The very name Terminal for Tirana is, in itself, evocative. It evokes ideas of transitory places or undefined spaces. There is an underlying melancholy that invites introspection. Nevertheless, and acknowledging that the name alone is quite a statement, Terminal for Tirana is the latest project by artist Karolina Halatek, in collaboration with curator and director of Tirana Art Lab, Adela Demetja.
Of course, it goes without saying that this poetic piece, crafted from light and cement, has transformed the Albanian urban landscape. Karolina Halatek has, from the beginning of her career, studied an element as intangible as light. Many artists throughout art history have ventured into its conquest. As the artist herself says, “Light is so influential; it’s like music — it can instantly change the atmosphere. I see it as a natural element equal to air, as it entirely permeates space, or equal to fire in its magnetism.” Beautiful words, indeed. And as often happens in such cases, the interview you are about to read feels like navigating an exquisite minefield. Her words are explosive, expansive, just like bombs, and it’s hard not to get struck by them. Sometimes I think only artists truly know how to speak.
All of Halatek’s work revolves around an obsession (and I use this word in the best possible sense) with bringing us, through her pieces and the use of light, the experiences of those who have come close to death. And although at first this may sound somewhat dark, it is not a fascination with the macabre, but rather almost a celebration of life. The opposite always highlights the most authentic virtues of its counterpart. And I quote her again to add more depth to this idea that is so difficult to put into words: “Testimonies of Near Death Experience are a new learning tool that helps to reflect on the value and meaning of life. They had a profound impact on my existential imagination, visionary thought process and spirituality…I found out that NDE survivors often have a phenomenological light experience that can deeply and permanently transform their lives.”
And now, let’s navigate through this interview as if Charon himself had picked us up in his boat. Thank you, Karolina, for enlightening us so much, and may your art continue to be a spark of pure fire in our continuous state of lethargy.
Hi Karolina! It's wonderful to be able to interview you for METAL. To start, could you give us a brief introduction to your work? I read in your biography that your education is quite multidisciplinary. What were those years of training like, and how have all those influences come together?
My educational background is diverse, I moved around quite a lot to gain specific skills and insights. I started with a Bachelor's at Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts London, where I studied Design for Performance, that department was part of the School of Theatre, I chose it because there was a stage lighting class where I learned how to design and how to build large objects for the stage and all kinds of performances. After I graduated from UAL, I continued my studies doing a Master’s in Media Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. That time was when I decided to focus mainly on conceptual art and I designed my first large-scale light and kinetic installation. I did one exchange semester at the Fine Arts Department of the University of the Arts, Berlin.
Moving to Berlin was purely motivated by the existence of Institut für Raumexperimente, run by Olafur Eliasson, at the time I was able to take part in a few of his interdisciplinary lectures, and visit studios of his students and see his artistic approach to higher education. From 2022 up to the present moment, I’m at the Doctoral School of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków doing practice-based research in the visual aspects of Near-Death Experiences. I’m confident in stating that the international educational experience widened my perspectives on how art practice can be contextualised and gave me a deeper understanding of knowledge production. During my formative years, I had many chances to confront my views and creative ideas to many people from very different parts of the world which shaped me and crystallised my artistic identity.
Following this thread a bit, during your time in Berlin, you worked alongside Olafur Eliasson. Is that where your fascination with light comes from? How did this period influence your identity as an artist?
My fascination with light is an organic process, I grew up in a film and photographic environment, which led me to develop attention towards objects that hold ephemeral spatial potential. My father had a darkroom next to the kitchen, my grandfather was shooting films on 8mm, and my uncle was a cinematographer. I was playing with lenses, staring at the projector beams and observing the magical process of developing images at the same time as I was learning to read and write. Training in arts from a very early age and further contemplation brought me to the conclusion that objects are catalysts of experience and that everything that happens is filtered by emotion, state of mind, sensual disposition, and individual sensibility.
What is it about light that makes it so impactful in creating atmospheres? Isn't the history of painting also the history of the conquest of light?
Light is so influential, it’s like music, it can instantly change the atmosphere. I see it as a natural element equal to air, as it’s entirely penetrating the space or equal to fire in its magnetism. Also, light equals energy, so the electric charge that the light holds can generate incredible atmospheres.
And now, let's talk about your latest project in Albania, Terminal for Tirana. I would like you to tell us a bit about how this collaboration with curator Adela Demetja came about. Why did you decide to work together?
I met curator Adela Demetja, a few years ago in New York. We both received a fellowship and residency from CEC Artslink. Back then, Adela told me that she is a director of Tirana Art Lab, and would like to invite me for a residency one day. She was aware of my work with large objects, so in 2022 when the time was right she approached me with a proposal to apply for the competition for art in public space organised by the Ministry of Economy, Culture and Innovation of Albania. I was very enthusiastic about the idea of transforming the public space and working with the international team on a permanent and accessible piece.
Could you explain a bit about the piece? How does it transform the visitor's experience within the public space where it is located?
Terminal is a site-specific installation that draws inspiration from the profound recollections of patients experiencing Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), creating thus a space where art, spirituality, and science intersect. Terminal for Tirana offers a contemplative space where visitors can experience a sense of euphoria, peace, and the feeling of transcending physical boundaries. Brilliant sculpture is composed primarily of a single polyethylene cylinder of 6m by 3m diameter, illuminated from within by solar-powered LED neons.
This tunnel of light invites visitors to step into an otherworldly experience, reminiscent of those reported in NDEs - a journey through a dark tunnel towards an enveloping, radiant light. The artwork finds its roots in echoing common experiences recorded in the databases of the Near-Death Research Foundation (NDRF), adding a profound exploration of human consciousness and mortality to the stunning visual spectacle.
Terminal for Tirana reaches further than an art installation; it is a meditation on life, death, and the persistence of consciousness. Situated at the entrance of the University Hospital Center Mother Teresa, Tirana, the work gains an added layer of significance, resonating with those contemplating life's fragility and the mysteries beyond. This approach is also reflected in the site’s transformation which has been designed by Elian Stefa and Dea Buza to create a variety of moments of intimacy and pause. Accessible from both sides the installation, placed as a crown jewel, invites viewers to immerse themselves in the transformative power of light, offering a glimpse into what might lie at the threshold of life. It is a reminder of the eternal continuity in the world of light, urging the audience to reflect on our existence and the universe's boundless mysteries.
What is fascinating about site-specific pieces? Do you think that all artwork is meant to be displayed in a specific space, or on the contrary, can pieces transform any site regardless?
Yes, I do believe that every object is contextualised by the space where it is displayed, especially spatial installations require certain conditions, often the technical side of the artwork takes over and dictates its existence. Each object creates a dialogue with its environment and the context can dramatically change the way of perceiving it, it’s never neutral.
I want to delve a bit more into this concept. What do you think about works that were never conceived to be in the spaces where they reside? For example, who could imagine that the Parthenon friezes would be in a museum hall in London? What dialogues are established? Can we detach from the political readings to find some poetry in these phenomena promoted by history and its cruel events?
I think your question can be pinned down to the question of originality and origin of things. We cannot stop the flow of life and its changes, however, we can shape our future to some extent by creating non-violent policies that would help to nourish the culture and intellectual freedom. I’m more on the side of cultural preservation, even on the expanse of relocation rather than complete devastation or decay. I would say that poetry is a state of mind, you can find it anywhere depending on your personal disposition and openness.
Also, why does it seem that you are so fascinated with Near-Death Experiences? What is the secret attraction of it?
Testimonies of Near Death Experience are a new learning tool that helps to reflect on the value and meaning of life. They had a profound impact on my existential imagination, visionary thought process and spirituality. I found out that NDE survivors often have a phenomenological light experience that can deeply and permanently transform their lives, almost as if they were born into a new life with a sense of serene purpose. Book titles like Dying to be Me, Dying to Live, Living to Die, Dying to Live, Saved by the Light, Embraced by the Light, Transformed by the Light, Lessons from the Light, give a glimpse that within this critical moment, on the edge of the hereafter, there is a blissful twist and a hidden treasure.
Which artists do you truly admire? Is there any particular piece that has impacted you lately?
I admire Californian artists from the Light Space Movement such as James Turrell, Larry Bell, Doug Wheeler [as well as] Ann Veronica Janssens, Mariko Mori, Gisela Colon, Philippe Parreno, Anish Kapoor, Carsten Höller, Carsten Nicolai, Fujiko Nakaya, I mentioned earlier Olafur Eliasson, the list is endless. Lately, I enjoyed the show of United Visual Artists at 180 Studios in London, and Elmgreen & Dragset at Centre Pompidou-Metz.
What is the art scene like in the countries that were part of the former Soviet Union and its satellites? Do you find any special characteristic that is idiosyncratic to their own historical identity?
Regarding your question about the art scene in the countries that were part of the former Soviet Union and its satellites, I don’t have much knowledge about the post-Soviet art scene, it’s foreign to me. I can only speak about my experience of post-communistic countries such as Poland and Hungary. Both countries went under extremely fast transformation, technological and economic changes hit this part of the world very dramatically, on one hand, you can see similar artistic phenomena that come out from globalism and affordable travelling. On the other hand, the institutions do not have the same economic freedom as the ones in the Western part of Europe. That creates a clash and gap that is difficult to accept. The fact that art had not been commercialised in the former times, pays off today, which has good and bad sides. Summing up I can agree that the art scene is idiosyncratic in Poland but I deeply believe that creativity has no passport.
What do institutions such as the Tirana Art Lab - Center for Contemporary Art mean for artists?
Tirana Art Lab is a laboratory for beautiful and free minds. It’s independent and exists only because there are people like Adela Demetja, who believe in humanity and are ready to embrace differences and fulfil the social purpose that artistic expression holds.
And finally, it has been a real pleasure talking to you. Tell us, do you have any other projects as interesting as this one on the horizon?
I’m off tomorrow to install my work at the Lovie Castle for the summer Kunstenfestival Watou in Belgium, and preparing new shows for China later this year. Please follow the updates on my homepage.