Portrait Yael Bartana

No. 25 / Autumn 2010

Stills from »Mur i Wieza«, 2009
All images: Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery Amsterdam

With her work, the Israeli video artist YAEL BARTANA succeeds in breaking down the borders between documentation and myth, fact and fiction. Her most recent projects are charged with insightful provocations. By RAIMAR STANGE

Moving: cars travelling on a street in Tel Aviv at night are stoically filmed from above. Brilliant spotlights cast light on what his happening, cars rushing past are the only protagonists and continuous, electronically distorted traffic noise provides the sound –but suddenly sirens wail and the anonymous cars stop in the middle of the street. The car doors open and the previously unseen drivers and passengers get out. The people arrange themselves next to their vehicles, remain standing meaningfully and bow their heads devotedly. Shortly afterwards they get back in and drive on. Trembling Time (2001) by Yael Bartana focuses here on a moment that is repeated annually in Israel: the national minute of silence in memory of the fallen soldiers of Israel breaks into the daily routine of the country and enforces collective patterns of behaviour. Thanks to the use of filmic tricks, such as slow motion, crossfading and repetition, the Israeli artist is able to transform strangely the driving, stopping and standing into a smooth, artificially flowing trance. 

As if in a microcosm, in Trembling Time four central aspects of the aesthetics of Bartana’s early work are condensed: material originally shot with documentary objectivity is worked up artistically through cutting and sound; seemingly unspectacular images, of a kind that do not flicker every day across the screens of the mainstream media but are definitely political in nature, are deconstructed to reveal their ideological character; everyday life and convention, politics and ritual confront each other so that individual and collective behaviour gather tension. The artist described this last aspect in thesewords: »I am interested in a state that prescribes a value system and the individual who is its recipient«. The way in which everyday courses of action are internalised in order to protect power from critical queries – that is not the least of what is being negotiated here. This is not just a theme for a state like Israel, which is under external pressure but is also potentially explosive in our own society. For example, the common act of crossing the road against the red light is no longer punished by the authorities, and not only in Germany, simply because the act of breaking the rules makes neoliberal ideology a matter of individual choice inthe truest sense: everyone decides for themselves what is right or wrong.

Still from »Kings of the Hill«, 2003
Another good example of this is the video Kings of the Hill (2003), where a leisure-time activity in Israel is at the centre of the action: more or less young men drive in their jeeps on a hilly, almost impassable beach near Tel Aviv. The viewer sees reckless manoeuvres, hasty sprints and horsepower-glorified»cockfights« between rival drivers. What one hears, above all, are the roaring engines. Glimpses of the sea or of watchers cut between the beach pilots struggling for the biggest »territorial gains«. On Fridays, at the beginning of the Sabbath, these ritualised spectacles take place, where men prove their courage, their driving skills and the power of the jeeps to themselves and others. In a form of dubious hedoism, the virtue that marks an Israeli soldier, and no doubt others as well, is carried into the weekend: the intention for aggression and (competitive) struggle coupled with a fair share of macho blustering. But for the artist, there is more that can be interpreted from the Kings of the Hill, namely the tendency towards self-destruction, which is a part oft he Israeli character for Bartana. In this sense she also calls her work a »portrait« of her home country. But this is also why the video provides a chance for comprehension, even for identification, because power-centred jeep driving is a popular male pleasure in other countries as well – you need only remember the current hype around SUVs, jeeps that are particularly harmful to the environment, for bored city dwellers. It is not by chance that many of the jeeps to be seen in Kings of the Hill were made in the West. Almost incidentally, the video thus witnesses the pro-Western bias of Israeli economics and politics. 

The two videos have in common not only that they take place in Israeli territory but also that the artist has staged none of the action. There is no script, just a composition in cutting and sound. Apart from that, Bartana builds on the semantic power – almost an »everyday myth« in the sense of Roland Barthes – of documentary film material. In later works this changes, for example in Wild Seeds (2005), a double projection with moving pictures and text inserts. The female voice of a reformed cantor sings off-stage about the love of God. The film shows young Israelis simulating a »violent evacuation of the Gilad settlement« in the West Bank itself. It is an almost theatrical re-enactment staged by Bartana and brought to life by young activists, imitating a real confrontation between the highly aggressive Israeli army and Jewish settlers.

Still from »Wild Seeds«, 2005
Still from »Mary Koszmary«, 2007
Criticism of the aggressive Israeli settlement policy, which is obvious in Wild Seeds, also plays an important role in Bartana’s Polish Trilogy (begun 2007). With this project the artist reinforced the narrative function of provocation and used a new narrative strategy, which she herself called »nOSTalgia« (ost=east). The protagonist of the first film of the trilogy, Mary Koszmary (Dreams and Nightmares) (2007), is the leftwing Polish activist Sławomir Sierakowski. Neatly dressed and with a strict short haircut, he is seen giving an inflammatory speech in the dilapidated Olympia Stadium in Warsaw where he demands that »3,300,000 Jews from Israel should return to Poland«, precisely the number of Jews who lived in Poland before the Holocaust. The demand is, of course, a provocation, which »should get a dialogue going. It is a matter of important questions about nationalism, anti-Semitism, the European responsibility towards Jews,« says Bartana. Today, Poland is anything but a multicultural society and perhaps the European country where anti-Semitism is manifested most openly. At the same time, however, the Israeli policy of concentrating on Palestinian territories for new settlements is criticised. In the second part of the trilogy, the film Mur i Wieża (Wall and Tower) (2009), one can then see young Israelis and Poles costumed as Jewish immigrants in the Palestine of the 30s who in response to Sierakowski’s speech are building an actual settlement in a park where the former Warsaw ghetto was situated. On a wooden fence they then paint a strange emblem combining the Star of David with the Polish heraldic animal, the eagle, thus bringing religious and national attributions into astate of confusion. In Mur i Wieża the above-mentioned element of nostalgia comes into action in a remarkable way: here nostalgia rewrites history, criticising its »real« course up to the present.

This strategy is incidentally one used by recognised scholars, namely in the discipline of »historical econometrics«. In this form of historical research, the insight provoking power of scenarios is used to touch upon deliberately incorrect assumptions. The French cultural critic Michel de Certeau describes historical econometrics as a kind of research that »investigates the possible consequences of contra-factual hypotheses, such as: what would have become of slavery in the USA if the Civil War had never happened?«1 The third part of the Polish Trilogy is the performance We will be strong in our weakness (2010), where, particularly through textual presentations, Bartana’s artproject Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland is explained. We hear, for example, such programmatic sentences as: »You ask why we open up wounds and why we evoke old demons. We answer you thus: this is the only way for us to understand history,the only way for history to come to us.« 

RAIMAR STANGE is a critic and curator. He lives in Berlin. 

YAEL BARTANA, born in 1970 in Kfar Yehezkel, Israel. Lives in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. Recent solo exhibitions include Yael Bartana … and Europe will be stunned, Moderna Museet Malmö; If you want, we’ll travel to the moon together!, Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam (2 010); Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco; JewishMuseum, New York (2009); P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York; Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv (2008); ThePower Plant, Toronto (2007). Group shows include Building Memory, Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Israel; LesPromesses du passé, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Morality ACT I I, Witte de With, Rotterdam; Early Years, KW Institute forContemporary Art, Berlin (2010); Earth: Art of a Changing World, Royal Academy of Arts, London; History of Violence, HaifaMuseum of Art, Israel (2009); She doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the h-bomb, Tate Modern, London; Like an AttaliReport, but different, Kadist Art Foundation, Paris (2008); Documenta 12, Kassel (2007).

Represented by Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan; Kerstin Engholm Galerie, Vienna, Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv