The Moth Costume In Hammer Projects: Petrit Hali

at Hammer Museum (Through January 20, 2019)
Reviewed by Emily Nimptsch

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.

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Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night!? Installation view.

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. . .

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