Yael Bartana review by Rebecca Lewin
‘We long to write new pages into a history that never quite took the course we wanted.’
So reads part of the manifesto of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland that could be collected from the Polish pavilion in Venice this year. The three films that form the main content of the pavilion chart the rise of this organisation (in Mary Kozsmary, 2007), the successful establishment of its followers (in Mur I Weizar, 2009) and the assassination of its leader Slawomir Sierakowski (in Zamach, 2011). Both the films and the manifesto are, however, fictional - created by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana, the first non-Polish artist to represent Poland in its national pavilion.
The manifesto and the first film in the trilogy are expressions of the Zionist hope for Jews to return to their homeland (i.e. Israel), but transposed to Poland. In Mary Kozsmary the young Polish activist Slawomir Sierakowski calls for the three million Jews who left Poland as a result of WWII to re-settle in his country. One culture, one religion is no longer enough for the country they left, and only a repopulation will resolve the atrocities committed in the past. The message is positive, proactive and, delivered by a young man, seems to offer an alternative to those who may be unhappy in the countries they have settled in. However, uncomfortable elements are already creeping in; camera angles, panning shots and the setting parody the 1934 Nazi propaganda film ‘The Triumph of the Will’. Where Hitler had been filmed addressing thousands of assembled members of the Hitler Youth in a stadium, so Sierakowski calls to an empty amphitheatre, accompanied only by a handful of children dressed in similar uniform to the Hitler Youth.
Bartana’s skill lies in her ability to tell - or is it re-tell - a story that leaves us unsure of her intentions or how we should best react to them. The title of the first film translates as ‘dreams and nightmares’; whose dream, and whose nightmare would it be for Jews to return to Poland’ Is the retention of distinct cultures preferable to integration, and if so is she referring to Poland or to Israel’ The second film Mur I Weizar (Wall and Tower) sees a group of Polish and Israeli men and women constructing a basic compound on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, but this structure is as redolent of concentration camps and ghettos as it is of a kibbutz, but is perhaps also a metaphor for Israel’s relationship with neighbouring countries.
Zamach (Assassination) is more nightmarish than either of the previous two; following the installation of Jewish communities in Poland (but how long after is not defined), Sierakowski has been killed. An enormous bust is installed in a Polish square, and hundreds of mourners file past his coffin to pay their respects. It is during this film that Bartana’s ability to undermine her subject matter even as it unfolds is unnervingly successful. For anyone who has seen images of fascist architecture hung with flags, footage of Stalin’s funeral, or state-led mourning, the film is not presenting a fictionalised ‘other’ but a weaving-together of a number of narratives from twentieth century European history. The excessive bathos reaches its nauseating height during the speeches and songs commemorating Sierakowski’s life and achievements, and it is clear that ideals and utopias, particularly when they are embodied in one person or movement, are deeply antithetical to Bartana’s interests.
Buildings, symbols and - crucially - musical motifs are repeated throughout, a technique that situates the narrative within a visual and aural language that is familiar to us as both propagandistic and idealised. Suspicions we may have of the utopia sought by the participants become palpable as the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland seems to be modelling itself on a past that Sierakowski claimed to have distanced himself from. The organisation is not real, and the cast of Bartana’s films are actors, but the result is a powerful indictment of the past actions of Poland and Israel and the present policies being enacted as a result of that history.