Yael Bartana

Yael Bartana talks about the completion of her Polish trilogy

Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011, still from a color film in RED transferred to HD, 35 minutes.

Yael Bartana is an Israeli-Dutch video artist based in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. Her recent work examines the quasi-fictional Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland and questions notions of cultural identity, nationalism, statehood, and Zionism. In the Polish Triology, 2007–11, she follows the evolution of such a movement in Poland from its beginnings, at a rally, through the construction of a kibbutz and finally the death of its leader. Bartana is a recent recipient of the Artes Mundi 4 in 2010 and is representing Poland in the Fifty-Fourth Venice Biennale in her exhibit “ . . . and Europe Will Be Stunned.”

IN 2006, WHILE RESEARCHING FOR THE FILM MARY KOSZMARY (NIGHTMARES) I met Sławomir Sierakowski, a young leftist activist from Warsaw who later became the leader of the semifictitious Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMIP). Together, we came to the understanding that we share the same interests, namely to question the status quo in our respective countries and to build a new future for ourselves. You see, Poland had become such a homogeneous society after World War II. He and I wanted to break up the uniformity of Polish society. After we met, my desire to alter the status quo took the form of asking him to join the project: His political activities in Poland and his charisma convinced me that he should be the protagonist of the film. Following my request, he wrote a speech together with the scholar Kinga Dunin and then delivered it in the empty stadium in which the first part of the trilogy is set. Since then, we have continued to collaborate: He has become part of my work and I am the art director of the magazine he publishes with the political group Krytyka Polityczna—the magazine is also called Krytyka Polityczna (The Political Critique). We also give talks together.

The strategy for these new works follows the development of the movement. The first film was made to look small-budget––one person in an empty stadium and only a few boy scouts are around to engage with his speech. Then, in the second part of the trilogy, the group has more members and establishes a new kibbutz in the former Warsaw ghetto. In the last part, a thousand members of the movement convene at the farewell ceremony for the leader after his assassination. His assassination is a metaphor for the transition from fiction to real. I am working with the tools of cinema to allow the fiction to feel real. That goes back to my early practice when I was documenting real events and manipulating them so they looked like they could possibly be fictive. I am always trying to find the line between the real and the fictive through strategic filmmaking.

What if politicians could work with their imagination and use artistic tools? How can artists use political strategies in their works? These are questions I return to again and again.

 The film trilogy gives a voice to personal stories and collective narratives. I employ nonactors in my films. For example, one person in the film is an actual Holocaust survivor who was born in Poland and gives her testimony during a speech about deportation and citizenship. She tells us that she desires the Polish citizenship she lost in the 1940s due to the war. When I show my work in the Polish pavilion, which is a very international platform, I have the opportunity to feature the voice of a person wishing to become a citizen of Poland again. On the other hand, I also include a person who speaks in the name of Zionism and believes that the only place for Jews is Israel. These are the sorts of contrasts I am creating.

JRMIP is a social experiment that allows people to connect through culture. The work also plays with nationalism, in that it uses the same tools of propaganda but tries to undermine the nationalism and reflect on it. Some people are scared of such a movement because they think that such a huge influx of returning Jews will completely change their life. It is also very threatening to Israel. This is the success of the work––that it really challenges the sense of identity of two nations. The last part depicts the assassination of Sierakowski’s fictionalized self. A year from now, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland will convene, as part of the 2012 Berlin Biennale. There will be two days of meetings and lectures. It will really allow people to connect to one another and witness the potential power of social movements.