Yael Bartana creates spectacles and videos that make the incredible feel like the truth. She calls what she does "historical pre-enactment."
Her most famous work, a trilogy of videos, … And Europe Will Be Stunned, is having is first local showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan. 1.
With a small army of technical assistants, and much larger armies of citizens that she enlists to take part in the demonstrations, activities, and rituals she instigates, Bartana makes compelling simulations of political movements that have not happened.
Perhaps the more than three million Jews will return to the Polish homeland they were forced to leave during the 20th century. Perhaps Philadelphians will gather up all the guns in the city, from colonial muskets to AK-47s, and give them a ritual burial. Or perhaps not.
Either way, Bartana's art is to engage large groups of people in activities that imply such things might be happening, and to make videos that make such unlikely possibilities feel very real.
Philadelphians were able to see and participate in her work two weekends ago when she staged Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies, which consisted of a march from Washington Square to Independence Mall, where there were speeches by a well-curated and varied group of speakers, including a representative from the National Rifle Association.
Later, behind the Art Museum, the artist presided over a sort of funeral for the firearms, which were later buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery. She documented the event, and it is likely to become a new video work.
This event, only part of which I attended, unquestionably evoked heartfelt response from many who viewed or participated. Nevertheless, it existed in an odd realm, somewhere between a real political protest and a work of art. Were the marchers really seeking change or just taking advantage of the chance to be part of a Bartana performance? Perhaps both?
It's difficult to tell what's real nowadays, and she doesn't make it any easier.
… And Europe Will Be Stunned, which was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art jointly with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, conjures up a fictional political movement, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, and plunges us into its history.
The video, which was made in three parts between 2007 and 2011, was the official entry from Poland at the 2011 Venice Biennale — a fact that seems almost as unlikely as any Bartana has made up. By most accounts, it was a sensation, a seriously hot ticket. And Bartana, who was born in Israel in 1970, and who now lives in Amsterdam and Berlin, emerged as an art world star.
The work's three parts, which add up to about an hour in length, are shown in adjacent spaces, and you are unlikely to see any of them simply from beginning to end. The experience of walking into each one in the middle subtly increases the illusion that you are viewing an ongoing phenomenon, not a fiction.
The first part, Nightmares (2007) is set in a vast abandoned stadium where trees are growing out of the seats. A serious young man in glasses, Slawomir Sierakowski, a Polish political activist who collaborated with Bartana on the idea for the work, delivers a speech arguing that both Poland and the Jews who were expelled or fled need each other.
"With one religion we cannot listen," he tells a stadium that is empty except for some kerchief-wearing youth group members busily stenciling words and numbers. "With one color, we cannot see. With one culture, we cannot feel. Without you, we can't even remember. Join us and Europe will be stunned." These slogans are repeated throughout the other two films.
In the second, Wall and Tower (2009) a movement is under way. Young people are building a kibbutz in Warsaw, in the area of the old Jewish ghetto. We see them working together harmoniously, sweating and struggling as they haul the large beams of a watchtower into place. But once it is completed, it looks more like a prison than a refuge.
The leader played by Sierakowski has been murdered before the third and longest part, Assassination (2011) begins. His body lies in state in a great domed hall as crowds pass by.
People hold banners of the movement, a Polish eagle superimposed with a Star of David. At an outdoor gathering, next to a huge portrait bust of the leader — you've never seen such monumental stone eyeglasses — real political and cultural figures from Poland and Israel offer testimonials and reflections on the man and his movement.
Visually, the videos simulate the imagery of heroism from early 20th-century films. We see people from below. Their faces seem to glow. Even the sky seems to promise a new dawn. Nightmares is a sort of parody of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the 1935 Nazi propaganda film that showed Adolf Hitler addressing a vast, electrified crowd at a rally in Nuremberg.
Wall and Tower has echoes of Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein with his laboring masses, and of the American D.W. Griffith and his Klansmen. In Assassination, the choreographed crowd moving through impressive architecture had a hint of the megalomaniacal 1930s Gold Diggers musicals of Busby Berkeley, and some of the speeches had the elegiac tone of Henry Fonda's final speech in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
Bartana's videos seem utterly sincere, and, at times, beautiful. But one cannot watch them without realizing that the heroic revolutionary change they advocate has come, as often as not, to very bad ends. Surely that is part of their point, though it may not have been evident to the Philadelphians who marched up Sixth Street with her last month.
I suspect that if I had seen … And Europe Will Be Stunned in 2011, I would have been seduced and excited by Bartana's sly remake of the 20th century. But a lot has changed in seven years. Many countries, Poland among them, have lurched toward authoritarian politics. One reason many Britons wanted to exit the European Union was the perception of an influx of Poles taking their jobs.
You could argue that Bartana is making a stand against the triumph of nationalism, and even tribalism, throughout the Western world. But she is doing it with techniques that come right out of the demagogue's handbook.
Bartana plays powerfully with our sentiments and passions. But I worry whether this is the best moment to create fake political movements and mobilize the populace in movements that turn out to be nothing more than works of art.