Yael Bartana Readies her Polish Trilogy for the Berlin Biennale

Yael Bartana, "Assassination", 2011, still-frame

Bartana's three-part film series, world exhibition tour and new catalogue are a prelude to what is to come this spring at the Berline Biennale, straddling the fine line between documentary, fiction, propaganda, myth and politics

Currently on show at the Louisiana Contemporary Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario and opening on Satuday the 24th of March at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Bartana's ... and Europe will be stunned brings together all the various parts of Bartana's Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, which calls for the return 3.3 million Jews back to Poland, Jews whose families were killed or displaced during World War II and the years following. The three films reverberate with the idealist narrative of tolerant youths, woven in with the underlying undertone of Nazi and Communist rhetoric. The parallels between the Zionist movement and the invasion of Palestine in 1947 are intentional, nodding towards the present price paid for the Jewish state and the ongoing conflict between the two nations.

Page 121 Movement’s manifesto reads:

Our appeal is not directed only to Jews. We will accept anyone into our ranks for whom there was no room in their homelands – the expelled, persecuted. There will be no discrimination in our movement. We won’t dig into your life stories, check residence cards nor verify the status of the refugees. We will be strong in our weakness.

The three films traverse a landscape scarred by the histories of competing nationalisms and militarisms, overflowing with the narratives of the Israeli settlement movement, Zionist dreams, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the Palestinian right of return. They dwell in a troubled borderland between documentary, propaganda and fiction. The final film in the trilogy brings the dream of multinational community and a brand new Polish society to the ultimate test. The film takes place in a not too distant future during the funeral ceremony of the leader of the Jewish Renaissance Movement, who has been killed by an unidentified assassin. It is by means of this symbolic death that the myth of the new political movement is unified - a movement that is one of so many movements - real and imagined - taking place across the globe over the past year. 

The main focus of the current exhibitions is the third part in the so-called Polish Trilogy, Assassination. The film premiered at the 2011 Venice Biennale as part of the greater And Europe Will Be Stunned exhibition at the Polish pavilion. It marked the first time a non-Polish national had represented Poland in the history of the Biennale.

Bartana produced the first part of the trilogy, Mary Koszmary (Mary Nightmares) in 2007. It was the start of Bartana's complex insight into the political relationships among Jews, Poles and other Europeans in the age of globalisation. A young activist, played by Sławomir Sierakowski (founder and chief editor of Krytyka Polityczna magazine), delivers a speech in the abandoned National Stadium in Warsaw. He urges three million Jews to come back to Poland. Using the structure and sensibility of a World War 2 propaganda film, Mary Koszmary addresses contemporary anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Poland, the longing for the Jewish past among liberal Polish intellectuals and the Zionist dream of return to Israel. 

As Yael Bartana has said, "This is a very universal story; as in previous works, I have treated Israel as a sort of a social laboratory, always looking at it from the outside. These are mechanisms and situations which can be observed anywhere in the world. My recent works are not just stories about two nations — Poles and Jews. This is a universal presentation of the impossibility of living together". 

The second film in the trilogy, 2009's Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower) was made in the Warsaw district of Muranów, where a new kibbutz was erected at actual scale and in the architectural style of the 1930s. This kibbutz, constructed in the centre of Warsaw, was an entirely 'exotic' structure and located in what was a Jewish residential area before the war, and then a part of Warsaw Ghetto. The film invokes previous heroic images of strong and beautiful men and women who mythically established Israel. They were depicted as determined pioneers who, despite the most unfavorable conditions, kept building houses, cultivating land, studying, bringing up children collectively, sharing their assets and constantly training to fight off potential enemy attacks. This is the world that the artist proposes to resurrect in the 21st century, in an entirely different political and geographical configuration. Bartana says she quotes "the past, the time of Socialist utopia, youthfulness and optimism - when there was a project of constructing a modernist idea of a new world". 

Yael Bartana was born in 1970 in Moshav Kfar-Yehezkel in northern Israel. She studied at BFA, The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, in 1992-96, attended MFA studies at the School of Visual Arts, New York, in 1999 as well as the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam, 2000-2001. The artist lives and works in Tel Aviv and Amsterdam. In recent years Bartana has aroused great international attention and in 2010 was awarded the Artes Mundi Prize, one of the UK’s major art prizes.

“Interweaving past and present, reality and fiction, the conceptual and the emotional, and drawing on propaganda films of the 1930s and '40s, as well as the visual language of advertising, Bartana's films boldly traverse a landscape scarred by the histories of competing nationalisms and militarisms,” said Elizabeth Smith, AGO executive director of Curatorial Affairs and curator of the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. 

... and Europe will be stunned is on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada between the 25th of January - 1st of April 2012 and at the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark 28th of February - 20th of May 2012. The show also runs at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands between the 24th of March through the end of August 2012, as well as at London's Art Angel between the 22nd of May - 1st of July 2012. It will be shown at Secession in Vienna between December 2012 and January 2013. 

... and Europe will be stunned will also be part of the 7th Berlin Biennale, which takes place between the 27th of April - 1st of July 2012. The project is also accompanied by A Cookbook for Political Imagination, published last year as part of the exhibition in Venice. The book is a collection of writings by various writers, artists, filmmakers, curators, critics, journalists, activists and academics from different countries who were asked to provide the eponymous recipes for political imagination. The result is a treatise on how art can impact political change, particularly with regard to Jewish-European relations. The editors of the book are curators of Bartana’s exhibtiion: Sebastian Cichocki, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, and Galit Eilat, director of The Isreali Center for Digital Art in Holon.

Cover of the catalogue

Assassination was commissioned by Artangel, Outset Contemporary Art Fund, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and Zachęta National Gallery of Art, in association with Annet Gelink Gallery, Artis, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture, Ikon Gallery, Sommer Contemporary Art Gallery, The Netherlands Film Fund. Artangel (London), Ikon (Birmingham), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebæk), Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (Warszawa) and the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven) have also joined together to produce a catalogue for the exhibition that brings together all three films. 

Yael Bartana. And Europe Will Be Stunned: The Polish Trilogy is split up into three parts - the first part shows over 100 still-frames from each of the films, arranged in chronological order. The second part presents Sławomir Sierakowski's speech from Mary Koszmary, written by Sierakowski and Kinga Dunn, as well as the full text of the Manifesto of the Movement and other speeches from the films. The third part is made up of essays by curators Joanna Mytkowska, Boris Groys, Jacqueline Rose, and Arielli Azoulay and Adiego Ophira. The essays treat the context of Polish anti-Semitism and the return of the Jew in the perpetual guise of the "other". Jacqueline Rose's "History is a Nightmare" looks at how Bartana works through a traumatic history and painful political memory through this collective assemblage of manifestos, photographs, speeches, essays and films. 

Editor: Agnieszka Le Nart

For more information, see: www.ago.net, www.louisiana.dk/uk, www.artangel.org.uk, www.secession.at

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