Yael Bartana

Kunstverein in Hamburg k

A group of young Israelis have devised a strange game: Two players act out the role of the police or other representatives of state authority, while the others use their bodies to form a tight knot; the “police” then try to extract individuals from this mass. Yael Bartana’s 2005 video Wild Seeds depicts this seemingly cheerful and carefree game against a breathtaking scenic backdrop. Yet when we see the English translation of the game’s Hebrew dialogue in a second projection, the game turns into a parable of the Israeli occupation of those territories, which hide in the overwhelming landscape: “A Jew does not deport another Jew”; “We have a plan to conquer this land”; “You are in the middle, you’re safe.” Suddenly, the playful bickering becomes a threatening existential confrontation.

Bartana finds one of the fundamental questions of her work—when does the private human body become a political, public body?—in situations where individuals are engaged in militaristic, religious, cultural, or consumerist rituals. In the single-monitor work Profile, 2000, we observe female soldiers engaged in target practice. The women are wearing sound-deadening headsets, which look like the headphones worn by visitors to the exhibition, who thus become complicit in the situation they see before them. From a distance, one hears the instructor give orders to shoot and observes up close how these orders are carried out by the soldiers. A crescendo of sound, apparently coming from nowhere, both dramatizes the situation and reduces the documentary force of the work.

It is precisely this element of artifice that lends a particular emphasis to Bartana’s work and adds an imaginative narrative to the subjective perspective. Our perception is manipulated and a specific atmosphere created, sometimes, as in Profile, through the sound track alone, and at other times through the editing of images. Occasionally the physical layout of the exhibition itself produces this effect: the cinema-style seating, velvet curtains, and carpeting used in the installation of the 2004 video You Could Be Lucky, for instance.

Bartana often uses slow-motion sequences to draw attention to certain gestures or to single out one individual from the crowd. This raises valid and pertinent questions about the benefits individuals gain from their membership in a religious, class-specific, or cultural community or, conversely, the question of what this community takes away from a person as an individual. In the connected videos from Ad De’Lo Yoda (Until He Didn’t Know) and When Adar Enters (both 2003), Bartana recorded scenes from the Purim festival, in which the Jewish community celebrates its historical rescue from annihilation at the hands of the Persians. In Ad De’Lo Yoda, we see a parade of people dressed in biblical costumes through the crack in a door; the observer’s perspective is aligned with that of a young boy whose back is visible in the foreground. The video is viewed through a shaftlike construction, positioning the viewer as an outsider—a voyeuristic gaze—while, through their participation in a ritual, those in the parade are shown as a closed community. In Bartana’s latest work, Odds and Ends, 2005, Israel’s situation is reflected through the universal ritual of shopping. Partly shot from a bird’s-eye view, we see around fifty customers, a moving knot of people, clustered around goods on sale at a shopping mall in Tel Aviv. A menacing wall of sound mixing Muzak with a jumble of voices only serves to intensify the desire for consumer goods. In this case, the physical bodies fight for one purpose only: to snatch up a bargain, an ambition that goes beyond cultural, religious, class, or gender categories.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Jane Brodie.