BY Barbara Casavecchia in Opinion | 31 JUL 23

Autostrada Biennale Chronicles the Unarchivable

Kosovo makes moves to secure the long-term survival of its cultural history

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Opinion | 31 JUL 23

It’s noon and the sun is fierce in Prishtina. It’s been two years since my last trip to Kosovo – I’ve returned for the opening of Autostrada Biennale. Five streams of blue construction netting gush out from the openings of the former Brick Factory, as if to irrigate its deserted esplanade. This monumental installation, Who Speaks from the Dust, Who Looks from the Clay (2023), by Hera Büyüktaşçıyanm glows next to Sunflower Fields (2021–ongoing) by Agnes Denes, whose yellow petals are springing up at their own quiet speed around the building. Both works, which speak of restorative imaginaries, organic growth and cyclicality, are continuations of projects created by the artists for the previous iteration of the biennale, which this year takes place in Prizren, Prishtina and Mitrovica with 17 new commissions.

Agnes Denes, Sunflower Fields, 2021–ongoing, installation view. Courtesy: Autostrada Biennale; photo: Tuğhan Anıt

When Manifesta 14 descended upon Kosovo last year, contemporary art in the country experienced a turbocharged expansion. According to a rather bombastic survey carried out by the nomadic biennial, the 2022 edition welcomed over 800,000 visitors, mostly local, and the Ministry of Culture has since announced the acquisition of 14 works created for the occasion, destined for the National Gallery of Kosovo, which is currently hosting a passionately researched Violeta Xhaferi retrospective, curated by Hana Halilaj.

The establishment of a new contemporary art museum with a post-1990s collection is currently awaiting parliamentary approval. The board, which is chaired by political activist Yll Rugova and includes artists Petrit Halilaj, Flaka Haliti, Sislej Xhafa and Zake Preluvkai, has proposed that Rilindja Press Palace, a brutalist publishing house in Prishtina, serve as the museum's new home.

Gödze-Ílkin-companion-plants-entrusted stones-2023
Gödze Ílkin, Companion Plants, Entrusted Stones, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Autostrada Biennale; photo: Tuğhan Anıt

The question of the long-term survival of former Manifesta host venues remains in doubt as amid a frenzied drive for modernisation, sites and expressions of collective significance can easily vanish. Just outside Mitrovica, in Runik, the façade of the House of Culture – a protected heritage site from the 1950s that once hosted a library and theatre, and gathered members of different social and ethnic groups – was destroyed earlier this month without authorisation by local authorities. In Prizren, an old stone wall holding Gödze Ílkin’s public murals, Companion Plants, Entrusted Stones (2023), was torn down hours before its presentation. The sudden destruction of buildings and the pasts they contain within them is a haunting reminder of the title chosen for this year’s biennial by curators Övül O. Durmuşoğlu and Joanna Warsza: 'All Images Will Disappear, One Day’.

Alban Muja, Moving Monument – Moving Back, 2021–2023), installation view. Courtesy: Autostrada Biennale; photo: Tuğhan Anıt

Entering its fourth edition, Autostrada Biennale is still in bloom. With its grassroots approach and emphasis on sustainability, it perhaps reflects the future-looking energy of the nation: from 2024, the youngest population in Europe will finally enjoy visa-free travel in the Schengen area. This development was seen by many as an important step towards full sovereignty since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. In Mitrovica, where earlier this year clashes between ethnic Serbs and NATO peacekeeping soldiers, reminded the world of the region’s volatility, stands Moving Monument – Moving Back (2021–2023) by Alban Muja. The artist erected a replica of a 1970s-era monument, known locally as Equality, Work and Education, which was removed from the city without warning in 2010. Back in its original position on the main square, it depicts three figures holding a pen, a pickaxe and a book. Also on view at 7 Arte cultural centre is ‘The Pain of Symbols’ (2023) by Rena Rädle and Vladan Jeremić. This poster series, inspired by the visionary pacifist architect Bogdan Bogdanović, decries the political divisions in the city.

Mila Panić, Just Between Us, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Autostrada Biennale; photo: Tuğhan Anıt

'We consider art production a form of learning and exchange that can address the needs of various communities,’ says Vatra Abrashi, biennale co-founder with Leutrim Fishekqiu and Bariş Karamuç, while seated outside one of the four ex-military hangars that have become part of the festival’s permanent venues in Prizren where educational activities are year-round. ‘We are not interested in going faster or expanding too much.’ Creating and exhibiting art in a former NATO base calls for a reality check. Outside, Open Group collective painted 1:1 floorplans of three museums destroyed in Ukraine since the beginning of the 2022 Russian invasion – a war that Western media continually portrays as the first on European soil since World War II, according to Bosnian artist and comedian Mila Panić in her wry stand-up act Just Between Us (2023).

Neda Saeedi, In the Depth of the Night the Sky Sees the Sun, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Autostrada Biennale; photo: Tuğhan Anıt

So, what remains of individual and collective memories? In The First Wedding (2023), Selma Selman adorns Mercedes hoods with four large portraits of Roma women from her family, whose stories, as mothers and wives, regularly go untold. Neda Saeedi’s elaborate stained-glass sculpture In the Depth of the Night the Sky Sees the Sun? (2023) is installed in the remains of a destroyed monument to anti-fascism on League Square. Every night, during the opening week, live music and dancing bring everybody together, again and again. The construction of this intangible, unarchivable safe space where multiple conversations happen and memories overlap feels deeply important, in retrospect. Joy as antidote, as shelter, as temporary autonomous zone. As Durmuşoğlu and Warsza wrote in their curatorial statement, 'it is about hope and persistence, in spite of it all’.

Main image: Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Who Speaks from the Dust, Who Looks from the Clay, 2023, installation view. Photograph: Tuğhan Anıt

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.