Sislej Xhafa’s installation, Frosted Pocket. Why? I couldn’t begin to say. But, for a newcomer like me, this is the real pleasure, confusion, beauty, and success of Manifesta 14 as an urban biennial, the ways in which Prishtina’s life and infrastructure permeate the works and exhibition spaces, and how the art emerges from and inhabits the locale in turn. 

This is only the second time Manifesta has been hosted by a Balkan city, the first being Ljubljana’s 2000 edition, Borderline Syndrome. Although Slovenia has since become an EU member state, Kosovo, Europe’s youngest country after officially declaring independence from Serbia in 2008, suffers from borders more so than Slovenia did then. Its citizens, having waited years for visa liberation, cannot travel anywhere in Europe beyond their four neighboring states without a visa, the only European passport to be subjected to such regulation. The title of this year’s Manifesta, chosen by its creative mediator, Catherine Nichols, and inspired by the artworld’s much beloved of late Donna Haraway, is it matters what worlds world worlds: how to tell stories otherwise. Though some Kosovo artists have broken into the international art world, the average resident cannot easily travel abroad, cannot world the world with their world. With 37% of its more than 100 artists being from Kosovo and more than half from the Western Balkans, the most local artists in the biennial’s history, Manifesta 14 represents a chance for Kosovars and their neighbors to tell their stories on the ground, worlding the views of those who can visit. 

      The National Library of Kosovo. Prishtina, Kosovo. Photo: Sylvie Robinson

Perhaps all cities are capable of commenting on themselves, materially revealing their histories and futures, but Prishtina feels especially honest in its storytelling. Impressive brutalist structures, such as the National Library and Palace of Youth and Sports, are still used, but largely unmaintained, speaking to the Yugoslav idealism of the 70s and 80s and newer ventures, such as post-war privatization and the neo-liberal development projects that can be seen multiplying around the city. The shell of an Orthodox Church on the University of Prishtina campus, built when Albanians were barred from institutional life and left unfinished before the war, stands as a hollow reminder of Serbian aggression and occupation, while a large banner and statue of Bill Clinton next to the boulevard that shares his name blatantly celebrates Kosovo’s love for America. Many of Manifesta’s interventions, which inhabit 25 locations of architectural, historical, and symbolic significance, don’t so much comment on Prishtina’s story, but further illuminate it. 

Turkish artist Cevdet Erek’s installation, Brutal Times, occupies a brutalist building that served as the printing-press for the Albanian-language newspaper Rilindja, which means rebirth, and was most recently the site of electronic raves thrown by the Hapësira collective. Erek’s sound installation combines the hard thump of the printing press and clicking keys with roving lights, creating a danceable and monotonous track that haunts the present with Rilindja’s past.

Artist Alban Muja, who splits his time between Berlin and Prishtina, installed a small house atop the old Germia department store, which was recently saved from demolition by the public. His work, Above Everyone, replicates the illegal vertical housing found in many cities, but, in former Yugoslavia, speaks especially to the collapse of socialized housing and the all too common need for constructing one’s own livelihood. 

The site that best contains and conveys the city’s recent stories is the Grand Hotel Prishtina, Manifesta’s focal point and main exhibition venue. The Grand Hotel, finished in 1978, once boasted five stars and was frequented by politicians and home to an important art collection. But since its post-war privatization, the art is gone, the wallpaper is peeling, and the carpets are an eerie moss green. Many spaces have been let to a variety of businesses, including a basement gym and rooftop nightclub. You can still stay at the Grand Hotel for 30 euros a night, but it is not recommended. Manifesta’s online list of partner hotels does not even include the Grand. 

Several works address the history and future of the hotel explicitly. Majlinda Hoxha’s photographs of the hotel’s old art collection hang in the vacant places those works once occupied. Her portraits of the hotel workers and their audio stories can be found tucked away in unexpected locations, including Tito’s former suite, where a worker is heard recounting her story of the Yugoslav President requesting her presence while he shaved. The New Grand intervention, a collection of paintings by six young Kosovo artists, is a response to the hotel’s now lost art collection. With titles such as Urban Loneliness, Memory of the World, and Fix my Dick, by artists Arbnor Karaliti, Valdrin Thaqi, and Mimoza Sahiti respectively, one gets a hypothetical taste of what themes and subjects the hotel might address should it decide to form a new collection. 

Urban Loneliness, 2022, © New Grand (Arbnor Karaliti). Memory of the World, 2022. © New Grand (Valdrin Thaqi). Photo: © Manifesta 14 Prishtina, Majlinda Hoxha 

The majority of the hotel’s film-heavy exhibition is organized under the title The Grand Scheme of Things, with seven floors each addressing a different theme: transition, migration, water, capital, love, ecology, and speculation. The first work I encountered was Driton Hajredini’s endearingly roughly shot 2004 film in which he, a Muslim, enters a Catholic confessional to ask the priest, “Is it a SIN that I have been born as Albanian in Kosova?” Many of the Grand’s works follow in a similarly pure vein, honest and sometimes hopeless investigations into what’s occurred and is occurring and experiments in how to be.  In Conflict Syntax. Dot, Dot Dot., one of the smartest and most hypnotizing films in the biennial, artist Lala Raščic recites her quantitative linguistic analysis of a YouTube war testimony archive to the pace of a metronome. Ultimately failing to accomplish her intended goal and acknowledging so, Raščić imbeds the viewer in the frustration of analyzing conflict and the impossibility of arriving at perfect truths. Across from Raščić video, is Emily Jacir’s film Letter to a Friend, in which she soberly anticipates the illegal occupation of her Bethlehem home by Israeli settlers, requesting an investigation before it occurs while painting a picture of her community living under and despite occupation. In his installation work, The Frequency of Frankness, Jakup Ferri, who is also representing Kosovo at the Venice Biennale, created a number of ‘picnic blankets’ with the help of local craftspeople on which his distinctive drawings of people, creatures, and plants co-mingling in new and colorful kinships. On the same floor as Ferri, addressing the topic of love, is Serbian artist Marta Popivoda’s film-essay, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body, which uses archival footage to explore the public performance of brotherhood and solidarity in the name of the socialist state. Over footage of intensely choreographed routines, Popivoda questions the decline of fraternal ideology, however performative, and descent into national and capitalistic values. Most works in the Grand, to return to Donna Haraway, succeed at and even propose new ways of “staying with the trouble,” of existing together in a damaged and, in Kosovo’s and Palestine’s case, isolated world. 

In recent years, Manifesta has made an explicit point of focusing on the urban development of the host city, such that it will leave a positive impact even when the biennial is finished. For this edition, the Turin-based architecture office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati was selected to conduct research for Manifesta’s Urban Visions initiative. Certain aspects of the initiative seem quite successful, such as the transformation of the previously shuttered Hivzi Sylejmani Library into the Centre of Narrative Practice, a new interdisciplinary institution that will hopefully continue to operate and serve the community. But spend a few days in Prishtina, and you will certainly hear murmurs of disappointment over what else was promised and how and where the city’s invested money was spent. The old brick factory, Prishtina’s largest industrial site, was envisioned to be a new community space. For the duration of Manifesta, raumlaborberlin, a collective of urbanologists and experimental architects, were invited to conduct a program spanning the festival’s 100 days on “eco-urban learning and making.” But when I visited in early October, it seemed that little more had happened than the cleaning up of some portions of the factory. There was no programming, so I wandered the factory interior wondering what I should be looking for. The Green Corridor project, in which a former railway was supposed to be turned into a green and park-like pedestrian path, was similarly underwhelming and a likely overly ambitious endeavor. 

RA-Carlo Ratti Associati also conceived of a new public space adjacent to the city’s famous Rakija Street, where they painted former parking spots an uncomfortably bright yellow and installed some awkwardly angled wooden seating. On one of the excellent guided tours I attended, our local guide brought us to this spot and asked what we thought of it, admitting that she found the intervention a little ill-conceived and a place where she wouldn’t feel comfortable spending much time. I and most of the tour group agreed and were happy to move instead to one of the longtime, nearby cafes to drink rakija together. 

When it comes to its Urban Visions, Manifesta is both too little and too much at once. But perhaps an art biennial shouldn’t be expected to or even try to materially transform a city beyond the scope of its duration. I think the greatest strength of Manifesta, and any urban biennial, is its ability to enchant a city, and in this regard, Manifesta 14 delivers. By offering a space and time for regional artists to voice their worlds together and be heard, Manifesta 14 stirs a sense of desire and possibility in Prishtina and for the future of the city, enchanting and encouraging locals and foreigners alike to tell their stories otherwise. WM 

Sylvie Robinson

Sylvie Robinson is a writer, researcher, and movement artist, currently residing in southern Albania. Her writing has been previously published by Rusted Radishes, The Decadent Review, and The Academy of American Poets.

view all articles from this author