Till imagination takes us back – a conversation with Yael Bartana

Udi Edelman:     Let’s talk about your ongoing project “The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP)” at the heart of which is a film trilogy that had began in 2007. Your project seeks to imagine a current possibility of Jewish return to Poland and Europe at large. What made you create such a projects and under what circumstances did it start?

Yael Bartana:     It started with an invitation from Joanna Mytkowska and Andrzej Przywara of Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, to come to Poland. I met them before, in 2003, and they sensed that I might be inspired by Poland. They found much resemblance between Israeli and Polish societies. But three years have passed before I actually visited Poland. When I did arrive, I found the prejudice against Jews to be very strong there. It was Anti-Semitism at its finest as well as Anti-gay, anti-everything that I am. Being there, experiencing the absence of Jews, the reenactment of the Crucifixion of Christ while immersed in the Polish of church preachers, it was quite intense. I went with Joanna on a trip to visit old Jewish towns. And the current absence of Jews compelled me to start thinking about this project. I knew the history, but being there, feeling this absence, physically as well as emotionally – that got me imagining what is possible, how to change this situation, what condition will allow us to overcome this trauma, this great divide between two cultures that were once very close.

U.E.:     Did you actually experience this vacancy or did it emerge out of the historical understanding that this is what happened there, because you saw abandoned Jewish homes and Synagogues?

Y.B.:     I had a strong sense of encounter with the ghosts of history. Maybe they were the ghosts of my great-grandparents. There is one Synagogue in Warsaw everybody talks about; they all say that it was a house that belonged to Jews. And this emptiness, this feeling was very strong; to walk around and to start imagining something like “next shots” in a film, when suddenly everything is full of life, imagining that this could happen.

U.E.:    But this came about after a long time of you not living in Israel, didn’t it?

Y.B.:     It has been many years since I’ve last lived in Israel. Earnestly, what’s even more strange and interesting is that Poland is the only European country in which I felt a strong connection to the place without even understanding why. I’ve lived in The Netherlands but there I felt completely disconnected. When I arrived in Poland it was mystical, maybe it really was the ghosts that made me connect to this place. It started from a personal experience, but clearly it can’t be isolated from the work that I had done before: films that challenge Israel and the Israeli national consciousness. I came to this project charged. I already had it in my mind as a type of medium, format, or a way to communicate with the ideology. It was obvious that it had to exist as propaganda, as a type of experiment – what such idea can do, how it can affect to the whole perception of modern Judaism and Zionism.

U.E.:     And the fact that you are an Israeli artist that comes to Europe, that in your own life you ‘return to Europe’, and try to live a life in those same places, do you think about that?

Y.B.:     Not really, that’s another thing that still astounds me, the extent to which I’m detached from this Jewish narrative. I’ve never seen myself as a Jew living in Europe; I see myself as an Israeli living in Europe.

U.E.:     And what does it mean? That this is temporary? That you are still based in Israel?

Y.B.:     Yes, it means that the connection to Israel is deep and emotional, as problematic as it is, with all the inconvenience and discontent, and the fact that it’s been a long time since going back to Israel could even be considered as an option. But at the same time, in my work I’m only dealing with Israel, only with this monster. I think that it’s a question of personality. Even when I left, in 1996, it was out of personal frustration with Israel, an inconvenience to live there. But at the same time, it’s my home, so this is always a dilemma. The language, the friends, the history, and the legacy, all make it impossible to break away. It’s the most basic thing that every human being needs in order to feel connected to a place. I don’t feel Dutch or German in any way, nor do I feel European. I would never feel German even if I do live in Berlin.

U.E.:     And today, after so many years, do you still feel the same? Do you still feel Israeli?

Y.E.:      I feel also Israeli, or an Israeli who left the country for an undetermined amount of time. Sometimes I have the feeling that I’m the eternal-returning. Most of my friends and the people that I work with are still Israeli. It’s a project that started from a very personal place, yet it tried not to speak about the personal, rather it tried to understand something more collective, something related to a certain mechanism, to a certain political-ideological perception. This is why Slawomir (Sierakowski) is important to me, because he speaks out of his own truth; it’s the place that can hardly be found in politics because of the need to relinquish the personal in order to have an influence. Within the project of the movement, I can not talk, as an Israeli, about the situation of Poland in Europe; I need Slawomir to be a part of it, and this is the most important place. This is also true for the third chapter of the trilogy: when we see the people talking, it’s less fictional. This is the place, the guts.

U.E.:     Coming back to the framework of the project, maybe the most basic question to be asked is: are you really interested in a physical return to Europe or only in the possibility to imagine such thing?

Y.E.:      This process intrigues me more on a symbolic level than as an actual act. I mean, if people would actually want to return to Poland and should Poland accept them, that’s great. But as far as I’m concerned, their role would still be to keep imagining and to try and create more situations. I don’t see myself as an agent for the return of the Jews to Poland. The circumstances that allow it are the ones that enable imagination which is grounded in reality. It cannot work if it’s just preposterous: ‘let’s all go and settle on the moon’. It has to be charged, it has to relate to real current affairs. Sometimes the unbearable reality requires imagination and fantasy in order to try and create a different truth or message to undermine the hegemony.

U.E.:     Is it important that the imagination should have some effect on reality? Eventually, there should be an influence on the way we perceive things and relationships in the real world.

Y.E.:      The circumstances for imagining, for the imagination, weren’t so far-fetched. Not the least because I realized that in Poland there’s a strong sense of nostalgia. The Polish intelligentsia (which even among the Polish left is very nostalgic) is preoccupied with memory, with the longing for the Jews. Do they really miss the Jews or are they simply taken with remembrance? It’s an essential question for this project. The change has to come from within the Polish society. If you, Slawek, if you will, urged us to return, what do you want? What change should come about? Something has to change for the Jews to return. And from here on it’s possible to continue to imagine.

U.E.:     To describe the imagined in more and more detailed until, perhaps, it becomes a reality. The details should be specified to the point of becoming a series of simple steps, or a rule book for the thing itself.

Y.E.:      Yes, and it’s possible that one person out of this whole thing will rise and say “OK, now let’s start the real process” and maybe after the congress it will become clear what this “real process” is. The more specific the questions become, the harder it is to stay in the narrow framework of Jews and Poles, with the Jew symbolizing the other. The question that keeps popping up is how to open this framework, how to speak about it nowadays: about the ones that currently suffer from xenophobia in Europe, and about the diasporic communities that live here, in Israel, and suffer from discrimination.

U.E.:     If this is the case, then the more precise question is to which groups this project relates, rather than whom it addresses. Because first and foremost, this project addresses Jews and Poles, doesn’t it? At least in terms of whom it might provoke – Israeli Jews and Poles.  At least in this sense it is first of all a project that acts on the Jewish and Polish imagination.

Y.B.:     Today, Poland is a part of Europe. The whole story, in a nut shell, is the fact that the Jews are not the same Jews, and the Poles or Europeans are not the same Europeans. There’s no real return to history. We’re not in the same story anymore. If the Jew returns as an Israeli, he returns as an Israeli with a different culture, and a particular national identity and history. And the Pole is not the pole that expelled the Jews.

U.E.:     In our past conversations you talked about the structure of repetition[1], repetition which is also a movement in space, movement back to the place in which we were, as well as reenactment. It’s an ever changing repetition. There is always something in it from the original but, inevitably, there is always a difference. In the Jewish-Polish case, a whole history unfolds between the original and the possibility for return/repetition.

Y.B.:     Yes, it evokes the question what would happen if Moroccan Jews would decide that they also want to return to live in Europe. Are they returning or are they not? It challenges the narrative and the structure of the repetition. Unless it’s very simple, that is, if this project is only about Ashkenazi Jews. But I find the return/repetition to be much more interesting in a broader sense, independent of place of origin. Of course, the Holocaust also plays as the cause of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of the Israeli society as a whole, and it taints the attitude towards the return as return to the crime scene. Why return to Europe? Because only through the return and repetition is it possible to detach – and maybe even be released – from the Holocaust.

U.E.:     In other words, we have to return. We have no choice.

Y.B.:     Exactly, no choice, we have to take this step in order to progress.

U.E.:     But in the sense of return to the crime scene, it can still stay within the limits of an Ashkenazi project, because, at least in the collective imagination, the Holocaust was an Ashkenazi catastrophe.

Y.B.:     That’s right, but these days, it’s not only the Ashkenazi who have to remember it every year and study it in school, but all the Jews in Israel, regardless of where they came from.

U.E.:     In order to enter the melting pot, everyone must go through the same traumas, or at least contain them. So how is such a project received? Are there people that are truly disturbed by it, in Israel and in Poland?

Y.B.:     Surprisingly, or maybe not, in Poland this project was received with much love. I’m sure that there are people who hate this project, who say that it’s terrible, that it has many problems, but generally speaking, it was very well received. In 2009 I was nominated to be Woman of the Year in Poland, and won second place. I represented Poland in the Venice Biennale, so from the Polish point of view I’m now considered as a kind of Polish artist. It’s as if they have been waiting for this project. At the beginning of the new millennium, following Jan Gross’ book “Neighbors”, Polish Intellectuals and artists were engaging with the Holocaust more and more. It maybe ironic but it is the Jewish community in Poland that opposes the trilogy and the movement, because the way they see it, it undermines the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. But not only them, people from the Polish side also came to protest during the shooting, and they complained ‘how dare we touch the Polish national symbol?’ claiming that it’s forbidden by law. ‘How dare we change it and add the Star of David on top of it?’ There were many such cries, but again, those are the Polish psychoses whose parallels can be easily identified within the Israeli right. It seemed familiar: the extremism, the conservatism, the xenophobia, with no real attempt for engagement. I simply ignored it and moved on.

U.E.:     And how was it in Israel?

Y.B.:     Again, it depends. Obviously, there are people who understand the provocation that this project is trying to create. On the other hand, there’s a very reductive call asking ‘why do you want to return us to Poland? Why three million Jews to Poland? What is this project?’. Last year, at the International Holocaust Memorial Day, we screened ‘Mary Kozmary’ to an audience of diplomats and Holocaust survivors, and I felt awkward in front of Holocaust survivors and Poles who were deported from Poland. But it was amazing; they were so moved by the thought that Poles would actually invite them to return to Poland, in Polish. They approached Slawomir with emotion, surrounded him, and started speaking old Polish to him. They said that there was no way that they would ever return to Poland, that the Poles were Anti-Semites. But it was their home. Can you imagine being thrown out of Israel and seventy years later being asked to return? It’s emotionally overwhelming. There is something very real for the people to which this project speaks on a personal level, and I believe that this is its strength: as far-fetched and provocative as it is, something in it aspires to be sincere.

U.E.:     Essentially, the political imagination of the possible return of Jews to Europe is tightly linked to a different political imagination – that of the Palestinian return, it’s connected to the imagination of the Jew as a conqueror and to the historical tangle created between all the identities and events. In other words, it is linked not only to the explicit imagination of a renewed Jewish reality in Poland, but also to the possibility of different Palestinian-Jewish relations. To what extend are you concerned with this notion when you think about this project?

Y.B.:     First of all, the idea behind this project was never isolated from all that is happening in Israel. The symbolic provocation of three million Jews is like saying that six million Jews return to Europe. The idea that such a huge Jewish community was erased from Europe puts the audience in a state of shock, and this shock is important. There are always attempts to try and illustrate what the Holocaust is and how much six million is. But three million is also an incomprehensible number, and it acts as a slogan. 3.3 million Jews can change the lives of 40 million Poles. We cannot comprehend these numbers. After seeing this film, Ariella Azoulay imagined herself standing in Rabin Square, calling the Palestinians to return, and I believe that this is the most powerful thing that I’ve created. The fact that I imagine something and it affects other people by allowing them to fantasize something else departing from this project. This project stir up many fantasies. Germans see it one way and Poles see it another way. The Germans asked why I wasn’t working on a project in which a German calls the Jews to come back to Germany. What was created in this movement is a mechanism that produces possibilities. A Turkish woman I met said: “maybe we should say that the Ottoman Empire should be reestablished in Germany”. It is when people start to fantasize that the strength of this movement becomes apparent.

On the other hand, this project was not created simply to provoke. When I was in Poland there was a lot of talk about the Polish intelligentsia trying to deal with the memory of the Jewish community, trying to delve into it. There is a lot of preoccupation with the nonexistent community, a lot of preoccupation with history, with the Holocaust. I think that this is the difference between Poland and Germany. Poland experienced Communism and throughout the Communist regime there was hardly any processing of the Holocaust. Poles told me that they found out about the Holocaust, about the fact that there was an important Jewish community in Lodz, for example, only after the fall of Communism. It was never part of history.

U.E.:     In what way do they think about the Jews and their return?

Y.B.:     The main question is whether they really want the Jews back or whether others can play the role of the Jew in order to reestablish the culture. Could there be a replacement, a virtual Jew? Take the Klezmer culture for example, today it’s not essential that the musicians will be Jewish, Poles can also play Klezmer music. There is a replacement. When thinking about the return, the question is whether the longing is real. Are they concerned with the memory or with the thing itself? After all, Poland is in no way equipped to deal with the return of such a huge community of Jews.

U.E.:     Going back to the structure of the project, in the trilogy there are numerous symbols and rituals created specifically for the movement. These symbols recreate a constellation of familiar images and ideological techniques. I feel that it is impossible to produce the political possibility without this constellation that wraps it in a specific formation. In your opinion, what place does art have in organizing these symbols and shapes? What does art do to images? I think that this question is fundamental to the Exhibition ‘Where to?’. What does art do with the visual mechanisms that are normally used to serve ideologies?

Y.B.:     For me, it was a strategy I used to speak directly about nationality, about community. The new symbol shatters or destroys the existing representation and takes over a different one. Take for example the films of Leni Riefenstahl and her place as an artist who, during the thirties, did avant-garde work while serving the Nazi ideology. It’s very hard to remake and quote films that are associated with specific ideology. Here, the strategy was to create a process of transformation or reversal, to take a cinematic language and try to give it a new context, to go through the pain, to go through history in order to talk about the future, and all the while it is clearly linked to a specific ideology.

U.E.:     So, in a sense, you repeat the constellation of images, but this repetition is not duplication. It does something with these images. I want to dwell upon this notion, to understand your process with these images, which seem to have more of a political history than a visual history. What does your treatment of these images does to them and to this history, and generally to the possibility of a political movement? I think it produces something very special – you are working with images that, historically speaking, tried to create and present the ‘many’ as one, to produce the unification and order of the ideology, but your work goes in the opposite direction, against this unification. In other words, it dismantles and introduces the exact things that the unification tried to neutralize, or cast aside. Your work uses the same visual tools in order to represent the ‘many’ as something that, historically, the ideology opposed more than anything.

Y.B.:     Yes, undermining ideology by using the visual tools of the ideology. We shouldn’t forget the strength of this aesthetics. While being very manipulative, it is also very beautiful and powerful. It is a direct aesthetics that sends a message. For instance, think of the public appearance of a leader, which the film undermines of course, against the images of the masses clapping. In the film, the leader of the movement stands in front of an empty stadium. It reminds me of “Shoah”, when Lanzmann invites a Holocaust survivor to return to Poland, to a place where many Jews had been murdered, and they stand in front of a clear meadow. We understand that they are dealing with memory, we understand that something terrible has happened there, and there is no need to see it. As audience we fill in the vision which is hidden from us.

U.E.:     The second part of the trilogy reenacts Wall and Tower, only this time the settlement takes place in Poland. This reenactment includes periodic costumes and the actual historical building procedures. The structures are exactly the same structures, they are assembled using the same methods, and the people are wearing the same historic dress. Is the reproduction of the same specific structure at this day and age fundamental? Why bring to Poland Wall and Tower and not trailers, for example? This renaissance is the revival of a settlement that stood precisely here one hundred years ago, and if it were to happen in post war Poland, it would have probably already happen differently. What is the significance of returning to this particular visual?

Y.B.:     I wanted to focus on the Zionist ethos, in building the modern Jewish nation, and look at it from the outside. To use the repetition to explore and understand its qualities, to look at it anew from today’s perspective, to dislocate it, to undermine it, to use anachronism ad absurdum and find out what it produces in Poland. Wall and Tower is “mini-Israel”. This process is a way to pull ourselves out of the national mess. On the other hand, there is something thrilling in this vigor of the pioneer, the vanguard of the Jewish movement. It the point of view of the pioneering “we”, “we” are returning, “we” are starting the Jewish renaissance, but beware; we are not the Jews that you once knew. Something happened in these past 60-70 years. All of a sudden the Jews have a nationality.

U.E.:     But what you are saying, and I find this point interesting, is that the change is not the 60 years that have past between then and now, but what had happened even before – the New Jew. The Settling Jew, the Jewish settlement project that had started before the Holocaust, the days of Wall and Tower. In this sense, the returning Jew really is a different Jew. He is the Jew of Wall and Tower, the New Jew, just like he imagined himself when he arrived in the land of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, or at least at the end of the 19th century. This is why the use of this historic look is so significant.

Y.B.:     when I researched Wall and Tower I understood that these people were very much inspired by the architecture of the Wild West, where it was well accepted that if you occupied a piece of land it was yours to keep.

U.E.:     The last part of the trilogy closes the narrative that was opened in the first chapters with hope and revival, and in one instant turns it into violence and crisis, with the death of the leader of the movement. Although we do not see this part, it is obvious that the movement is in a state of crisis. Are such movements condemned to this kind of future? Do you think that the death of the leader creates new possibilities for the movement and its future? What is the role of this chapter for you?

Y.B.:     Once the production of ‘Wall and Tower’ was over, it was clear to me that the leader of the movement should be assassinated. The ‘messiah’ must be assassinated. Not the least due to the fact that the Polish Minister of Culture embraced the project as the Polish representative in the Venice Biennale, which created a new reality for the project. I felt it was important to integrate opposing voices into the project, to give them place to undermine the new narrative. ‘Should we really return and live in the Diaspora and respond to the call of this nice Polish guy, who loves Jews and wants to return us to Poland?’ It seemed too simplistic that now we should return and live happily ever after. It seemed wrong not just at the story level, but it is also linked to the history of many progressive political leaders. Many of them were assassinated: Kennedy, Gandhi, Lincoln, and Rabin. I also think that it takes crisis to push people into the public sphere.

U.E.:     Would you say that the movement was actually created at this moment?

Y.B:      It created another new possibility. The moment the leader of this imagined movement died, may possibly be the point in which it can actually turn into real political movement. If there is no imagined leader, it might be really possible, let’s start to establish a movement.

U.E.:     Right now you are at the transition stage, between the film trilogy and the first congress of the movement, scheduled to take place in Berlin during the biennale in May 2012. How do you see this transition from the fully imagined and staged to an event that consists of many people and opinions, where your control over it  as an artist diminishes?

Y.B.:     This is an imagined movement that allows its members to fantasize and demand a reality in which they want to live, to not give in to politicians. The congress is an action that calls the people to imagine in public. Slawomir always paraphrases ‘The Matrix’: you take the blue pill – 3.3 million Jews return to Poland. You take the red pill – you start to create social changes. Which pill would you take?

U.E.:     So if they were simply to return, to appear in the space, it would be meaningless?

Y.B.:     It’s interesting to think that most Israelis want to return to Germany.

U.E.:     Finally, could you explain what you think about the role of contemporary art in this day and age, more specifically, what is art, as you understand it, capable of doing? What should it do?

Y.B.:     I see art as a useful tool that allows us not only to give a reflection of society but to be actively involved in it. Nevertheless, I feel that there is a problem with political art and the autonomy that it allows. Sometimes, the attempt to speak about ethics compels certain artists to take an unethical action or speak in the name of the other. The question of representation is very important. I ask myself many difficult questions: How serious is this project? Is it only provocation? I think that art has a great significance and an enormous power, and for an artist coming from a region of conflict such as Palestine-Israel or the former Yugoslavia, there is no other way but to be socially involved. Many artists can look from the outside, that is the general role of an artist, but what do you do with this role? Is it enough to criticize or should one produce alternatives and inspire people to go against the tide?

U.E.:     I think that when it works, the power of art, as we mentioned before, lies in the possibility to create a new political imagination, in the ability to open a spectrum of possibilities.

Y.B.:     I keep asking myself whether this is enough. I don’t know, I’m asking.

U.E.:     I think that it’s quite a lot, and in many disciplines you don’t even have that.

Y.B.:     I agree, but there has to be representation, you have to know what is your voice and in relation to what. I can only speak about my experience as an Israeli and a Jew, and there should be a certain basic loyalty to the personal identity and history that, in my mind, many artists miss. This is something that I have a problem with. In whose name are you speaking? In the Return to Poland project I had to cooperate with a Pole; I couldn’t have shouted in an empty stadium “Jews, come back”. In this sense, Slawomir’s role in this project is crucial, because he also speaks about himself, he says ‘I believe in this, I wouldn’t have participated in this project had I not believed in it’. He is the only one who could make this request.

Translated into English by Noa Shuval


[1] In Hebrew, the same word is uses for both “return” and “repetition”. N.S.