Yael Bartana: Our Own National Demons
(a raport on new Yael’s work by Sebastian Cichocki, provided for Mousse magazine)

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As strange as it may sound, Yael Bartana’s new film is a political fairy tale for grown-ups, where the brave protagonists – Jewish settlers, embark on a bloodless conquest of Central and Eastern Europe. This historical fantasy, which has an ominously idyllic character, is an escapade across dangerous territories, marked with nationalism and militarism, burdened by the accompanying history of settlement, memory of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. The film is not free of pathos. Bartan once again applies national clichés, stereotypes, however remaining an explorer of political propaganda notwithstanding.

I meet Yael, who has moved back to Tel Aviv after a few years spent in Amsterdam, in a flat not far from Karl Marx Allee, in the eastern part of Berlin. It is freezing cold, clouds of steel hang over the German capital – indeed an ideal scenography for reflecting on alternative versions of history, nostalgia, and political fiction. Yael says, “My works suggest that there are many ways of writing history. Somebody has to write history for it to exist at all; it has chapters, however, which have never been written. Perhaps my films indicates a different type of historical narrative which is inaccessible, which is not taught. I felt that in my lifetime I have been many times ideologically manipulated – a feeling I share with many people. Being an artist I can discuss this experience by means of my work. Perhaps it can help others understand that reality should not be accepted at face value, and that even the view of the past can change in the future”. Bartana’s works have for a long time remained ambiguous, quasi-anthropological records of political rituals practiced in Israel. With time, however, the radical political element has become ever more apparent with imitations of the language of propaganda (the film “The Declaration” from 2006 being the key point), and fantasies about the different “official” historical narratives and possibilities of their transgression. The artist declares, “I try to create a mirror, a huge mirror reflecting history.… With the help of my works I suggest the existence of pages, or even whole chapters which are missing from history books.”

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We are watching ”Operacja Mur i Wieża” [Operation Wall and Tower] , Bartana’s main production from this year, where Central and Eastern European trances (or rather demons) are accentuated just as strongly as in the gloomily sentimental picture entitled “Mary Koszmary” [Nightmares] from 2007. Bartana continues the “Polish” motif, which she skillfully translates into a universal language of political propaganda – a set of gestures, rhetoric, and symbols not assigned to any specific time or ideology. “This is a very universal story; as in previous works, I have treated Israel as a sort of a social laboratory, always looking from the outside. These are mechanisms and situations which can be observed anywhere in the world. My recent works are not just stories about two nations – Poles and Jews. This is a universal presentation of the impossibility of living together.”
In a film from two years ago, “Mary Koszmary” [Nightmares], a young leftist activist, played here by Sławomir Sierakowski (leader of a circle gathered around “Krytyka Polityczna” magazine), delivered a speech at the abandoned National Stadium in Warsaw, addressing three millions of Jews and encouraging them to come back to Poland. “We look at our similar faces today with no excitement. Treading the streets of big cities we seek out foreigners, we listen in to their speech. Yes, today we know that we cannot live alone. We need the other, and there is no other closer to us than you are! Come!”, Sierakowski screamed at the empty stands of the stadium. Bartan referred in this film to the esthetics of a propaganda film, in particular relating to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” from 1934, where the stadium is too an arena of political manipulation. Yael talks about the reactions to her work, “For many Jews it was painful to see the film and imagine a possible return to the place of slaughter, as it is called in Israel. I wanted for my film to become a topic of discussion. For some it was a form of reversed anti-Semitism.”
The fantasy about the “Jewish renaissance” presented in “Mary Koszmary” comes true in Bartana’s most recent work. The new film was made in the summer of this year, in the Warsaw district of Muranów, where a kibbutz was erected in the scale of 1:1 in the architectural style of the 1930’s. The film features extras from Israel and Poles with a “Semitic look”, as well as the leftist intellectual, Sławomir Sierakowski, and Wilhelm Sansal – one of the most renowned Polish artists who plays here the role of the “national painter”, painting the logo of a fictitious Jewish Renaissance Movement on the wall of a wooden barrack.
The kibbutz constructed in the center of Warsaw is an utterly “exotic” structure, despite the perverse reference to the history of the place which was part of the Warsaw Ghetto. “I was interested in what would happen to an architecture, which is typical for Palestine, if it was moved to Poland – what kind of a collective memory would it evoke? What people see is the architecture of concentration camps. Such associations are dangerous for the perception of my work. I am aware, however, that the theatricality of the situation is very explicit.” By building a kibbutz in the center of Warsaw, Bartan tests the reactions to the unexpected return of the “long unseen neighbour”. She also recalls the forgotten motif of the alternative locations for the state of Israel considered once by Syonists, such as Uganda in Africa. “I wanted to be provocative and concentrated, and send a simple message. It stemmed from my being confused about the relationship between my own art and politics. I am critical of the state of Israel, but at the same time there is this feeling of pain and disappointment resulting from unkept promises. I did not want to take advantage of that what is in between, of the ambivalence.”

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According to the hypothetical scenario proposed in “Opearcja Mur i Wieża”, the Jewish arrivals return to Poland and apply the procedures valid in the 1930’s. Bartana refers to the Homa U’Migdal (wall and tower) method applied by Jewish settlers during the Arab revolt from 1936 – 1939 during the British Mandate in Palestine. Despite the ban on annexing new territories, over fifty new settlements were built then. They were usually constructed overnight because the Ottoman law, in force at that time, prohibited the demolition of finished buildings. The kibuttzes hastily built were composed solely of the two basic elements – the wall and the tower. Only later were they filled with residential buildings and remaining infrastructure.
Bratana recalls the Syonist dream, invoking the heroic images of the strong and beautiful men and women, who despite the most unfavourable conditions keep on building houses, cultivating land, studying, collectively brining up children, sharing assets, and at the same time courageously fighting off enemy attacks. This is the world to be resurrected in the 21st c., in an entirely different political and geographical configuration. “I quote the past, the time of Socialist utopia, time of youthfulness and optimism – when there was a project of constructing a new world”. At the same time Yael remains distanced and restrains the enthusiasm of such fantasies, “I am not so naïve as to think that any of the two nations would be ready for such coexistence, that Poles would be capable to receiving three million Jews, and that Jews would be happy to move to Poland”. Furthermore, Bartana keeps stressing the fact that the film should be analysed in a broader, global context – as a story of the readiness to accept the stranger and of assimilation in the unstable world of geographical and political shifts. This art seems to be a form of collective psychotherapy, where national demons are awaken and dragged out into daylight. Yael is already contemplating a third production, which would conclude the issues dealt with in “Mary koszmary” and “Operacja mur i wieza”, “For a long time I have been thinking about creating a trilogy which would have the third part missing. I wanted to leave this project as open as possible, leaving room for discussion and natural development. With time, however, I began thinking about another film, perhaps a more aggressive and radical one. I keep thinking about the most dismal, final solutions.”

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“Operacja Mur i Wieża” [Operation Wall And Tower] will be presented at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw on 5 December 2009, and at the KunstWerke in Berlin in February 2010.


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