22 May – 1 July 2012
I rarely make the journey to North London for anything, but projects by Art Angel are an exception. And so I (still slightly reluctantly) took the bus to Hornsey Town Hall, a stunning 1930’s modernist masterpeice in Crouch End, and opened Martin Amis’ memoir Experience, to the page I had folded down earlier that day. It read as follows:
‘My mind went back to an evening in the late 1970’s when I was lounging around with my brother Philip, and I drew his attention to a new book of poems I was reading: the first collection of my mentor and protégé and friend (and ex-tutor), Craig Raine, The Onion, Memory. We talked about the title: how the onion, like memory, is arranged in folds with a common nub. And I said,
-What else have they got in common?
-They make you cry, said my brother.’
I highlighted this part of Amis’ memoir, because I thought it was beautiful and sad. I had no idea how much of an apt metaphor The Onion, Memory would fit the harrowing and multi-layered trilogy of films made by Yael Bartana that I was on my way to see.
Bartana’s trilogy of films, Nightmare, Wall and Tower, and Assasination, made between 2007 and 2011, follow The Jewish Renaissance Movement In Poland (JRMIP), a fictional political movement made up in entirety by the artist. In Bartana’s first film, Nightmares, the partyleader (played by left-wing actvist Slawomir Sierakowski) makes an opening speech inviting 3.3 million Jews to return toPoland (the figure that lived inPoland before the war). The speech is delivered in an abandoned national stadium inWarsaw, and eerily mimics the sensability of Fascist and Soviet propaganda.
By the second film, Wall and Tower, the JRMIP has grown in size and members of the movement form a kibbutz on the terriotory of the previous Warsaw ghetto (before this it had been a residential area). These scenes are laced with references to Zionist utopia, evoking imagery of the men and women who established Israel, working in unison to build, educate, and co-exist in harmony. The JRMIP build a structure complete with watch tower and barbed wire, imagery that evokes troubling associations with concentration camps that occupied the same territory during Nazi reign.
In the final film of the trilogy, Assassination, the JRIMP appears to have accumilated a mass following, all of whom queue at the former Stalinist Palace of Culture in Warsaw to pay their respects to their recently assasinated leader. Members of the party take it in turns to deliver speeches, and pay respects.
The trilogy premièred at the Polish Pavilion of the 2011 Venice bienale, a decision that attracted much debate and controversy considering Bartana is not a citizen nor resident of Poland (Bartana’s birthplace is Israel, but she has since spent much time studying and working in northern Europe). However , the issues raised by this decision are central to the artist’s questioning of national identity, territory, and the right to return that forms the locus of And Europe Will be Stunned. In this way, the films become a living political project; the trilogy actively stands for unity and harmony in Europe and the Middle East. The films act as a binding agent; they stand for art that crosses borders.
Bartana’s strength is her ability to blur the lines between fiction and reality, causing discomfort to the viewer. Stylistically, the films are seductive, they mimic the format of political propaganda, and it is easy to forget that the JRMIP are Bartana’s creation and not a real political party. The movement has its own crest (the star of david and the polish eagle), and even a website. During the closing memorial service scenes, Alona Frankel (a holocaust survivor) delivers a speech.
Poland is volatile territory to explore artistically. It’s landscape is scarred with a troubled history; before the war, it was home to Europe’s largest population of Jews. During the war, it was home to two of the biggest Nazi oncentration camps. And after the war, surviving Polish Jews experienced prevelant and aggressive Soviet anti-semitism. To call 3.3 million Jews back to Poland is a loaded statement. It is a statement that caused much discomfort, tension, and at times upset in the audience of a Q&A with Bartana. But this a bi-product of the immense power of Bartana’s art. It has the power to move you.
The Onion, Memory.