The Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting the film work of Yael Bartana, an Israeli-born, Berlin-based filmmaker who made a trilogy of short films depicting an imagined revolutionary movement.
“And Europe Will Be Stunned,” on view until the end of the year, will likely have many visitors scratching their heads.
The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, as depicted in the films, is a fictional effort to repopulate Poland with Jews to replace the 3.3 million who were killed or forced to leave during World War II. The trilogy comprises three scenes of the movement. At the beginning of the movement, its charismatic leader delivers an evangelistic speech to whip up a passion for repatriation; the movement gains strength with a scene of proletariat workers building a fortified farm in Poland; following the leader’s ultimate assassination, a state funeral is held with promises to keep the movement alive.
Each segment of the trilogy has its own screening room, constructed inside the museum’s Perelman Building. The sound from each freely bleeds into the space of the others. While the trilogy may be chronological, the din of competing soundtracks collapses linear time. It sounds like everything is happening at once.
“This is intentional,” said Bartana. “To be immersed in the whole trilogy, in terms of sound. The three works are communicating with each other in a nonlinear way.”
Deciphering the sound is not the only head-scratcher. The characters in Bartana’s Jewish Renaissance espouse a vision of globalism. In a rousing speech, the movement’s leader recites his own manifesto: “With one religion, we cannot listen. With one color, we cannot see. With one culture, we cannot feel. Without you, we cannot even remember. Join us, and Europe will be stunned.”
However, the message of an inclusive multiculturalism is wrapped in imagery reminiscent of Zionist messages and of a rural Soviet socialist utopia. The films echo the visual style of Nazi-sanctioned films by Leni Riefenstahl. The visuals – seen through the lens of the history of the 20th century – seem to erode the message.
“There is a sense of ambiguity. It’s very confusing,” said Bartana. “You think it’s ironic, but it’s not ironic when we discuss it. What does it mean, on a practical level, to ask Jews to return?”
Bartana first presented “And Europe Will Be Stunned” in 2011 at the Venice Biennale, where she represented Poland — itself a stunning event as she is neither a citizen nor resident of Poland. The films have proved to be prescient since then, as a tide of nationalism has risen across the globe.
“I feel we are trapped in the nation-state,” she said. “It’s a very strong way to create an identity and a sense of belonging. I’m questioning those values. I’m asking myself if there are multiple ways to live your identity. I don’t have specific answers.”
‘Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies’
As part of “And Europe Will be Stunned,” Bartana will stage a symbolic funeral procession in Old City at 2 p.m. Saturday. The performance art of “Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies” involves 40 dancers and 70 volunteers carrying prop guns from Washington Square to Independence Mall. Later, the guns will later be ceremoniously buried.
The procession is not related to Bartana’s film trilogy about repatriating Poland, but is an extension of its ideas about the pomp and pageantry of nation building.
Like the films, it will involve speeches. In another echo of the films, what looks like an anti-gun rally has its own contradictions.
Among the speakers Bartana has lined up is Michael Miller, a Marine veteran who served tours of duty in Afghanistan as recently as 2012. He is now a spoken-word artist with Warrior Writers, a veterans writing program. He will perform a piece we wrote about his friend and fellow soldier who committed suicide two years ago with this own gun.
“I don’t think we need to bury all of our weapons. I was in the military for 15 years. If I could have an M4 [automatic rifle], I would have an M4,” said Miller, a gun owner who believes in firearm regulation. The M4 is a military weapon illegal in the commercial market.
“It’s a tool, but it’s a tool that can be used for such destructive purposes. It’s so complex. You look at someone’s right — even though it’s a right, doesn’t make it right, you know?”
“And Europe Will Be Stunned” continues at the Art Museum’s Perelman Building until Jan. 1. During that time the museum will host community conversations related to the films, focusing on concepts of homeland, national identity, and collective memory.