More questions than answers

Yael Bartana, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), 2007

I don’t go to see art expecting easy answers. I like work that makes me think. (I like work that just bowls me over visually too, but I’m going to assume that’s a given rather than getting bogged down by trying to make an exhaustive list of types of art I like. Let’s just work on the basis that I like art. And, for my purposes here, that thinking is a bonus and a bit of confusion is fine.) I’m not scared of challenging work and I don’t necessarily expect to get it straight away. I’m pretty tenacious; I’ll go back for a second look (if I can, my tendency to see exhibitions on the day they close can be something of a limitation in this respect) or read whatever background information I can find. All of which should be borne in mind when I say that I’ve seen Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned three times now and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think about it.

The work is made up of three connected films – Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower) and Zamach (Assassination) – made over a period of several years and is based around the premise of a movement encouraging the return of Jews to Europe. You won’t often find me focusing on biographical information, but it’s relevant here: The artist, Yael Bartana, is an Isreali Jew whose grandparents died in Poland during the Holocaust.

The series takes as its starting point a speech by Sławomir Sierakowski, a young Polish left-wing activist and magazine editor here playing himself were he to become leader of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, a fictional movement created by Bartana for the films, but, confusingly, one which recently held a non-fictional conference in the real world.

Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), 2007

The first film – Nightmares – opens with Sierakowski arriving at an almost empty, dilapidated stadium – built in Warsaw in 1955 as an Olympic stadium – where he delivers a passionate speech to an audience of a few young people, none out of their teens. Sierakowski wrote his own speech and it’s delivered with evident conviction. It’s this layering of fact and fiction – of documentary and narrative – that makes the work both confusing and fascinating. This is a body of work that doesn’t give up its secrets easily. It requires focus and an open mind.

The speech includes several phrases that recur later in the trilogy including its title and ‘we shall be strong in our weakness’ which appears as a red neon sign at the London installation of the work at Hornsey Town Hall. At the end of the speech Sierakowski walks off the pitch surrounded by his young audience. As if matters weren’t already somewhat confusing, one of the smaller children at the front of the group briefly seems to goose-step.

Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower), 2009

In the next film – Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower) – a group of young adults builds a settlement on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. For reasons that aren’t explained, they must do this quickly – within 24 hours, I think – and they set to work with determination. Once the settlement is completed Sierakowski arrives with a precious gift – a flag bearing the insignia of the JRMiP – which is carefully passed from hand to hand on its journey to the top of the watchtower. The group applaud the flying of the flag before relaxing together in the evening.

Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower), 2009

The iconography here raises plenty of questions. There is, to an extent, the suggestion of the figure of the heroic worker but a stronger cinematic reference point – and one that recurs throughout the trilogy – is Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will. The building process suggests the construction of settlements by those who founded the state of Isreal but the end result, with its low sheds and tall watchtower, speaks more of Auschwitz than of the kibbutz. But somehow it also made me think of the Amish, offering an unexpectedly odd tangent of religious conservatism and a reluctance to leave the past. The tangled mass of resting pioneers once the settlement is built seems to fetishise the physicality of the young and strong in a way that again brought Riefenstahl to mind for me, this time with echoes of Olympia.

 

Zamach (Assassination), 2011

Taking Sierakowski’s – fictional, he’s still very much alive – assassination as its starting point, the final film centre’s on a memorial for the revered leader of the JRMiP at which different speakers offer different perspectives. Again there is a blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction with a number of contributions coming from people playing themselves – including a holocaust survivor – alongside actors playing fictional characters. There are aspects of the staging of the memorial that, like the stadium event of Nightmares, carry resonances of fascist rallies.

Zamach (Assassination), 2011

Throughout this work, then, there is a lot of difficult material both in terms of the visual references and the way in which the message is delivered verbally. Bartana opens up some really interesting questions about belonging, nationhood, history and memory (amongst other things). There is a lot to take in and nearly a year after I first saw And Europe will be Stunned I still haven’t quite figured out what I think of it. Some things I am sure of though. Firstly, these are well made films. I might find a lot of the imagery uncomfortable to watch but that’s kind of the point. The films aren’t easy but they are affecting. And they amply demonstrate that context makes quite a difference.

Zamach (Assassination), 2011

And I’ve been rambling on for about a thousand words now without reaching a conclusion and without even beginning to tackle the issue of the context in which the films are being shown and that matters too. So on balance, I think that might be an issue to pick up tomorrow. In the meanwhile, clips…

Yael Bartana’s And Europe Will Be Stunned is presented by Artangel at Hornsey Town Hall until 1 July. It takes about an hour to watch all three films; to watch them in sequence arrive about a quarter to (or even twenty to) the hour.

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