Yael Bartana: …and Europe will be stunned
There was nothing wrong with her health; in her own way she was almost content. But she thought it would be out of accord with Party principles for her to say that she was happy. She had never, even for politeness’s sake, told anyone that she was well. Strangers supposed she was afraid of the evil eye. But no—it was simply inconceivable that under an exploitative, unjust regime, anyone should feel entirely well. –Sami Michael, Refuge, 1977
Was I fifteen? Maybe I was sixteen when it happened. Standing on the second-floor atrium of my sister’s old high school, I was overlooking the stage where the memorial day ceremony was taking place. Wearing khaki slacks and starched white shirts, the school’s best talent sang melancholic lyrics and recited eulogies. “We are the silver platter upon which the State of Israel has been given …” they emphatically declared.1My family’s sacrifice was being honored. A building rumble of tears began moving up from my stomach to my throat. It threatened to burst out when a clear and even voice sounded inside my head as it spoke: “Don’t cry! You are being manipulated.”
Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana’s trilogy …and Europe will be stunned recalls for me this moment of rupture—that tear in the screen of identification that forever altered my attitude towards the ideological apparatus operating around me. In its three parts, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares, 2007), Mur i wieza (Wall and Tower, 2009), and Zamach (Assassination, 2011), this epic project has the unique capacity to both elicit emotions and at the same time truncate them. The sequence of videos represents three stages in the development of Bartana’s collaborative creation, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP).2The first is a call to join, the second a demonstration of an act, and the third, with the death of a leader, a consolidation of the movement’s followers through a wake ceremony. The strength of this artwork is that it is able to sustain the viewer in limbo—captivated, on the one hand, by both narrative and aesthetic devices, and on the other, given the tools to resist identification and thus form a gap within which critical perspective can enter.
In Mary Koszmary, a single silhouetted figure emerges from the shimmering backlit entrance to the Olympic stadium of Warsaw. Accompanied by the Polish National Anthem, he walks intently towards the camera, coming into full color as he passes it. As he begins to circle the track, the first scene’s glamour makes way for a dilapidated background of ghostly bleachers overgrown with weeds. Flapping at their top are not flags, but rather the blue tarps of a makeshift market. The stadium in ruins is not just a metaphor for the contemporary consequences of past events, but also here serves as the stage upon which history is about to be reevaluated.
The somber state of the stadium is contrasted by the upbeat aesthetics of the camerawork. The video employs techniques developed by Leni Riefenstahl for her infamous and innovative Olympia(1936). Riefenstahl juxtaposed low-angle shots of Hitler and tracking shots of his Olympics with images of Greek classical sculpture in order to picture the Olympics as embodying a return to the so-called “purity” of the West’s classical mythos. These tropes have since comprised a template for the filming of many grand spectacles. While the uses of propaganda by the Nazi regime have become history’s warning sign, Riefenstahl’s camerawork has also influenced the direction in which media culture has been perfecting its ability to captivate and indoctrinate audiences. Throughout the trilogy, Bartana draws from marked vocabularies of past aesthetics. However, here her Riefenstahl ventriloquism does not serve to support and supplement smooth and complicit messages. Instead, the artist brings these aesthetic devices into the foreground to take on full-blown roles as characters in the plot.
Ascending to the platform, our protagonist delivers his speech: “Jews, Fellow Countrymen, People, Peeeeople …,” he calls, and tells the story of an old woman who sleeps under a quilt taken from a Jewish girl, Rivka, who has fled persecution. Night after night, the Polish woman has nightmares. With this anecdote the orator offers a shocking proposition: “This is a call, not to the dead, but to the living. We want three million Jews to return to Poland to live with us again!” Invoking the need for diversity against the flattening powers of the global market and difference as the only means to make meaning through contrast, the orator sets the tone of the manifesto for the JRMiP, which will later conclude: