New York

Yael Bartana, Kings of the Hill, 2003, still from a color video, 7 minutes 30 seconds.

Yael Bartana, Kings of the Hill, 2003, still from a color video, 7 minutes 30 seconds.

Yael Bartana

MoMA PS1

Yael Bartana, Kings of the Hill, 2003, still from a color video, 7 minutes 30 seconds.

DISPUTATIOUS CLAIMS of belonging and emplacement; boundaries and flows; communication and misunderstanding; historical narratives in contradiction: These are the preoccupations of Yael Bartana’s postdocumentary, allegorical practice. Born in Israel in 1970, Bartana makes work that delivers resonant poetic-political reflections on the cultural, political, geographic, psychological, and religious irreconcilabilities of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, who seem incapable, in their mutually reinforcing fears and misunderstandings and their reciprocal—indeed, at this point, ritualistic—gestures of discipline and punishment, of forging a workable two-state solution. Yet Bartana’s work cannot be considered activist in any normative sense; it is best understood within a broader context of artists (e.g., Emily Jacir, the Atlas Group with Walid Raad) who hybridize conceptual structures, documentary codes, and postrepresentational strategies, deconstructing assumptions of truth and stable ideological systems while remaining within the proximity of realpolitik. Artists such as Bartana, Jacir, and Raad inhabit postcolonial, postdiasporic, transnational identities and interstitial real and imaginary geographic spaces (Bartana between Israel and Amsterdam, Jacir between Ramallah and New York, and Raad between New York and his de/reconstructed Lebanon). Their practices suggest that the viewer’s relation to, if not indirect complicity with, the entanglements of these conflictual worlds is to be reactivated and that there is work to be done—the work of illuminating the interdependencies of artistic and political labor on the part of viewer and producer alike.

Bartana’s P.S. 1 show—her first institutional exhibition in the US, originally curated by Sergio Edelsztein for the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv and organized here by Klaus Biesenbach—features five works produced over the past eight years. The earliest is Trembling Time, 2001, a deceptively simple video that embodies the contradictions of a society tangled up in secularity and urbanity on the one hand and religiosity and a deep commitment to historical commemoration on the other. From atop the Hashalom Bridge in Tel Aviv, Bartana shot that city’s main highway during the event marking the start of Israel’s Remembrance Day, which honors fallen soldiers: Sirens wail across the country, broadcast on all media outlets; a minute of silence is observed; and the nation grinds briefly to a halt. Initially, it is a rather mundane scene: Cars and trucks pass below at normal speed, but then velocities mutate and a subtle time lapse of sensuous dissolves and fades makes it appear that the vehicles are moving through one another, creating ghostly afterimages and displacing real-time modalities. A siren is heard; cars gradually come to a stop; the passengers step onto the asphalt, stand in the middle of the highway, and then return to their vehicles. We are witness to a historically “transcendent” memorialization that is at once tangible and phantasmic, a momentary break with the normative order of things that itself has become normalized. Significantly, Bartana’s simultaneously narrative and nonnarrative depiction of the episode is looped, alluding to the tautology that is intrinsic to all rituals, including rituals of nonreconciliation. The work is testimony and countertestimony, at once documentation and a displacement or derealization of the event into other (i.e., aesthetic) terms—what might be described as a process of social abstraction.

Questions of responsibility and territory or place come to the surface in Wild Seeds, 2005, a two-screen installation that presents images of a cluster of Israeli teenagers engaged in what is clearly a staged outdoor activity. In fact, they’re playing a game devised by Bartana and functioning as a social platform for the reenactment of the struggle by Israeli police to evict settlers from illegal outposts. The young actors take on the requisite roles: Those playing the settlers seek to establish themselves as an interlocked, horizontally positioned unit of resistance on the ground; those playing the police attempt to pull them apart and eject them from their entrenched positions. Yelling and screaming ensue. On the second screen, perpendicular to the first, the rhetorical battle is translated from Hebrew into English: “A Jew does not deport another Jew”; “Where is your conscience?”; “Motherfuckers”; etc. Smiles suggest it is all in good fun, yet there are also moments of uncomfortable laughter and tension, as well as real physical struggle, mirroring the larger existential struggle. We understand that Bartana has enacted a social-symbolic episode that allegorizes the extent to which Israeli society has been torn apart by territorial claims, with the state becoming the hegemonic other, the institutional bad cop, in the eyes of some of the extremist settlers. It’s a powerful indictment of the schizophrenia of a society that may or may not be able to heal its largely self-inflicted wounds. Some viewers might assume that these amateur theatrics are meant to represent Palestinians and Israelis, rather than an internecine Israeli fight; ultimately, the fundamental issue here remains the irresolution of the overarching conflict. Bartana’s work seems to demand that we ask: If the Israeli people can’t even work it out for themselves, what hope is there for a sensible rapprochement with the equally factionalized Palestinian people?

In the same room, the beautifully reductive Low Relief II, 2004, a silent four-channel video, stealthily reveals protesters (whether Israeli or Palestinian is unclear) struggling with either the army or the police. The images, appropriated from media sources, have been formally manipulated to suggest the look of an ancient sculptural relief. There is an oscillation of movement and stasis, four quadrants of scenes playing on the palimpsest-like screen as inscriptions and erasures, barely attaining a condition of imageability. The collective media unconscious resurfaces as the excavation of a future history, endlessly discordant. This is how Bartana’s practice gains its force, functioning as a response to localized realities while at the same time generating social imaginaries that productively dislocate us into regions of broader political allegory. Potentially, this allegory operates on transnational terms and, possibly, as a means of allowing us to project ourselves into unfamiliar territory—beyond normative media representations. Perhaps such allegories are also an effort by the artist to seek affiliation with local, national, and global publics, to transmit the potential of varied, differentiated meanings that are inevitably produced in that liminal space between subjectivity and identities and identifications.

Also in the same gallery, Kings of the Hill, 2003, delivers a kind of anthropological abstraction of a particular social rite within contemporary Israeli society: On Friday afternoons, just prior to the start of Sabbath, men drive their SUVs through a hilly landscape, proximate to the sea, engaged in a reckless game of vehicular reterritorialization of the land. Bartana recasts this ritual as a quasimilitaristic spectacle, wherein the barely sublimated violence of macho car culture becomes a cipher for the tautological, absurd, and yet embodied paroxysms of occupation.

Perhaps the most complex yet straightforwardly condemnatory of Bartana’s video works is Summer Camp, 2007, a standout at Documenta 12. It commences with shots of rubble and a series of cuts to a sequence of images that gradually establish a sense of place: tractors on a road, an eagle flying overhead, an Arab man dressed in white, a group of people who resemble tourists greeting this man, and then soldiers, presumably Israeli, observing the scene. The title of the work appears, and then we see the aforementioned group of people engaged in construction amid the rubble. Bartana recorded this footage during the reconstruction of a house in the Palestinian village of Anata, near Jerusalem, that was demolished by the Israeli Army in 2005. The rebuilding project was organized by a group called the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), composed of people from Israel, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere who organized in opposition to the Israel Defense Forces’ tactic of razing homes suspected of housing militants or their families. The actions in which we see them engaging temporarily deconstruct official Israeli policies through material reconstruction and transgress laws that demand violation.

Moving around to the verso of the double-sided screen, we discover black-and-white images of people of apparently European descent riding camels through an idyllic desert landscape, cacti and palm trees blowing in the wind. A phrase appears: TO THE PIONEERS IN PALESTINE. It turns out that we’re looking at a print of the 1935 Zionist film Awodah, directed by Helmar Lerski, which, according to Edelsztein, was “commissioned to promote the immigration of European Jews to pre-State Israel, hailing agricultural development as a collectivizing epic.” Bartana skillfully edited her ICAHD documentation so as to echo the Zionist-socialist-realist style of the utopian narrative of the historical film. With composer Guy Harries, she created a new score based on her previously reedited version of Paul Dessau’s original heroic-modernist music for Awodah, now incorporating traditional Arab music to suggest the inevitability of cross-cultural hybridization between Israel and Palestine—an ironic consequence of their entwined fates. We cannot help experiencing or reading one film (and one history) through the filter of the other.

We are, in other words, invited by Bartana to reflect on the profound contradictions of Israel’s settlement policies in the occupied territories in relation to its own history. If the Jewish people cannot be separated from the land of their biblical heritage, why should there be a different standard for Palestinians, who make their own legitimate claim? This transgenerational dispute is now ultimately a question of equal rights under the law, at least within the current terms of occupation. In its Tel Aviv incarnation, Bartana’s show, untitled at P.S. 1, was called “Short Memory.” One recognizes a wry reminder of just how selective a nation’s memory can be, how it can lose sight of the fact that its destiny is entirely wrapped up in the fate of the other. Bartana’s work eloquently reminds us of the disturbing psychosocial media feedback loop of tit-for-tat violence—the trauma of conflict endlessly reanimated— that taints Israelis and Palestinians alike. By extension, she implicates all viewers, us, within a seemingly hopeless complexity that is calling out for imaginative acts—dare we say cultural and artistic operations—of global responsibility and engagement.

Bartana may not be claiming that art can be instrumentalized to ameliorate calamity, but she does appear to have just enough faith in the emancipatory potential of allegories of social justice, even as her work functions as an allegorical rendering of social injustice. As an artist, she can only hope to reengineer these social, political, cultural, and religious entanglements into another kind of representation, a conflictual zone of deferred imaginary reconciliations. Within her cartography of trauma, the land is not transfigured into an essentialized condition, but rather is conceived as a postterritorial space that simultaneously precedes and exceeds, includes and excludes, religion, culture, politics, ideology, and perhaps even representation itself. In other words, the land is a space of possibility wherein social imaginaries may cross-pollinate with realpolitik. Might her practice be understood as an aesthetics of restorative justice deployed into the space of quotidian injustice?

The exhibition remains on view at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, through May 4.

Joshua Decter is a critic and curator, and director of the Master of Public Art Studies program (Art in the Public Sphere) at The University of Southern California, Los Angeles.