Exterior view of "To a raven and the hurricanes which bring back smells of humans in love from unknown places" Retiro Park, Palacio de Cristal, Madrid, Spain, 2020.

On wingless birds and permeable cages: Petrit Halilaj at the Palacio de Cristal, Madrid

The Reina Sofia’s inaugural exhibition after the COVID-19 lockdown presents a site-specific work by Petrit Halilaj (Kostërrc, Skenderaj, Republic of Kosovo, 1986) in the museum’s luminescent outpost, the Palacio Cristal in the heart of Parque de el Buen Retiro. The installation, titled to a raven and the hurricanes which bring back smells of humans in love from unknown places, transforms the nineteenth-century glass and iron structure into a giant, immersive nest adorned with a rainbow of levitating painted canvas flowers. Building on themes explored in his earlier work, standalone pieces within the nest refer to anthropomorphic and wingless birds; they serve as metaphors that explore how personal identity is shaped by nationality and culture. Yet, its staging in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic has inflected the work with new layers of meaning, so that our collective and heightened awareness of airiness, intimacy and touch become embedded in the project.   

Massive floral sculptures are suspended throughout the cruciform space, their soft petals offset by looming walls of tangled brush that surge from the smooth concrete floor. The site-specific installation resonates with the artist’s thematic preoccupations and amplifies them. The Palacio Cristal was designed and constructed in 1887 as a glistening showcase for tropical plants brought back from the Spanish colonies. Such buildings were typical of turn-of-the-century World Expos and served as spaces of fantasy, which introduced industrial innovations and normalized colonial conquest to European society-at-large. Halilaj draws on the historic function of this tropical greenhouse, re-inscribing it to showcase his autobiographical iconography. The myriad flora­—forsythia, palm seeds, cherry blossom, poppy, carnation, and lily—were chosen by the artist and his partner, Alvaro Urbano. They represent the union of their lives, which have blossomed together, and are an ode to queer love. 

As with the construction of nests in nature, the space devised by Halilaj is inextricable from its surrounding environment. The typically cloudless blue of the Spanish sky and thick foliage of Retiro Park lend themselves to the dazzling optics within the Palacio Cristal, as does the gridded network of dark shadows cast on the smooth paved floor. Evoking a giant birdcage, the visitor is surrounded at every angle by this cage-like motif. What’s more, the delicate metallic skeletons of the flowers have been left visible, echoing the iron structure of the building and further underscoring a reading of the building-as-birdcage.

Aviaries may function to confine various species, but they do so only to display captive birds for human observation. Breaking with this practice, the palace’s open windows invite both the sonic and physical presence of the park’s birdlife to enter the interior space. Likewise, their monumental size makes Halilaj’s sculptural botanicals visible from outside the building and their vivid colors beckon pedestrians to enter the structure. 

It would be remiss to read this interpenetration of internal and external space simply as a metaphor for the permeability of cages. By putting on display and thereby making a public declaration of queer love—still persecuted in many parts of the world—Halilaj transforms personal biography into political statement. The palimpsestic reflections on the glass walls overlay images of the floral structures inside with leafy reflections of the trees that surround the building, underscoring Halilaj’s preoccupation with the inextricable link between individual and subjective inner worlds, and external political and social realities. 

Although the work was conceived and its installation began prior to the global pandemic and Spanish state of alarm, the exhibition opened in a country where residents had been shut in their homes for nearly three months by one of the strictest lockdowns, in response to the pandemic, in the world. Usually, Halilaj’s work hinges on making biographical details public, wherein they transcend the personal to build new social and political realities; yet, in the context of COVID-19, this exhibition takes on new resonances. The unbridled joy, celebration, and the beauty of love are salves for tired eyes and bodies, which spent months staring at screens and confined like birds in a cage.  

Take, for instance, the “History of a Hug,” which stands facing the windows on the western side of the palace. The hybrid of a white raven’s head fused onto a human body was inspired by the artist’s family-lore. Halilaj’s grandfather was a fieldworker in his native Kosovo, who upon hearing about the birth of his first child could not contain his joy. As it was not custom for men to express emotions publicly in that time and place, he hugged the wooden log, holding on so tightly he thought he would break it. This transgressive display of masculine emotion is amplified by the white raven motif, which, usually black and a symbol of death, suggests the generative potential of making the private-public. Yet, strikingly, from some angles, the log appears to be a weapon, and the raven’s orientation towards the bars that separate him from the outer world also evokes a defensive vigilance over the exhibit. Although Spain’s de-escalation has given way to the so-called ‘new normal,’ physical touch remains a double-edged sword; it is both a dangerous act of potential contagion, but also something that we crave after months spent in solitude.

Even more striking is the stand-alone piece, “Here to remind you,” which comprises two monumental metallic bird’s legs that nearly reach the full height of the building and greet visitors upon entry, their bronze cast glistening in the sun. At ground level, talons from either foot suggestively rub against one another. This monumental gesture of intimacy also stands as an ode to the grounding that we have all experienced during this pandemic: the avian legs reach up towards the sky yet are cut off before reaching the bird’s body. Like the anthropomorphic white raven who is similarly deprived of his ability to fly, wingless bird motifs recur within the artist’s oeuvre, often serving as a metaphor for the restrictions imposed by human-made borders and histories of modern nation-states. They also resonate deeply with the restricted mobility that defines our new reality.

After spending time immersed within the installation, one exits realizing that the Palacio Cristal is not a birdcage after all. As its title suggests, the exhibit meditates on the beauty that comes from breaking away from the cage of heteronormative masculinity; yet, it also (unwittingly) speaks to these strange and unprecedented times that we find ourselves in. In this sense, Halilaj’s nest stands as a testament to the delicate strength of the elaborate inner lives many of us have cultivated after spending months indoors. These intensely personal internal experiences are, of course, entangled with the global scale of the pandemic and collective uncertainty about the future.

* All images: Petrit Halilaj, To a raven and the hurricanes which bring back smells of humans in love from unknown places, Retiro Park, Palacio de Cristal, Madrid, Spain, 2020. Photos by Hannah Rose Feniak. 

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