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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Reading 'And Europe Will Be Stunned' - Yael Bartana

I wanted to research the work of contemporary artists who explore identity, nationalism, and propaganda, which led me to Isreli artist, Yael Bartana. The following quotes are from the book ‘And Europe Will Be Stunned’ about her work.

Magnus Jensner (Director, Moderna Museet Malmö) writes in his introduction, ‘Yael Bartana creates interesting shifts in meaning with her films by adding something or making unexpected juxtapositions of historic and contemporary material… She poses thought-provoking questions for herself and the viewers who reflect over her films, questions of identity, guilt and reconciliation’ (page 7). Since I have created a few documentaries in the past, and also create music videos, I was interested to discover the work of an artist whose main medium is video. The book included compelling stills from the videos alongside quotes, which give an impression of the works. The ‘juxtaposition of historic and contemporary material’ intrigued me since most of my video works have been present or future focussed, yet when exploring identity, the past and historical roots are integral to understanding where people have come from and how that has influenced who they are.


Joa Ljungberg writes, ‘Yael Bartana’s films have been described as foreboding meditations on the identity-forming rituals of Israeli society… As an artist she repeatedy challenges her own people’s history and self-image, and as observers we are likewise challenged with her imagery, loaded with symbols and conflicting meanings… Our own frame of reference is laid bare and we become more strongly aware not only of our own collective belonging, but also of our fear’ (page 10). Although I have worked on a project combatting antisemitism in Europe, so I have a good understanding of historic persecution of the Jews, I have never been to Israel and I was interested to learn about Israeli culture and national identity through Bartana’s work, especially in light of the ongoing conflict in Palestine. I think the critical voice of an artist is so important to combat propaganda, rhetoric and nationalist ideology of governments and media, yet I am also aware of how challenging this role can be, which has left me with a profound respect for Bartana’s work. Yael Bartana herself says: ‘I suffer because I’m trapped in between. That is, it is your home, you cannot be free of it, but you’re constantly criticising it, aware that you don’t want to represent what it stands for’ (page 49). Ljungberg’s reference to ‘fear’ is particularly significant, since this is the emotion which is so often exploited by Nationalists in order to further their political agenda.

One of the films which was of particular interest to me was A Declaration (2006). Since my research project is exploring people’s relationships with flags and how effectively they can represent individual’s identity, this film stood out for me because it features a young man who replaces an Israeli flag with an Olive tree. ‘To exchange the Israeli flag for an olive tree can mean to remove a national symbol in favour of a universal symbol of peace. But the olive tree is also closely associated with Palestinian nationalism and thus the gesture can mean to replace one national symbol with another’ (page 15). This dualism in symbolic meaning is something I want to focus on through my research project, I find it fascinating that the same symbol (or flag) can represent wildly different things to different people, or even have a different meaning for the same person at different times (for example, for the period of time a particular politician is in power). Charles Esche says: ‘Today, politics is more defined by nationality or culture than by ideas, and you cannot change your nationality or cultural background as easily as your mind… once you step outside of this little world, which has permitted a bit of cosmopolitanism, and look at immigration politics or education or military decisions, you see the nation-state is absolutely present’ (page 49). This contemporary fixation on nationality over ideology is the reason why I want to recruit research participants for my project who are first generation migrants, because they have direct experience of living under different governments and political reigimes and can therefore provide insight on the importance (or lack) of national identity.

 Another film which features a flag which was designed by Bartana, as well as her Manifesto for a Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland is Mur I Wieża (2009). I work with an art collective called Dare to Care and we had a long debate about whether to write a “manifesto” and one of our members objected because of the colonial associations with manifestos – in light of this discussion, I found Bartana’s manifesto fascinating, especially the final lines ‘With one religion, we cannot listen. With one colour, we cannot see. With one culture, we cannot feel.’ (page 187) I think with these three very simple sentences, Bartana has succinctly explained the importance of diversity within society. The use of repetition and the simple, yet powerful phrasing is also a key tactic of propagandists, which has been used very effectively in this work.

 Describing Mur I Wieża, ‘A flag is raised that is designed as a hybrid of Polish and Jewish emblems. The scene is accompanied by the Israeli national anthem played backwards, as if to signal the reversal of an historic event’ (page 17). Since music is integral to my creative practice, I loved the subversive use of the Israeli national anthem in this piece. I’ve often had discussions with campaigners about writing an “anthem” for a particular campaign movement, but I hate the word “anthem” because of the nationalist sentiment it embodies – therefore, I was compelled by Bartana’s decision to play the anthem backwards in this piece.


I was fascinated by a conversation documented in the book between Yael Bartana and with two curators about Mur I Wieża:


Yael Bartana: ‘[it’s] really about creating historical mirrors by way of repetition. It’s about displacements, about how the same act takes on different meanings when moved to another geographical area… That’s why “The Jewish Renaissance Movement” I founded in Poland even has a flag combining the Polish eagle and the Star of David’ (pages 166-167).


Charles Esche: ‘the moment when Sierakowski says “Citizens, Jews People.” And then you pan across these empty terraces, which is such a powerful image of absence and the open wound of Europe’ (page 167).


Galit Eilat: ‘Why don’t we stop talking about it like that? We’re not talking about the absence of Jews – we’re talking about the absence of three million people.’ (page 167)


Chales Esche: ‘But three million people who represented some sense of community. It wasn’t that there were three million, and then there were forty million left. It was that the community was destroyed’. (page 167)


Galit Eilat: ‘this is also the idea of Israel: to be ethnically clean. The existence of Israel is also predicated on turning cosmopolitan societies into homogenous societies. If you say “We need more Jews in Europe,” it means that Jews are different from others’ (page 169).


This discussion is of particular interest to me because it lies at the core of the debate around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion; whether society should protect and celebrate the individual cultures of diverse communities or prioritise ‘cultural assimilation’ to the prevailing, historic National culture.

‘In her work, Yael Bartana uses hyper-saturated symbolisms – of immigration and peace, desert island and masculinity, exodus and pioneering… The conflicting construction of identities from which, and within which, Bartana’s wo operates calls for a declaration that will constitute a new reality to trigger a new politics’ (page 54). In my research project I intend to explore the use of symbols to represent identity, because I am interested in this conflict of meaning and whether symbols can be used to accurately represent identity – I am open to this exploration failing, so that I can understand the fickle nature of symbols. Bartan touches on this when discussing a third work, Summer Camp: ‘That’s what’s so fascinating for me about this organisation: the act of resistance is something constructive. Normally, resistance evokes destroying, breaking down a house… I think one of the things I am interested in is how you can take an ethos, for example, a symbol, and turn it upside down’ (page 95).

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