Art

Politics of Space and Belonging and the Right of Return

Yael Bartana, "Zamach (Assassination)" (2011), production photo, (photo courtesy Marcin Kalinski)

IRVINE, California – There is a call for Jews to return to Poland — and it’s coming out of Irvine. Well, actually it’s coming from Israeli artist Yael Bartana, whose trilogy … and Europe Will Be Stunned, which occupied the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, is currently having its American debut at the University Art Gallery at UC Irvine. The videos present the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), which calls for the return of Jews to Poland to reconstitute the country as it was and make it whole again (there were 3,300,000 Jews living in Poland prior to the Holocaust — this number is invoked by the JRMiP in their moto, emblazoned on the grass in the stadium in the first film: 3,300,000 Jews can change the lives of 40,000,000 Poles).

In Irvine, the gallery space echoes with the booming voices of the speakers in the three films, which play in different rooms simultaneously. There is a red glow to the room courtesy of a neon sign with the work’s title. In the center stands a large stack of posters with the JRMiP manifesto — Poland’s colors of red and white with the JRMiP symbol and the Polish eagle combined with the Star of David — imprinted behind the text.

The trilogy leads us through the progression of the JRMiP movement. In the first film, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) (2007) the leader of the fledgling JRMiP movement (played not by an actor but rather Sławomir Sierakowski, a Polish left-wing activist) gives a speech calling for Jews to return to Poland, to heal Poland’s past and make the country whole again. He speaks from the empty and overgrown Olympic stadium in Warsaw — the only other people there with him are some uniformed youths who look something like a cross between Boy Scouts and Hitler Youths.

Yael Bartana (photo by Daniel Meir)

The second film, Mur I wieża (Wall and Tower) (2009) shows the first group of Jews to take action out of this movement. A group of Hebrew-speaking kibbutzniks build a wooden enclave consisting of an uninviting wall (despite a hand-written sign welcoming people in Hebrew) complete with barbed wire and a tower equipped with a searchlight. The kibbutz is situated directly across from the Warsaw ghetto monument, which emphasizes both the kibbutz’s appearance as another ghetto, as well as a fortress protecting from a separate Polish community that had allowed for such things to happen previously and seems to reveal a lack of belief that they wouldn’t let something like that happen again. Rather than seeming to integrate into the population, this new group of Jewish immigrants seems even more separate from the Polish community (though the video does also show the members of the kibbutz learning Polish).

The final film, Zamach (Assassination) (2011) shows the funeral and memorial service for the movement’s leader, who has been assassinated at an art opening (in the same fashion as the first democratically elected president of the Second Polish Republic was). The movement is at this point portrayed as utopian by its members — the leader’s casket it carried by pallbearers of a variety of races (and presumably religions). The emphasis is no longer on purely a Jewish movement to Poland but rather an acceptance of all people who are without a homeland. However, throughout the speeches given at the memorial ceremony (which unveils an almost comically large bust of the leader), it is clear that the idealized utopia that the JRMiP envisions (an anti-nationalism — a Europe welcoming and including all nations, races and religions) is not embraced by all. It’s not accidental that the strongest support for the movement comes from the youngest speakers — two uniformed youths — who preach the doctrine of the JRMiP manifesto. Older generations of curators and journalists (as well as the leader’s wife) seem to relish more ties to Israel and they cannot seem to let go of the past and react against it, whereas those who did not experience it first hand can look to the future without being tainted by the past.

An installation view at UC Irvine (image courtesy the gallery)

The experience of watching the films is incredibly unsettling — though I enjoyed being unsettled. The preaching leader, the obedient uniformed followers. They are the counterpoint to the Nazi experience of pure nationalism as they want extreme integration of all nations. However, if one considers the Nazis “pure evil” then does that make the JRMiP “pure good”? I definitely wasn’t left with that impression.

There is certainly something still very ominous and isolationist about the movement. Both the fact that it centers on creating this “utopia” within Poland to “stun” Europe — what about the rest of Europe being included or what about non-European countries? And if they were to suggest including them all wouldn’t it give the impression of world domination?

As the movement expands, it offers inclusion to all peoples without a homeland, not just Jews — but it seems naive to think that then they would all live in peace and harmony. The call for Jews to return to Poland is rooted in the fact that they were once there, but would the same attachment of homeland extend to refugees from Sudan? Palestine? And how would those who had ancestral connection to Poland feel about or relate to those that didn’t? It’s hard to believe that the movement to Poland would suddenly make everything all peace and harmony (especially with those winters!) And what of the countries that these Jews or other refugees leave? Wouldn’t the creation of this “utopia” in Poland lead to a hyper-homogenous population in the countries they leave behind? Would right wing Israelis support the JRMiP not for Jews, but rather for Palestinians as another group (they would deem) without a homeland in order to help fulfill their “perfect Zion” in Israel through the migration of Palestinians to Poland?

These are disturbing questions that are made even a little more unsettling by the fact that the border between reality and fiction with the JRMiP movement has been somewhat blurred — some real people support (and oppose) it as an actual movement — not just an art project. As I watched the videos, the light from the neon title sign always cast a red bar across the room and to me it read as the bloodshed that movements such as this can manifest.

Throughout the trilogy, Bartana clearly draws parallels between the JRMiP movement and the situation in Israel/Palestine. Notions of belonging and citizenship — one of the speakers at the memorial now lives in Israel but is requesting to have her Polish citizenship, which was stripped from her when she left for what she saw as the more welcoming Jewish state, returned to her — clearly relate to the Palestinians who have no Israeli citizenship despite being from the land that is now Israel.

The idea of the “right of return” which the JRMiP is trying to get Jews to excersize in Poland is a vital issue in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Law of Return allows for any Jew to become an Israeli citizen by virtue of Israel being his Jewish homeland. The Right of Return, which is an international principle codified in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is what many Palestinians require as part of any peace deal, allowing for families that were ousted during the Nakba in 1948 when Israel declared its statehood to return to the homes and land in which they had lived.

The issue of return came up again recently during the recent release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian and Arab-Israeli prisoners. None of the prisoners released were allowed into Israel proper, some were released into the West Bank but given major restrictions on their movements, some to Gaza, and still others released were sent into exile (these decisions were based on the Israeli government’s assessment of the threat level of each of these individuals). Bartana’s link between her work and what is happening in her country of birth are made explicitly clear in the dedication of Assassination to Juliano Mer-Khamis, one of the founders of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, who was assassinated during the filming of this work.

The issues of nationalism are also particularly pertinent considering the past year and the unsuccessful Palestinian bid for recognition by the United Nations (and their successful acceptance into UNESCO, which resulted in the suspension of US funding to the organization). The JRMiP presents an alternative to the multitude of nation states that have arisen in a world of people that fears the other and sees comfort only in surrounding themselves in people exactly like themselves — Jewish states, Polish states, Islamic states, American (meaning no people who got here “after me”) states, etc. The movement does not want everyone to be identical but stresses that only through an inclusion of all differences will we truly be whole.

This push against separatism can even be seen closer to home in the Occupy Wall Street movement we saw spring up this past year. People are pushing against the “us vs. them” mentality, which is exemplified in what has become of our two-party system and its degradation into pure rhetoric and ratings.

People want the world to work for us, for all of us, not just the 1%, for everyone. A desire for action — and a movement that can effect change — is clearly something that people are hungry for now, all over the world. Art’s interaction with political movement has been present throughout as well. From images tagged on walls throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring to Shepard Fairey’s Occupy poster, art appears to be everywhere is contemporary movements.

The companion publication to Bartana’s exhibition in Venice, A Cookbook for Political Imagination, includes a collection of recipes, drawings, photos, political essays and links between the JRMiP movement and real world situations past and present (such as the Arab Spring). This 400+ page tome blurs the lines between the JRMiP as art project and political movement (much like Walid Raad and his Atlas Project) and works to clearly indicate that such a line is insignificant. I spent two days consumed by this book and I suggest you do the same.

This work was brought to UC Irvine by Artis, an organization that promotes Israeli artists internationally. They are quite active in New York, and Bartana’s exhibition at UC Irvine is their first foray into the West Coast, where they will now have a continued presence. If this exhibition is any indication of the quality of programming we have in store, then I eagerly await what is to come in the new year.

… and Europe Will Be Stunned runs through March 10, 2012. A one-day conference with the artist will be held at UC Irvine on February 4

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