Petrit Halilaj <em>Very volcanic over this green feather</em> 2021, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Originally conceived and commissioned for Tate St Ives, 2021. Purchased with funds donated by Barry Janes and Paul Cross, Nick Perkins and Paul Banks, Sarah Cronin, Samuel Cronin and Bradley Cronin, Sophie and Simon Crowe, and NGV Foundation, 2023. This artist has been supported by the Elizabeth Summons Grant in Memory of Nicholas Draffin. This project is proudly supported by Deakin University. Photo: Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood)<br/>
© Petrit Halilaj. ChertLüdde, Berlin; Mennour, Paris

Fragile flight of memory

Jessica McEwen

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

— Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

The birds of Petrit Halilaj’s artistic practice arrive in the present, migrating from distant places of imagination with memory caught in their feathers. A Kosovar contemporary artist, Petrit Halilaj transposes relationships, places and people into sculptural forms and softly questions the blurred boundaries between collective and individual memory, as well as the creative labour of remembering. While based between Kosovo, Italy and Germany, Halilaj’s more creative travels are between present and past. His practice is deeply connected to the recent history of his native country and is rooted in an archive of biography. While a revisiting of past conflict and trauma is undoubtedly challenging, Halilaj ‘rejects pathos or nostalgia for something … more optimistic, materially complex, politically resonant and, ultimately, critical’.1 Indeed, Halilaj’s oeuvre, which encompasses sculpture, video, drawing, costume and text, is a rich palimpsest of reflection and philosophy.

Historian Dominick LaCapra reminds us that ‘with respect to trauma, memory is always secondary … the event must be reconstructed from its effects and traces’.2 An exhumation of the past with the purpose of reconsidering the traces of personal and political histories has been a longstanding preoccupation for Halilaj. At the Berlin Biennale in 2010 he reconstructed the skeleton of his family home, which was destroyed during the Kosovo War, a conflict that saw the genocide of the Kosovar Albanian community and their forced expulsion from 1998 to 1999. This ghostly scaffolding, a reference to both the presence and absence of home, was accompanied by a flock of live chickens. Birds, tethered to places, yet peripatetic in nature, are never far from Halilaj’s mind. In 2020 Halilaj withdrew from the Belgrade Bienniale, organised and hosted by the Cultural Centre of Belgrade in Serbia, after his nationality was redacted from the associated materials.3 Though Kosovo’s full declaration of independence in 2008 was recognised by close to 100 sovereign members of the United Nations, Serbia does not regard it as an independent country.4 By denying a static framing of individual and collective histories, Halilaj speaks of a desire to see a future in which people ‘move freely with no exception beyond geographical boundaries and cultural barriers, as I like to imagine birds do’.5

Initially displayed at Tate St Ives as Halilaj’s first solo UK exhibition, Very volcanic over this green feather, 2021, is an immersive installation of hanging forms that metamorphose from drawing into abstract sculpture. This work is shaped by Halilaj’s experiences as a thirteen-year-old living in the Kukës II refugee camp in Albania. The Italian psychologist Giacomo Poli, working within Kukës II, met a young Halilaj and encouraged him to use felt-tip pens and paper to give outline to both the things he had witnessed and those he had imagined.6 The thirty-eight drawings that Halilaj created in 1999 are enlarged, fragmented, printed on felt and tethered from the ceiling. Very volcanic over this green feather begins with a forest of colour, in which a peacock towers over trees and a parrot is perched on air. The action of turning back once within the installation, a gesture synonymous with the past, changes this dreamscape. The forms oriented towards the viewer as they move back to the entrance are representations of human suffering: a soldier wields a bloody knife, a child cries and the facade of a house bleeds black inky smoke. Many of these images are acts of violence that Halilaj witnessed. The encounter between peacock and soldier is a reminder that ‘remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again’.7 Inside this installation imagination and reality coexist.

It seems no coincidence that the avian creatures populating Halilaj’s oeuvre are not predators, but rather vibrant parrots, doves and peacocks. Their wings signify the opportunity for freedom, as well as the duality of fragility and resilience. The felt used to create the birds in Very volcanic over this green feather maintains a soft, sculptural quality, and the areas of stitching allude to the intimacy and intention of the handmade.8 In totality, these sculptural birds are fragments of imagination and material traces of an archive. The introduction of feathers, lightly fixed to the felt, conflates representation and the real. Halilaj has spoken of how ‘it is not in our hands to take trauma out of our lives. It makes us who we are.’9 Halilaj uses his hands to retrace and reshape an archive. The feathers delicately adorning the fragmented drawings mark a point where past, present and future have all come home to nest.

Petrit Halilaj <em>Refugees queue for food and humanitarian aid at the Kukes II refugee camp in Albania</em> 1999. Photo: Andrew Testa / Panos Pictures<br/>
&copy; Petrit Halilaj. ChertLudde, Berlin; Mennour, Paris.

Petrit Halilaj’s birds, impossibly tall, are a constant reminder of the malleability of memory work. While the original drawings are visible on one side of these monumental forms, the opposing side is spray-painted with a monochrome gradient. Within this installation, perspectives and voids gain new significance. The viewer exists between shapes, and from each change of orientation a new understanding arises. The border of each fragment references the drawing it was extracted from and is a constant reference to the absence of the whole. A presentation of ephemeral material coincides with the primary installation, in which news articles, photographs and media footage situate Halilaj’s memory ‘traces’ within a larger sociopolitical context.10 It is here that Very volcanic over this green feather tethers itself to the archive, even if it is a ruinous one.

Petrit Halilaj’s creative pilgrimages to the past are imperatives for understanding our own relationship with memory, both individual and collective. If the voice of the witness inevitably leads us back to the archive, who mediates this site of memory and erasure? Halilaj’s work, often as vibrant and playful as the feathers on his parrots, is a reminder of the Jorge Luis Borges adage that ‘[w]e are our memory … that chimerical museum of shifting shapes’.11 Within the habitable environment of Very volcanic over this green feather, shapes shift, histories speak and memory arrives with soft feathers.

JESSICA MCEWEN is a Project Officer, Exhibitions Management, National Gallery of Victoria.



‘Petrit Halilaj: poisoned by men in need of some love’, Wiels, <>, accessed 13 June 2023.


Dominick LaCapra, History and Memory after Auschwitz, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2018, p. 21.


‘Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj quits Belgrade Biennial after organisers refuse to recognise nationality’, 29 July 2020, Art Review, <>, accessed 13 June 2023.


Katharina Buchholz, ‘Kosovo & beyond: where the UN disagrees on recognition’, 17 Feb. 2023, Forbes, <>, accessed 13 June 2023.


‘Petrit Halilaj withdraws from Belgrade Biennial as it fails to recognise his nationality’, 3 Aug. 2020, My Art Guides, <>, accessed 13 June 2023.


Giacomo Poli, ‘The children of Kukes’, in Anne Barlow & Giles Jackson, Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather, Tate St Ives in association with Tate Publishing, New York, 2021. pp. 5–8.


Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1999, p. 267.


Barlow in Barlow & Jackson, ‘Unfinished histories’, pp. 54–61.

‘Petrit Halilaj reflects on trauma and hope at Tate St Ives’, 12 Oct. 2022, Wallpaper, <>, accessed 13 June 2023.


Barlow in Barlow & Jackson,’Foreword’, p. 5.


Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Cambridge’, In Praise of Darkness, bilingual edition, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Allen Lane, New York, 1975, pp. 20–3.