Yael Bartana: And Europe Will Be Stunned
The big red poster, emblazoned with a hybrid insignia that combines the Polish eagle with the Jewish Star of David, distributed as part of Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s trilogy of films …And Europe Will Be Stunned, on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario through April 1, contains a manifesto entitled “The Jewish Renaissance Movement In Poland.” “We want to return!” the manifesto begins, “Not to Uganda, not to Argentina or to Madagascar, not even to Palestine. It is Poland that we long for, the land of our fathers and forefathers. In real-life and in our dreams we continue to have Poland on our minds.” The document later continues, “We wish to heal our mutual trauma once and for all. We believe that we are fated to live here, to raise families here, die and bury the remains of our dead here. We are revivifying the early Zionist phantasmagoria. We reach back to the past—to the world of migration, political and geographical displacement, to the disintegration of reality as we knew it—in order to shape a new future.”
At the beginning of the first part of …And Europe Will Be Stunned, 2007’s Mary Kozmary (translation: “Nightmare”), the trilogy’s protagonist, written and performed by the Polish journalist and activist Slawomir Sierakowski, confidently strides into a dilapidated, open-air, Communist-era coliseum in Warsaw; weeds grow from the empty, broken stone bleachers. Decked out in a store-bought suit and thin tie, blond hair neatly cropped and glasses oversized and thick-rimmed, Sierakowski resembles a Polish intellectual of the 1940s. Flanked by children in scout uniforms, a bodyguard of the innocent, Sierakowski launches into his speech with a resounding—and echoing—“Jews!” What follows rehearses the themes of the “Jewish Renaissance Movement In Poland” manifesto as the camera seamlessly circles from below in a cinematic grammar familiar from the fascist lyricism of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. With sun-struck clouds high in the background, Sierakowski looks at once commanding, monumental, ridiculous and positively scary. “Jews,” he insists, “heal our wounds and you will heal yours.”
Born in Afula, Israel, in 1970, and currently dividing her time between Amsterdam, Berlin and Tel Aviv, Yael Bartana is a rising star in the international art world. Her work was included in Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt in 2002, the São Paulo Biennial in 2006, and documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, in 2007. In 2010, Bartana was awarded the Artes Mundi, and last year ...And Europe Will Be Stunned was featured in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, making Bartana the first non-Polish artist to represent Poland at that prestigious event.
Bartana’s work over the past decade has concerned itself less with Jewish identity, at least as it is understood in the Jewish diaspora in North America, as with what it means to be an Israeli—Bartana is only among the second generation of Israelis to be born into Israel as a state rather than a dream, and what she inherited was complicated by the war of 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In Trembling Time (2001), for instance, which is in the AGO’s collection and is on view in an adjoining gallery, she trained her camera on a busy highway in Tel Aviv at night on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s day of remembrance founded for those who have died in conflicts since 1948. As a siren sounds, calling for a moment's silence, cars stop, people get out; in Bartana’s long exposure, the cars and people accumulate, translucent and ghostly, and one senses that this is a long procession of the dead. Yom Hazikaron honors the Jewish dead, but it is hard to contemplate Trembling Time—its title suggesting that time itself shudders faced with the reality of history—without also being conscious of the immense price in Palestinian lives that Israel’s independence and survival has exacted. …And Europe Will Be Stunned, by contrast, is far more ambitious in the scope of its concerns, ranging from the conflicted relationship between Poland and Jews, the Holocaust, the history of Zionism, the divided state of contemporary Israel, and the possibility, in an era that has repudiated visions of utopia, of even imagining forming diverse communities that transcend the nation-state and the traumas of history.
The proposition that the first film in …And Europe Will Be Stunned puts forward may seem, on the surface, perverse and even preposterous. After all, anti-Semitism has been present in Poland for centuries, occasionally degenerating into pogroms like those during the Cossack rebellion of the 17th century, which razed hundreds of shtetls and cost tens of thousands of Jews their lives. Of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, over three million of them were Polish out of a population of three and a half million, and most of those who managed to survive left after the war. Indeed, when Holocaust survivors attempted to return to their homes in Krakow and Lublin and elsewhere, they were received with hostility, and brutal pogroms against the already decimated population continued; and as recently as 1968, the remaining Polish Jews were scapegoated by the Communist government, resulting in a final wave of immigration to Israel. To say that Jews do not have a longing to return to Poland would be an understatement. And yet liking a culture and being a part of it are different, and the story of Poland and Jewish culture is far more complicated than first appears. Poland was essentially occupied by Russians and Germans from the 18th century until the failed Soviet incursion into Poland in 1920, and from the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989, yet in the interwar years Polish Jewish culture thrived: most of what we think of as 20th-century Eastern European Jewish culture took place in Poland, and numerous major Jewish writers and intellectuals, like the poet Alexander Wat and the writer and illustrator Bruno Schulz, wrote in Polish. Polish Jews, at least those who lived in cosmopolitan centers like Warsaw, Krakow, Vilnius and Lvov, were part of a complex multicultural society. In his brilliant and painful video Nasz spiewnik (Our Songbook) (2003), Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, curator of the 2012 Berlin Biennale, which will include Bartana’s work, went to old-age homes in Israel and asked elderly Polish Jews to sing the Polish national anthem from memory. Most of them could.
The second part of …And Europe Will Be Stunned, 2009’s Mur i Wieza (“Wall and Tower”), begins with Israeli pioneers of the Renaissance Jewish Movement in Poland on the march, the men in fishermen’s caps and the women in blue headscarves, carrying tools and lumber on their way to building a settlement in a park in Warsaw in front of a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. Bartana shot this in a style inspired by Zionist propaganda films of the 1930s designed to entice the increasingly frightened European Jewish population to emigrate to Palestine. In films like Baruch Agadati’s This is the Land (1935), for instance, Zionist pioneers are depicted as proud, strong, self-sacrificing and heroic: they were creating outposts of civilization in the wilderness, they were making the desert bloom; they were shedding the neuroses of the long exile—these are not pallid Yeshiva students stooped over the Talmud, but hearty farmers and builders. It’s hardly accidental that the aesthetic of This Is The Land closely resembles that of Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will as well as Soviet films like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth; those who envision a radically different order, whether they are Communist or Fascist or something else, inevitably bear a family resemblance; Communism’s “new man” is hardly distinguishable from Zionism’s “new Jew.” Bartana’s pioneers raise their encampment walls; Sierakowski assures them that “there is no one closer to us than you”; flags with the Polish-Jewish insignia are handed out. Near the end of the film, the pioneers festoon their new kibbutz with razor wire, making it look creepily like a prison camp.
Zamach (“Assassination”), the 2011 film that is the third and final part of …And Europe Will Be Stunned, opens from the point of view of a hearse carrying Sierakowski’s corpse. He has been assassinated by a right-wing agitator at the National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, in front of a painting by Bruno Schulz. (Schulz was shot to death by an SS officer in 1942.) The coffin is ceremoniously carried up the steps of the palace of culture and placed in a vast rotunda, hundreds of mourners filing in behind it, carrying red and white flowers, the colors of the Polish flag, and donning black armbands. People write things like “Never again!” and “We will be strong in our weakness” in the guestbook as they leave. Later, there is a rally in a public square, supporters carrying signs with slogans like “Fascism Kills” written on them. In the middle of the square is a goofy white bust of Sierakowski. In front of a Jewish Renaissance Movement In Poland banner sit a panel of eulogists, including his widow, art historian Anda Rottenberg, a representative from the Israeli embassy, and a few young followers. The eulogies range from heartbroken praise of the fallen visionary to a denunciation of his dangerous naïveté.
Shot with the cool, slick, swooping camera movements of a Benetton advertisement, or maybe a celebrity tribute like the one for Michael Jackson, the tone of the first half of Zamach is that of very black humor that is occasionally in dubious taste—it’s hard not to laugh at Sierakowski lying in state, much less his ridiculous bust, which looks like it was fashioned from soap. Then, late in the film, a figure called Rivka, who had briefly appeared in the first film, re-emerges, ghost of one of the millions murdered in the Nazi death camps, suitcase in hand as though awaiting yet another deportation. “I am Rivka,” she announces, “I am here to weave the torture of identity from the sweaters of forgetfulness.” It soon becomes clear that Rivka does not just represent Europe’s murdered Jews, but all who have been displaced, all who are stateless and in the limbo of exile. And when Sierakowski’s young acolytes take the microphone, insisting that they will carry on his work, they argue that the Jewish Renaissance Movement In Poland is not only about Jews, but about “all who have no homeland.” In Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s elegy to the city of his birth, “To Go to Lvov,” he writes, “Why must every city / become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,” but in a way that is also Bartana’s vision: homelands are never given, never things one returns to, but are rather things one creates with those who would otherwise be wandering and rootless.
In interviews, Bartana claims she has a love-hate relationship with the country of her birth, and …And Europe Will Be Stunned certainly bears that out. The barbed wire festooned on the settlement facing the Warsaw Ghetto memorial tragically suggests that narrow claims to homeland inevitably become traps and prisons, and that could easily be said of the type of religious Zionism ascribed to by many of the settlers on the West Bank and tacitly approved of by the current government in Israel. But …And Europe Will Be Stunned also contains within it a naïve yet powerful optimism one can also see shining through in early Zionist films: that homelands can be created, that the wounds of history can be healed and overcome, that all of this is, at the end of the day, in our hands. It is a spirit familiar to that of the ongoing Occupy movement. There is a crude innocence to this vision, but it is a crude innocence that we give up at our peril.