Amsterdam, Sep. 2012 - The past few years have brought a renewed relevance to politics in contemporary art, a necessary reflex of the cultural world to global economic and societal conditions from which it can no longer pretend to be independent. Activism is increasingly affecting the aesthetics of visual arts and, this summer, it literally colonized its institutions, when the latest Berlin Biennale populated the KunstWerke with protesters from the Occupy and Indignados movements. Even fairs like Art Basel are having panels about the relationship between artist and activist.
In such a dense climate, Yael Bartana is one of the most interesting artists right now. With her focus on issues of national identity, historical memories and political imagination, the Israeli native has represented Poland at the Venice Biennale last year, and has been one of the most active participants in the debate mentioned above. Her video trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned (2007-2011), centered on a “quasi-fictional” political movement for the return of Jewish people to Poland, is a fascinating mix of filmic narration and historical documentation, projecting the Jewish heritage into a utopian future through the language of political propaganda and cultural symbols like the kibbutz. The three pieces were on show at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven this summer and, from September 12 until November 04, they will be exhibited at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. I had the chance to chat with Bartana and discuss art, its role, its limits, political activism and political imagination. Below are the highlights of our talk.
Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011; Courtesy of the artist.
Nicola Bozzi: How was the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland born, and in what sense is it "quasi-fictional", as you described it?
Yael Bartana: I started working on it in 2006, in Poland, and the idea was to try and somehow explore my personal relationship to the country. To do so I investigated the collective relationship with Jewish history, Poland-Israel relations, and the very heavy historical burden that comes as a consequence of World War II.
It started because, when travelling to Poland, I became very interested with the void that was there, among Jewish communities. Knowing that the number was so insanely big, 2.3 million Jews, it was like meeting a ghost. I wanted to create a new language to discuss that history, also in relation to Palestine and Israel.
NB: Do you think there are any potential problems deriving from the ambiguity of your work? Have you ever experienced misunderstanding or resistance?
YB: I've seen many different reactions to the project and now it's become even worse, since right wing Polish people take it very seriously. They've reacted in a very nationalist way and with a very disturbing language; you cannot decide if it's real or if it's a bad joke. Their e-mails can be quite disturbing. My project is more of an open space for thinking history and politics, the sense of ambiguity comes because there is never black and white, only grey. The point is not to create conclusions, but possibilities for political imagination and social change.
Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011, production photo; Photo Marcin Kalinski
NB: I know you've held a lecture in Basel about the relationship between artist and activist. How would you define it?
YB: Somehow my work still remains in the realm of art; it tries to go beyond but it's still inside. When I started the movement I was working on the very fine line between the two, since the problems are real and we really have to consider them. When it comes to citizen rights, the right to return, the influence of the church in Poland, it is still the Jewish Renaissance Movement but there is a sense of something very secular. Who is a Jew, what does Jewish identity mean? The politics are there, they are real, and I wanted to do that project because politicians have lost their imagination, while artists can still trigger it.
NB: So you think artists can make things happen or is their power limited to the imagination?
YB: Autonomy for art means to create conditions that are not acceptable elsewhere. I think that's most of its power: to allow you to talk about real politics through imagination. And maybe some of the ideas can be implemented... It's also interesting to think of the grassroots movements that are using creativity as they come together. They're not necessarily artists, but they use visuals and a lot of creativity to convey their message. It's inspiring, and here's an interesting example that life is much stronger than art: there was quite a strong protest in Israel against the government, not against the occupations but for economical reasons, and a group of activists decided to build an entire kibbutz, like I did in my film, and they called it “the Justice Tower”. I think it's amazing that somebody is really using it to make a statement.
NB: Do you think the sophisticated language of beauty in art can clash with its need to deliver a strong political message?
YB: I think there are many attitudes to political art, there is no right way. For me the aesthetics and the seduction are pretty important, because the subject that I deal with is quite heavy and most people don't really want to touch open wounds. In a way it is a poetic, collective psychotherapy about a specific history. The sense of aesthetic is also quite important to understand the power of propaganda films. It was one of the themes that I dealt with specifically: the aesthetic of 20th century utopias, which I think is very important since they're still with us.
Yael Bartana, Mary Koszmary; Courtesy of the artist.
NB: In terms of art and politics, this year's Berlin Biennale has been very controversial and discussed. Do you think it was a successful biennial?
YB: I'm not sure what to think of it, I don't know how much you can call it a biennial actually. There was a very dominant curator with a very specific idea about art and politics, and he tried to relate all the projects to his idea. It was more like he made a big, single piece of art, rather than a curated show. Like a one-man show, a Stalinist biennale maybe.
NB: The art community is itself quite a diasporic one, almost religiously built and cultivated. Does being an artist affect your sense of nationality and identity?
YB: Maybe the artists are the Jews of today, at least in terms of nomadity, and they always become patriots in their own country. They travel a lot because art gives them the possibility and that of course fosters cultural exchange. Personally, I can say that going to Poland was a way to connect with my personal history. I was invited not because they knew I had a past history there, but because they thought I would find something similar to my own situation in Israel. Through my artwork I connected to my own roots, as it happens with a lot of people. Also, by representing Poland, I became Polish without being it. So, since we were talking about identity politics, being an artist does create possibilities to challenge nationalism. After all, the Modernist idea of the nation state is a fiction, in a way.
ArtSlant would like to thank Yael Bartana for her assistance in making this interview possible.