A Cookbook for Political Imagination – Yael Bartana
A cookbook with recipes for the political imagination is the artist's alternative for the traditional exhibition catalog at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
In Venice at the Polish Pavilion Bartana presented the video trilogy "...and Europe will be stunned", filmed in Warsaw, based on the idea of convening the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. The logo is a combination of the Polish national emblem - the eagle, and the Star of David. The first part of the trilogyMary Koszmary / Nightmares, recorded in 2007 at the now defunt 10th-Anniversary Stadium presents Sławomir Sierakowski, editor-in-chief of Krytyka Polityczna, disguised as member of the Polish Youth Union from the '40s or '50s giving a fiery speech, addressed to three million Jews. He exhorts them to return to Poland. The second part - Mur i wieża / Wall and Tower (2009) is a response to Sierakowski’s assemble – in the political fiction, the Jews arrive to Warsaw and establish a kibbutz in the vicinity of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw.
This reversal or perhaps the new incarnation of the Zionist idea has been subjected to a test in the third part Zamach / Assassination which takes place at a funeral ceremony for the leader of the movement (Sławomir Sierakowski) who is killed by an unidentified assassin. At an assembly at the Piłsudzki Square in Warsaw Anda Rottenberg convenes with young representatives of the Movement and Israeli journalist, Zionist Yaron London. He believes that there is only one Jewish homeland – Israel. What more, according to London, the country and its armed forces can be the only guarantee that the Holocaust tragedy will not repeat itself. The ideas of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland are set in contrast to these views.
It seems that not coincidentally that Bartana’s films feature significant personalities of Poland’s and Israel’s public and cultural life (Anda Rottenberg, Sławomir Sierakowski, Wilhelm Sasnal, Alona Frenkel, Yaron London). Their presence adds credibility to the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland as a project of reality, rather than an artistic or even political fantasy and provocation. Aside from the criticism of the Zionist idea (from which the artist seems to partially withdraw in the last part of the trilogy – Assassination), based on traditional ethnic divisions, the tensions builds up on the junction of the proclaimed Jewish revival and the remaining Others. 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 question remains, why would these Others act under the logo comprising of the Star of David? Is Jewishness versatile enough to allow others to identify with it? Does Bartana’s project indeed concern only the two nations – Poles and Jews, the cure for their traumas and obviating their animosities? Is the manifesto an appeal for multiculturalism of the modern countries and Europe?
With one religion, we cannot listen.
With one color, we cannot see.
With one culture, we cannot feel.
Without you, we can’t even remember
- Movement’s manifesto repeats along Sierakowski’s speech (p. 121)
What ambitions do the organizers of the Movement really have? Are they actually determined to continue this project or will they shortly focus on an new implementation? These and other issues are concluded in A Cookbook for Political Imagination, published on the occasion of the "...and Europe will be Stunned" exhibition.
As the title says, the over four hundred- page publication is a cookbook providing recipes for political imagination, issued in English by the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (which organised the installation for the Polish pavilion) and Sternberg Press from Berlin. It’s an alternative for a traditional exhibition catalog. The editors 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.
Some authors have treated the title literally and presented actual cooking recipes – so the book has at least one practical dimension; the book will at least help prepare cholent. Precisely even the recipes are Polish-Jewish. Because despite the broad title, Cookbook… mainly focuses on the issue of Zionism and Polish-Jewish relations, or – more broadly- Euro-Jewish.
The publication looks very worthily: not only does it manage to categorize as a "serious" book- it can stand alone, without a bookend – but also at first it resembles a black canvas hard cover of the Bible (or maybe even the Old Testament itself). It consists of articles from many authors - writers, artists, filmmakers, curators, critics, journalists, activists and academics - of different countries who were asked to provide the eponymous recipes for political imagination. All of them were confronted with the idea of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland.
The responses were collected in three publications: "Notes on the Political Imagination", "The Case of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland" and "Recipes for Political Imagination". This apportionment, although not that obvious with some texts, refers to: the experience of the past (as it once was), the project of the presence (the Movement initiated by Bartana) and a recipe for the future (what’s next?). The statements take on various forms, from plain analytical texts, through letters, collections of quotes, stories, historical texts, philosophical argumentation to visual statements or subsequent artistic provocations.
This is how, for example, Ołeksij Radyński brings back the less known chapter of the Jewish History in Soviet Russia – the creation of Red Zion ("Alterzionism: Backwards to 'Red Zion’"). Yael Bartana presents a "recipe" in form of a drawing on how to build a kibbutz ("Wall and Tower D.I.Y."), while the Slovenian group Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) recalls the project of creating their own country - they even gave out passports- artistic artifacts that suddenly became extremely popular in… Africa.
Not all texts are practical and sometimes one does wonder what a certain article has in common with the topic or Bartana’s project (e.g. an otherwise interesting text by Owen Hatherley on Warsaw’s underground - the maze that goes around the Central Railway Station and the subway).
After reading the book I had a slightly different view on how the material could be divided, contrary to the one proposed by the editors. Some authors adjusted to Bartana’s logic entering into a unwritten kinship with her or subjecting into her manipulation, by writing as if the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland actually existed. Others treated the trylogy with a certain distance, emphasising the fact that they are dealing with an artistic provocation and tried to relate to that somehow. The first kind rarely brings anything to the understanding of Bartana’s films, only expanding them by a few layers of texts, sometimes letting their (political) imagination loose and adding a few new chapters to the story; Camilla Nielsson created a fictional issue of Los Angeles Times dated on June 4, 2018 which supposedly shows that seven years from today, all the biggest Hollywood film studiosowned by American Jews will move to Poland, the new Jewish paradise.
Much more interesting, in the context of Bartana’s project, are texts that can’t be drawn into the game between what’s real and what’s fictional. But these are a minority. Anka Grupińska makes it very clear by giving her text a form of a letter to the organizers. She decided to confront her friends with the idea of the Movement (she included the feedback with her own letter), who applied their rather enimatic manifesto to the Polish reality ‘anno domini’ 2011. This allowed to descend from the piedestal of art and view the concept from a different perspective. The text of the manifest itself is subjected to criticism ("It’s unclear who’s talking to whom", p.162), along with a whole range of opinions: it’s unconceivable in Poland to give out land to foreign hands, after comparing the prospective outcomes of the Movement in the ghetto or zoo. Grupińska’s friends also notice that Baratana’s project repeats the dark sides of Zionism:
I don’t understand why the Return is to be Great, Spectacular, Sublime, Bringing Relief. For me, settlers will always remain those who conquer, acquire land, take over and develop it. This trailblazing spirit will always seem to me as too ‘military’ (p. 167).
I’m for migrations, for the right to decide where to live, but without putting up ‘walls and towers’. I don’t see any reason in establishing such a Movement. (p.163)
Another advises the settlers to choose a warmer, more sunny place with more tolerant residents, but also adds, "Frankly, I’m fed up with talking about the past - the era of psychoanalysis is coming to an end!!!" (p. 166).
A slighlty different image of the Polish reality presents Jaś Kapela in his hilarious story ("The Truth") - all you need to do is impersonate a "real" Pole and it turns out that the Jewish invasion had already taken place a long time ago – therefore from this perspective the "Manifesto" is completely pointless. The protagonist sees Jews and anti-Poles everywhere. At the end, Kinga Dunin herself ("communist, saboteur, a fanatic and fierce enemy of Poland, Polishness and Poles") in defense of a colleague gives him a strong blow to the groin.
However, Bartana’s project is most interestingly presented by Avi Itchon, Israeli writer and artist who in addition signs himself as a congressman and diplomat of the NSK state. Pitchon says that Bartana only gives a framework, name and myth for the process that occurs intrinsically, meaning the devalutaion of the Zionist idea among Israelis and the emigration of the youngest generation to Europe. Israel "doesn’t allow them to meet their basic needs", and "the increasingly blatant injustice of the Palestinian occupation causes that the utopian project loses its ability to mobilize" (p. 357). In this situation Israelity becomes an international phenomenon, exceeding the Zionist idea. This resurgent community is closer to the (broad) Jewish tradtion rather than to the (narrower) Israeli one and is based on the participatory in the European tradition and history of Europe. From this perspective, Bartana is neither a proponent nor opponent of Zionism, she is post-zionist, "she stands Zionism on its ear, allowing it to evolve" (p. 365).
Illa Ben Porat presents the culinary history of her family and broaches important matters of these processes, asking: "Is the extermination of Jews the only point of convergence between my biography and Europe?" (p. 325).
In 2012 in Berlin, during the Biennale curated by Artur Żmijewski, the first congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland is to be held.(Incidentally in Berlin a meeting of the citizens of the NSK State had already taken place). Will the Movement actually be created and in which direction will it develop? Or perhaps is it as Renzo Martens observes, that "political ambitions of art evaporate once we get to the bar" (s. 93)?
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, June 2011. Translated by: Sylwia Wojda, December 2011.Culture.pl