21 June 2013
In response to great demand, we have decided to publish on our site the long and extraordinary interviews that appeared in the print magazine from 2009 to 2011. Forty gripping conversations with the protagonists of contemporary art, design and architecture. Once a week, an appointment not to be missed. A real treat. Today it’s Yael Bartana’s turn.
Klat #04, fall 2010.
By rethinking the nightmares and codes of nationalist political propaganda, the Israeli artist Yael Bartana is proposing an imaginative rewriting of recent European history. The aim is to experiment with new forms of sociality by moving between fiction and activism. The artist reexamines the fate of the Jewish people from a visionary and futuristic perspective, which goes hand in hand with a harsh and radical critique of the politics of the state of Israel. Bartana’s current research is emblematically summed up in the conundrum and contradictions of a new symbol that has emerged in one of her most recent works, where the Star of David is fused with the eagle of the Polish national flag.
Last May, shortly after you opened your solo show at the Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden, you staged the first congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Berlin. Can you tell me something about it?
The title of the congress was We Will Be Strong in Our Weakness. The Jewish Renaissance Movement represents a new element in my unfinished Polish trilogy, on which I am still working. I have completed the first and second part of the trilogy, Mary Koszmary (2007) and Wall and Tower (2009). Instead of jumping to a conclusion with the third part, I decided for the moment to promote the idea of this fictional Polish movement more widely. The aim is to investigate more deeply the themes on which the trilogy focuses and examine their further potentialities. Whence the idea of organizing a congress of the movement in Berlin, adopting the strategies and visual language of established political parties. We had two performers and speakers: Susanne Sachse and Slawomir Sierakowski, a leftwing political activist. The central theme of the congress turned on the hope of getting three million Jews to return to Poland.
How did you come up with the idea of officially founding the Jewish Renaissance Movement? To me it seems a logical consequence of the research you began with Mary Koszmary in 2007. That film shows Slawomir Sierakowski delivering a speech in an empty and decaying stadium in Warsaw. It is an appeal for the return of three million Jews to Poland, summed up in the slogan: “How 3 million 300 thousand Jews can change the lives of 40 million Poles.” Sierakowski’s words are direct, precise and provocative, countering both the anti-Semitism which still afflicts Polish society today and the aggressive policies of Israel. Sierakowski’s speech proposes a fascinating solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by promoting the return of Jews to Europe, where they could contribute to the development and growth of Polish and European society.
The primary aim of the Jewish Renaissance Movement is to act on the current relations between Jews and Poles, which are still difficult and unresolved. I would like the movement to help to experiment with new models of coexistence. In parallel, I am working with some Poles who are trying to form a proper leftwing party in Poland, capable of countering the rigid conservatism in that country. The group I am working with is called Krytyka Polityczna, and its leader is Slawomir Sierakowski, the protagonist of Mary Koszmary. The congress was staged as a performance, centered on the triangle of Germany, Poland and Israel. Sierakowski appears at the end of the performance, giving a speech that touches upon issues of nationalism and the nation state.
Why did you decide to focus the trilogy and the Jewish Renaissance Movement on Poland?
It all started in 2006, when the Foksal Gallery invited me to spend two weeks in Warsaw to carry out a project on the city. I had visited the gallery in 2002 and had liked it at once. The meeting with the people who run it was splendid. We talked about politics, my practice and the relations between Israel and Poland. The stay in 2006 provided an opportunity to visit the places in the city where Jews used to live and to develop an idea: that of trying to counter recent history and the usual way of building understanding by taking a different approach, through the use of historical fiction. The starting point was to figure out what would happen if all of a sudden the 3 million 300 thousand Jews who were forced to leave Poland in the twentieth century were to come back to their country, enacting a radical reversal of recent history. So I tried to picture what this reversal would be like. The difficulty lay in presenting this fiction in a way that made sense, going deep into the layers of history and establishing a connection between this idea and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I had two references in my mind, Poland and Israel. All this is obviously linked to the history of my own family, which is of Polish origin.
How did you move from the idea to the project?
I looked for someone to collaborate with and had various meetings in Warsaw. At a certain point someone brought up the name of Sierakowski, the leader of Krytyka Polityczna, the movement I referred to before, which is engaged in publishing books and carrying out projects of political activism. My first meeting with Sierakowski was surprising, and we immediately established a dialogue. He was already working with his movement on models of opposition to political conservatism in Poland, with the aim of breaking down the country’s social homogeneity. Sierakowski has a healthy nostalgia for the time when Jews were living in Poland before the war and constituted a very lively and intellectually brilliant community. So he was already very sympathetic to my idea of trying to rewrite history. So we quickly came up with the slogan you cited earlier: How 3 million 300 thousand Jews can change the lives of 40 million Poles.
Here is where your interest in propaganda comes in.
Yes, my interest in propaganda runs right through the trilogy. I am fascinated by the possibility of creating and representing myths, stories and events through the instruments of propaganda and ideology. An example is fascist propaganda, which was able to convey meanings and ideas through the use of images. In particular I was interested in reversing the use to which political propaganda was put in the thirties. I wanted to see if it was possible to use the same rhetorical device in a completely different way, so as to expose its dangers. This idea fitted into the attempt of Sierakowski and his group to counter the conservative mainstream in Poland by denouncing the mechanisms of its propaganda. I made Mary Koszmary with him and the impact of the film was very strong in both Poland and Israel. It stirred a lot of excitement about the possibility of using a new language to talk about the Holocaust. It also received a lot of harsh criticism in Israel. The variety of this feedback made me want to continue my exploration of the theme. Now that the Jews had been invited to come back to Poland, to return their roots, I asked myself what the next step could be. I came up with the idea of setting up a kibbutz, based on the Zionist architecture of the thirties, when the voluntary kibbutzim were built in Palestine. Once again, it was all about displacement and reversibility, the possibility of playing around with history and anachronism. And I worked on all that in the second film, Wall and Tower, which took a while to make since it was a pretty big production.
Did you write the speech Sierakowski gives in Mary Koszmary?
I asked Sierakowski to write the speech himself, since the invitation for the Jews to come back to Europe is the central plank of his political program. Besides, I wanted him to write it because he is a very refined orator. I gave him an outline of the themes to be tackled.
To me the most striking parts of the speech are the ones where Sierakowski speaks about Europe and Poland. That opens up the discourse of the Jews in Poland to a wider European level, questioning contemporary European identity and its relationship with Israel. To what degree do you feel involved in European politics?
The state of Israel was created as a consequence of the ethnic cleansing in Europe in the thirties and forties. So talking about Israel means talking about Europe. In Poland Jews and Poles were living together, they were neighbors. Then the Germans occupied the country and set up concentration camps. That’s the point. Why do Palestinians today have to suffer the consequences of the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews? This historical process drove the Jews to leave Europe and occupy the Palestinian territories. In Israel we have created a whole narrative to justify this occupation, to exert our presumed claim to Palestine, even drawing on the Bible. We have completely ignored the Palestinians who were already there, causing a major problem.
It is the ambiguity of Zionism.
I come from a Zionist family, which escaped brutal anti-Semitism in Poland by going to Palestine to find a safe place to live. I grew up there, but I have no connection to Judaism and don’t even know exactly what it means. Zionism cut any connection to Judaism in terms of culture, unless you come from a traditional religious family. Basically, I am a Jew because that is what’s written in my passport. I was born into the condition of being Jewish. But being Jewish in Europe is a completely different thing, since the Jews in Europe are generally brought up in a very different way. Jewish identity changes completely if observed from a European, a South American or an Israeli perspective.
I think that can be read between the lines in Wall and Tower…
In that film I was trying to picture the real possibility of a Jewish renaissance in Poland. It is not abstract. It is something that is happening now in Germany, especially in Berlin. There are a lot of Israelis living here in Berlin. In Wall and Tower I imagined Warsaw the way Berlin is, a very cosmopolitan and cool city to go and live in.
The title you chose for the show at the Moderna Museet in Malmö, and Europe Will Be Stunned, is also very striking from a political perspective.
The return of the Jews to Poland would be a political and social event capable of stunning the whole of Europe. That title, its use, also interested me on a propaganda level.
In Wall and Tower the idea of propaganda comes out in a much stronger way than in Mary Koszmary. In the second part of the trilogy we see a group of young people engaged in building a new settlement on the site of the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. They reenact in this way the actions of the first Jewish colonists in Palestine in the thirties, and they put barbed wire on top of the kibbutz, which seems to be a clear reference to the concentration camps. That conveys an unresolved ambiguity. Furthermore, the presence of Sierakowski in the film, witnessing and celebrating the foundation of this settlement, raises a lot of questions and doubts about the actual meaning of the work. Is it advocating the return of Jews to Poland as part of a new Zionism in Europe? Viewers might be confused about what is really happening.
I want to confuse viewers! I am basically just representing the logic of nation states, their use of propaganda and ideology. For me the work holds up a mirror to what’s going on in reality. Israel is such an aggressive nation state. In this regard Wall and Tower could also be seen as a criticism of Israel. I am fully aware of the impact this complex rhetorical system can have on the viewer. It’s a strategy. Basically I am putting into practice what I stand against. The symbols in Wall and Tower were designed to provoke a reaction. I’m thinking of the flag with the Star of David and the Polish eagle joined together. Some acquaintances of mine say the film looks like a real Leni Riefenstahl production!
Tell me something more about the reactions to the trilogy so far. I’ve seen Mary Koszmary presented in very different contexts and settings. In the summer of 2009 I remember seeing it at the Jewish Museum in New York. You have been addressing a variety of audiences who have different expectations. Do you try to keep track of people’s responses to your works?
Of course the context makes a difference. In that sense, I find curatorial strategies very stimulating. A curator is able to shift, to vary, to intensify the meaning of a work on the basis of its context, its location, the way in which it is presented. This is very interesting for an artist. I don’t believe in closed, predetermined meanings. Going back to the reactions, in most cases people were shocked when they saw Mary Koszmary and Wall and Tower. In Mary Koszmary Sierakowski looks like a guy from the Gestapo. He is totally confusing visually and I like that. Ambiguity plays such an important role in the trilogy. At the Jewish Museum in New York visitors probably thought I was crazy, and that happens in Israel too. Jews were slaughtered in Poland during the twentieth century, so why come up with this insane idea of sending them back there? That is what some people think. Indeed Poland still triggers a harsh and negative feeling for a lot of Israelis, it’s perceived by them as the big enemy. This image is used as propaganda by Israel to justify the very existence of the state. Every year the Israeli government sends forty thousand teenagers to visit the concentration camps in Poland, and while they are there they are segregated all the time to prevent them from having any kind of contact with Poles. These teenagers are manipulated into thinking that Poles are still their enemies. It’s a terrifying process of brainwashing. As you can easily imagine, when they go back to Israel, these kids want to join the army to defend their country.
Do you have any specific idea for the third part of the trilogy?
I came up with the idea of the Jewish Renaissance Movement between the first and the second part, when I was already working on Wall and Tower. The third part might be a documentary on this fictional movement filmed by my producer. That would be even more confusing! My producer could film some conversations between me and Sierakowski in different places. I would like to decide what form to give the third part through these conversations. With Wall and Tower I created a very nationalistic and aggressive film, recalling the way the state of Israel was created, but lightening it up with a certain sense of humor, an important component of the work. All my works investigate the process by which an identity and a sense of belonging are formed. One of the ideas of the Jewish Renaissance Movement is to create a sense of belonging that goes beyond the Jewish identity. We have drawn up a manifesto that makes it clear you don’t have to be a Jew to be part of the movement: “We direct our appeal not only to Jews. We accept into our ranks all those for whom there is no place in their homelands – the expelled and the persecuted. There will be no discrimination in our movement.”
I’d like to talk more about the way you use propaganda codes in all your works, not just in the trilogy. I’m thinking of Summer Camp/Awodah (2007) in which you show the activists of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) rebuilding a house in Palestine that had been destroyed by the Israeli police and, in parallel, some scenes from Awodah (Work), a 1935 Zionist propaganda film directed by Helmar Lerski. Have you been investigating the aesthetics of old Zionist movies in order to dig out their codes and replicate them?
Yes, I’ve studied them, and I think it’s very easy for a visually oriented person to understand these codes and elements in my works. Zionist films were very much concerned with identity and its creation. Their aim was to create a belief in a new place to live for Jews in Palestine. You can see this ideological style in other films from different times, such as the Bolshevik propaganda films or the Polish films of the fifties. They closely resemble one another. What always comes up in them is the connection to the soil, the image of strong workers, the ideology of the village and the land. I wanted to show the collapse of this process. Summer Camp shows the end of Zionism, its dissolution. The whole film shows something that is falling apart. I like this duality, the dialogue between these two films, Summer Camp and Awodah. And I admire Leni Riefenstahl as a director. I wish I had the money she had to make films. She was really a terrible woman, horrific, but at the same time a great filmmaker.
You use fiction as a tool to search for other narratives, able to counter the ones conveyed by the media.
Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, wrote a book in 1896, Der Judenstaat, which really seems like fiction if you read it today. It’s a mythological call for all Jews to come to Palestine! Herzl was a playwright and had a totally romantic vision of Palestine. I decided to adopt the same approach as Herzl and create a fiction. The idea of the congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement also plays in a fictional way with the history of the First Zionist Congress, held in 1897 in Basel in Switzerland and chaired by Theodor Herzl. At the end of the day, I don’t really care that much about art. What I am really interested in is stimulating a substantial reflection, even if that will mean trespassing the boundaries of art. In fact, as I said before, I am seriously thinking about founding a real political party.
You have described Israel as a self-destructing society. How do you articulate this position with the fact of being an artist still based in Tel Aviv?
One of the joke rumors that went around after the performance in Berlin in these days, in which I harshly criticized Israel, was that “Yael is going to lose her Israeli passport!” The thing is that I came to such a critical position out of disappointment. A friend describes me as a disappointed lover, which is a very poetic way to put it since I grew up in a family that was very Zionist, even if not extremist. It was the generation that created Israel out of the need for a living space, and I am not against that. Indeed there is still a Jewish problem now, and a lot of anti-Semitism in many countries. But what I can’t stand is this ignorance and denial with regard to the Palestinians. How is it possible that people who were discriminated against are now discriminating against other people? It’s really painful to see how people in Israel are manipulated by the state. It’s unbearable. At the same time Israel is my home, my country, the place where I grew up, and as an adult you are tightly bound to your childhood experience, even to the smells of your country. But I don’t feel at home anymore in Israel. It’s not the home I want to be in. I don’t want to feel guilty about the way other people in my country misbehave. People can be so fascist and nationalistic there, it is sometimes disgusting. So I have ended with a completely split identity, and it’s something I share with a lot of other Israelis. After I left Israel to study, everything suddenly became very obvious and clear to me. Once you step out of yourself and your familiar surroundings things are much clearer. So the position of the outsider can be a privileged one: from the outside things become more transparent. Going abroad gave me the space to work. The reason I came back to Israel is that I was missing my family and my language, Hebrew, very much. It was a very intimate, personal reason. But now I will move back to Europe. I have decided I can’t live in Israel anymore.
I think all these mixed feelings have been clear in the trilogy so far, as well as your desire to broaden the perspective of your discourse, going beyond Israel.
Yes, now I would really like to try to open up the discourse. There are so many other issues here in Europe to address too. I have to find my way, and I need to feel personally connected to what I am dealing with. I need to be emotionally irritated in order to really do my work because I want to irritate people too!
Indeed all your work is very emotionally charged. You are constantly playing with emotions and feelings. As in Wild Seeds (2005), which touches on a delicate subject, the clashes between Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers that took place at Gilad’s Colony in 2002, and uses emotions and physicality in an open, almost painful way.
It’s the human condition. We are all human. I like intellectual artworks, but to me concepts are more useful for a writer than for visual artists. A lot of conceptual works are great but I am more into the visual side, and music too. Music is very much about emotions. I am a very emotional person myself, and I need to put that somewhere. Israelis are very emotional!