Reaching out

Video artist Yael Bartana addresses the Israeli and Polish national consciousness.

Still (photo credit: Yael Bartana)
(photo credit: Yael Bartana)
A young man walks into a desolate stadium in Warsaw and delivers a speech. “Jews! Fellow countrymen! People!...
You think the old woman who still sleeps under Rifke’s quilt doesn’t want to see you? Has forgotten about you? You’re wrong. She dreams about you every night... Return to Poland, to your/our country.”
So begins video artist Yael Bartana’s remarkable trilogy, ...and Europe Will Be Stunned, now showing at the Helena Rubinstein Pavillion, an extension of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The films are shown simultaneously on three screens, alternately with Hebrew and English subtitles. They run between 11 and 35 minutes in length.
Such a direct and challenging opening immediately arrests our attention and pulls us in as viewers. This is a work that will resonate with Israelis, Poles and particularly with Ashkenazi Jews.
Bartana created waves in the Israeli art world last year when she was chosen to represent Poland at the Venice Biennial.
In retrospect, maybe the decision was a logical step in the close ties, developed through her work, that she has made with the country. These ties also led to the founding of the fictitious movement The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), which serves as a backdrop to the trilogy of video works.
The movement takes its cue from European youth movements in the 20th century and has a written manifesto, a flag, uniforms, even its own seal. It has increasingly taken on a life of its own and recently held a congress, chaired by Bartana, at the Berlin Biennial. Posters displaying the movement’s logo, a blood-red Star of David joined with a Polish eagle, superimposed over its manifesto are free for the taking at the pavillion. The growing visual presence of the movement has led to recent conjecture about whether it might actually become a real political entity. As of this writing, the jury is still out.
Bartana first visited Poland in 2006.
Later on, she met and forged a close working relationship with Slawomir Sierakowski, the leader of the New Left in Poland, and the charismatic, idealistic leader in the trilogy. Sierakowski is also responsible for co-writing the text of the speech that opens the first part of the trilogy, Mary Koszmary, roughly translated as “nightmares.”
Bartana’s early works dealt with an Israeli reality and its politics, but in this trilogy she addresses the Israeli and Polish national consciousness, and particularly the experience of the Ashkenazi Jew.
Through the tools of the political propaganda film and strong, cinematic language Bartana presents a fluent, narrative work that is seemingly easy to follow, but dense and layered with symbols and associations that evoke complex and conflicting emotions.
The empty stadium used as the setting for the trilogy’s opening film was built in 1955, when Poland was under the sphere of Russian influence. Now in a state of disuse and neglect, overgrown with weeds, Sierakowski delivers his speech beseeching Jews to return. The only witnesses to the scene are a small group of youngsters dressed in the uniform of the JRMiP.
The speech sets the stage for what is the beginning of a strange sense of “unreality” that permeates the whole trilogy.
“We want three million Jews to return to Poland, we want you to live with us again,” says the speaker. For Jews and Israelis, contemplating such a return to the Diaspora seems unfathomable.
Layer upon historical layer are slowly pulled back as the work reveals itself in a challenging and troubling weave.
“Return, and both you and us will finally cease to be the chosen people.
Chosen for suffering, chosen for taking wounds and chosen for inflicting wounds. Return and we shall finally become Europeans,” continues the speaker.
These lines might appear shocking to some Jews; can the speaker seriously be equating Polish with Jewish suffering during the Holocaust? And upon whom have Jews inflicted wounds? POLAND IS still trying to come to terms with its role in the Holocaust, yet it is also a nation with a “torn” history, having been the victim of partition, at various times, from Prussian, Austrian and Russian governments. Bartana might also be asking whether the Israeli conscience is without blemish, for it could be perceived in some people’s eyes, as “inflicting wounds” on the Palestinians.
The remnants of a haunted Europe are conjured up through setting and speech. The young JRMiP members, dressed in uniform, bear a marked resemblance to Nazi youth. Speeches in stadiums were a feature of Nazi rallies, immortalized in German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s work, Triumph of the Will.
Here are ghosts that have not yet been laid to rest, the ghost of Rifke, the very epitome of the shtetl Jew and her quilt, now “thin as a sheet, with the down long gone.” The sense of unreality continues in the second and visually strongest part of the trilogy, Wall and Tower.
The movement begins to realize its utopian dream as the members, now pioneers, begin building the first kibbutz on Polish soil and taking steps to learn Polish, a reference to early Zionists who had to grapple with the Hebrew language. The pioneers stride triumphantly through the streets of Warsaw, with wood and tools for their work.
Music is an integral part of Bartana’s work, and the visually seductive and idyllic scenes are played out to the strains of the Polish and Israeli national anthems. The mood and tone is epic, triumphant, and as with Reifenstahl’s “culture of the body” and Helmar Lerski’s classic Zionist film Avodah, which Bartana acknowledges as an influence, we cannot help but be won over by the pioneers’ joy in physical work and sense of purpose and the dream-like reverie of its after-effects, as the workers rest from their exertions, accompanied by the wistful melody of a lone harmonica.
Yet again, the visual language has its counterpart and the imagery and trappings of fascism are present in the form of the movement’s paraphernalia; the uniforms and armbands and the bloodred flag, presented by the leader in a symbolic ceremony, combining both a Star of David and a Polish eagle. The flag is raised on the watchtower of the newlybuilt kibbutz, barbed wire is put in place and the structure now resembles a concentration camp. Europe’s past is everpresent as the kibbutz has been erected on the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto.
IN THE final part of the trilogy, Assassination, the dream is shattered as we see the body of the leader lying in state in Warsaw’s majestic Ministry of Culture building. An assemblage of mourners deliver eulogies that give voice to some of the difficult questions and issues that the trilogy has raised.
Bartana has referred to this as the “guts” of the trilogy, but the work is long on rhetoric and lacks the directness and “action” of the first two parts.
“The promised paradise has been privatized.
The kibbutz apples and watermelons are no longer ripe,” state two young pioneers, in a cynical reference to the Zionist dream. The movement sets out its credo, written up in the manifesto. “We direct our appeal not only to Jews. We accept into our ranks all those for whom there is no place in their homelands... Join us, and Europe will be stunned!” But these words, spoken by children, instead of offering hope for the future, have a hollow ring.
It is difficult to tell whether Bartana is being ironic. The movement’s members who make up the onlooking crowd, including an array of multi-cultural faces, are full of hope for a new Poland, possibly a new Europe. But in the world of real politik, the dream appears naive and a movement that is not really a movement can only offer just that, dreams.
The pervasive sense of unreality continues to the last. Indeed, it seems that throughout the whole trilogy the 21st century is kept at a distance, rarely allowed to intrude. This effect of “containment” is produced because each part of the trilogy is centered around an architectural monument or structure – a stadium, a kibbutz and the Ministry of Culture building. For the most part, the camera keeps us “within” these structures, creating a sense of “containment” and rarely permitting the spectator a view from the outside.
In the closing scenes we again meet the dream-like presence of Rifke, a picture of nobility and a lone soul.
Emerging from the crowd of mourners Rifke appears as a Wandering Jewess with suitcase in hand; the “ghost of return.” But one cannot help but wonder to where will she wander next? Bartana’s powerful trilogy, sure to become part of the Israeli art cannon, is at turns disturbing and full of pathos. It also asks us to look at ourselves as part of something greater, as part of a nation, with all a nation’s strengths and weaknesses.
If the exhibition has a weak point it is in the fact that while viewing the trilogy on the three screens, the sound and music from one part occasionally intrude over another.
The closing date is August 27.