Doruntina Kastrati on Representing Kosovo at the 60th Venice Biennale

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the leadup to and during the Venice Biennale, which runs from 20 April to 24 November.

Doruntina Kastrati is representing Kosovo; the pavilion is in Museo Storico Navale della Marina Militare

Doruntina Kastrati and Erëmirë Krasniqi. Photo: Agon Dana

ArtReview What do you think of when you think of Venice?

Doruntina Kastrati Not being able to travel freely until recently due to visa regime, my references of Venice are not that thorough. But as an artist, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Venice is directly associated with the Venice Biennale.

AR What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

DK For the Venice Biennale I will present a sculptural installation titled The Echoing Silences of Metal and Skin, which is curated by Erëmirë Krasniqi, and with whom I have closely developed the project. We are a women-led team and the project addresses feminized labor, bodily injuries received while performing work and inequalities in the workplace. We aim to bring women’s narratives – those who work at the margins of society – into public view. This project departs from the experiences of women that worked at a Turkish Delight factory in Prizren, Kosovo, which also happens to be my hometown. The installation showcases four sculptural pieces: two of them modelled after the shells of different types of walnuts used in the production of Turkish delights, and the other two are modelled after the shape of prostheses used for surgical implants. The sculptural pieces have a low-key sound specifically designed to activate them. They are cast in aluminium, alluding to both surgical implants and industrial manufacturing. My choice of materials recreates the mechanic coldness of the Turkish Delight factory and the eerie coolness of the foreign metal on the workers’ knees. Loaded with discreet and quiet symbolism, representing the estrangement of working-class women, each element in the project comes together in a web of associations, references and stories.

AR Why is the Venice Biennale still important, if at all? And what is the importance of showing there? Is it about visibility, inclusion, acknowledgment?

DK Venice Biennale as an art event is closely connected to an old idea of nation-states and largely served for nations to project a certain self-image. Today, we perceive it to be an important aspect of world art history, because it has witnessed and reflected its evolution over a century. Kosovo participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time in 2013. We became an independent country in 2008 and national representation became a key dimension at this stage of nation-building. For a new political entity such as ours, which is still recovering from the consequences of the 1999 war, platforms such as the Venice Biennale enable us to weave diverse and critically-informed narratives that honour the past, but at the same time explore present-day Kosovo. So far, in its ten-year history, the Kosovo Pavilion at Venice Biennale was used as a vehicle to bring visibility to our stories and experiences, but also as a way to expand political understanding and broaden cultural references about our country internationally. Perceptions created over the years by international media often employed negative connotations about Kosovo, such as less developed, corrupt, war-mongering – these perceptions have been mirrored in the artworld as well. Artists in our country don’t enjoy opportunities or visibility in bigger art platforms. I find the Venice Biennale instrumental in doing away with these negative connotations and an event that we have to consider seriously in participating.

AR When you make artworks do you have a specific audience in mind?

DK I try to pay attention to the audience. When they come to see the work, they don’t come free from judgment; they come with their own set of references and project their own ideas onto my work. They bring a good day, a health problem, a bad day, a separation, a broken heart, racism, homophobia, doses of happiness… I mean, they bring a world with them. I find this to be a very sacred moment for me and it’s a privilege because you get to communicate with them in a language that often connects, but often doesn’t. My work is about labour, exploitation and class; it carries moments of life when people are humiliated for being poor, working class, simple people, and so on. My work is not just visually beautiful; it doesn’t make you feel comfortable around it. It goes beyond the visual and I’m interested to hear their thoughts and see their reactions. I’m lucky because people usually write to me on my personal Instagram (when I’m not present in the openings or during the opening days) and express their thoughts and feelings about what they get when they see my work, and that really matters to me.

Photo: Jan Eugster LLC

AR Do you think there is such a thing as national art? Or is all art universal? Is there something that defines your nation’s artistic traditions? And what is misunderstood or forgotten about your nation’s art history?

DK It’s hard to tell, especially when the Venice Biennale is predominantly focused on national representation. Coming from Kosovo, I am excessively aware of what the concept of nation and nationhood means to our people and that meaning comes from a very informed place – the liberation war of 1999. Engaging in art production sometimes puts us in a position where we reproduce those ideas of the nation. Societies in which we live and the values that shape it tend to create a better reception for some concepts and not for others, and sometimes that is the only context an art work can land and acquire some meaning. But this is all too slippery to try to discuss it here.

As an artist, I try to employ a language that transcends geographical and political boundaries. That helped me overcome obstacles as a woman artist and engage with art scenes that were more accommodating towards my work. Women being sidelined in the artworld is still a major issue that is being widely addressed, and these discussions are putting into question how the histories of art have been written and works of art shown in exhibition settings. Art traditions and histories, national or framed as universal, failed to acknowledge the legacies of women in the arts. The work that I do, locally or internationally, always feels like intervening into these art worlds, because you have to create a space for yourself, a space you don’t begin with, but has to be laboriously carved out.

Kosovo’s artistic tradition is tied to socialist modernism and political events following the Second World War. This tradition is mostly centred around male expressionist and abstract painters. Their art is considered to have crafted a visual language that has defined the local art tradition and to some degree that of the nation. But we see these male-centric art narratives everywhere, so I’m not going to dwell on it because it is not a very particular feature of Kosovo.

AR If someone were to visit your nation, what three things would you recommend they see or read in order to understand it better?

DK Before arriving in Kosovo, for anyone who wants an in-depth understanding of its history, I would definitely recommend searching for the online archive of Oral History Kosovo – an online archive of oral histories of people of all walks of life that showcases the broader history of our country over the years. Once here, I would suggest visiting Prizren, the city where I was born and raised. It’s small – you can explore the city in a day – but it has a rich historical background and a unique sense of community living, unlike any other city in Kosovo. Visiting during the time of Dokufest or Autostrada Biennale, both taking place in Prizren, are just as much an added value! The urban setting of Prishtina, from old to new buildings in progress, is also a must. Prishtina embodies so much of the spirit of the country’s youth and the postwar transition period. From the buildings of modern architecture to ongoing urban chaos, one will encounter a very interesting and vibrant art scene. The freedom we find within obviously doesn’t wait for institutional infrastructure to make itself known, loud and visible. So once you are here, I would suggest meeting the powerful and very active feminist collectives who play a significant role in our society.

AR Which other artists have influenced or inspired you?

DK Many of them have influenced me in different ways over the years and continue to do so. From Etel Adnan and Ayse Erkmen to Chantal Akerman and Abbas Kiarostami, the photographic work of Ahlam Shibli, and the amazing works of Felix Gonzalez Torres. I would also like to mention Ali Cherri, as I have been following his work closely in recent times.

AR What, other than your own work, are you looking forward to seeing while you are in Venice?

DK I’m curious to see the main exhibition curated by Adriano Pedrosa. Many artists, especially from younger generations (which is not very common) have been invited to show. I find the focus on queer people and indigenous artists very important in terms of representation. I’m expecting to see more works such as ours that address less visible subjects of history and artists who have been historically sidelined by the centres of the artworld at the Venice Biennale. So I’m looking forward to seeing it!

The 60th Venice Biennale, 20 April – 24 November

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