– Summer 2012

Loudspeaker and Flag: Yael Bartana, from Documentation to Conjuration

Volker Pantenburg

Mur i Wieża (Wall and Tower), 2009, RED transferred to HD, colour/sound, 15min, still. Courtesy the artist, Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam and Sommer Contemporary, Tel Aviv


Helmar Lerski’s film Awodah (Work) was made in 1935, during one of the major waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, the so-called Fifth Aliyah. It is a movie with a resolute aesthetic agenda, impressive in its use of light and shadow and its mastery of close-up and montage, fusing faces and tools into dynamic machines of labour. Although it is committed to the idea of establishing a Jewish state in the Middle East, it was harshly criticised by the Zionist community at the time for being too general in its eulogy of human work and not explicit enough in promoting the Jewish cause.1 Awodah starts with numerous dissolves of feet and legs, wandering through barren soil, across plains and mountains, rocks and stones. It ends self-consciously with the flag of the Star of David blowing in the wind. In the fifty minutes between the shots of the feet and those of the flag, land is cultivated. The film shows the settlers desperately drilling for water, mostly without success, until — in an impressive montage reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s Staroye i Novoye (Old and New or The General Line, 1929) and its famous cream separator sequence — water finally sputters from a spout, gushes through the irrigation ditches, feeds the crops and provides for a copious harvest. The transition that Awodah propagates is one from the homeless and tired traveller to the successful and happy pioneer settler; from exhaustion to triumph and prosperity; from the individual quest to the nation state.

Lerski’s movie is a crucial reference for Yael Bartana’s work. Most explicitly, it is appropriated (and ideologically inverted) in her video Summer Camp

  1. For background on Lerski’s film and the critical reactions it received from the Zionist movement, see Jan-Christopher Horak, ‘Helmar Lerski in Israel’, in Miri Talmon and Yaron Peleg (ed.), Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011, pp.16—29. In contrast to Juda Leman’s The Promised Land, made in the same year, Lerski does not include any religious rituals or Jewish customs in the final cut of his film (although he did shoot a lot of material, as the out-takes and rushes show). Horak summarises how the aesthetic vision of Lerski made Awodah resistant to being sheer propaganda: ‘The film is indeed nothing less than a visual symphony of hard physical labour in the desert, fragmented through editing into a formal play of movement, physical shapes, diagonally composed camera angles, shadows and light, music and sound effects. Rather than constructing a unified view of the Zionist project, the idea of work is lifted out of the historically concrete setting of Palestine in the 1930s into a timeless and idealised notion of human progress through labour, through which Lerski is again striving to capture the human spirit in images of beauty.’ Ibid., p.21. Awodah was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1935.

  2. While the installation at documenta 12 did not include Lerski's film, Bartana later decided to show Summer Camp and her re-cut of Awodah on either side of the same screen. See ‘A Conversation between Yael Bartana, Galit Eilat and Charles Esche’, in Yael Bartana: And Europe Will Be Stunned (exh. cat.), Malmö and Berlin: Moderna Museet and Berlin: Revolver, 2010, p.94.

  3. See, for example, the title of an exhibition at the Fridericianum in Kassel: ‘Yael Bartana: Amateur Anthropologist’ (24 September — 26 November 2006).

  4. Round-table discussion moderated by Kathrin Peters, ‘Geschichte und Fiktion. Ein Roundtable Gespräch über die (Re-)Konstruktion von Geschichte in Kunst und Film mit Yael Bartana, Maryam Jafri, Romuald Karmakar und Clemens von Wedemeyer’, Texte zur Kunst, issue 76, December 2009, p.54.

  5. ‘Wall and Tower’ (also known as ‘Tower and Stockade’) describes a specific method used by Zionist settlers between 1936 and 1939, during the Arab revolt. The 52 ‘Wall and Tower’ settlements established in that period consisted of a guard tower and surrounding wooden fence. Although they were not approved by the British Mandate, they were not dismantled either. Due to their problematic legal status, they usually had to be finished within a single night.

  6. With the step from documentation to conjuration, from observation to orchestration, the productions also become more lavish and expensive (Assassination, for example, was commissioned by Artangel, Outset Contemporary Art Fund, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, The Netherlands Film Fund and Zachęta National Gallery of Art, and Nightmares with support from Hermès and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw). While her previous videos were mostly based on the use of DV-cameras and the possibility of inconspicuous shooting situations, the trilogy is shot on Super 16 (Nightmares) or the RED camera (Wall and Tower and Assassination). The films make use of sophisticated crane shots that glide up a wooden tower within the kibbutz, or travel along its walls, as well as tracking and dolly shots. They demand growing production teams and a considerable amount of logistical effort. Stylistically, Bartana most often refers to the aesthetics of 1930s propaganda films of either Zionist, Russian or German provenance: ‘I never gave up on Riefenstahl’. See ‘A Conversation between Yael Bartana, Galit Eilat and Charles Esche’, op. cit., p.95. However, in its long, elaborate takes, choreographies and gravitation towards certain symbols, the trilogy also appears like a counter-project to Matthew Barney’s masculinist Cremaster (1995—2002) films.

  7. Yael Bartana, Sebastian Cichocki and Galit Eilat, ‘Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP)’, in S. Cichocki and G. Eilat (ed.), A Cookbook for Political Imagination, New York: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.5.

  8. In this context, Marc Siegel’s suggestion seems productive, when he tries to balance moments of Jewish specificity with potential connections to other ‘ethnic, racial and cultural specificities’: ‘I would suggest that the JRMiP understand its appeal to non-Jews (and non-Poles) not as a call to de-specify the movement’s goals of the return of 3.3 million Jews to Poland. The movement is not about making European Jewish history readily available for cultural surfers. Rather, let the very specificity of a Jewish return — not to Israel, of course, but to Poland (we’re talking yerida, not aliyah) — provide a means of connection to other ethnic, racial and cultural specificities and other returns (namely, but not exclusively, the Palestinian return).’ M. Siegel, ‘Jew Know What I Mean’, in S. Cichocki and G. Eilat (ed.), A Cookbook for Political Imagination, op. cit., p.223.

  9. The manifesto has been published at various times as a poster, a panel text in exhibitions and in A Cookbook for Political Imagination. See ibid., pp.120—21.

  10. ‘A Conversation between Yael Bartana, Galit Eilat and Charles Esche’, op. cit., p.168.

  11. Artur Żmijewksi, the curator of the Berlin Biennial 2012, has been quite clumsy in some of his attempts to short-circuit art and politics. Most recently, he invited Czech artist Martin Zet to initiate a project called Deutschland schafft es ab (Germany Gets Rid of It). Zet asked the public to deposit Thilo Sarrazin’s anti-Muslim book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Gets Rid of Itself, 2010) at numerous cultural institutions designated as ‘recycling stations’. He then planned to use the books as material for an installation. To many observers, this evoked associations with the burning of books in 1933; a number of institutions cancelled their engagement in the project.

  12. See http://www.jrmip.org/?page_id=11 (last accessed on 20 February 2012).

  13. Anka Grupińska, ‘Dear Founding Mothers and Founding Fathers of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland!’, in S. Cichocki and G. Eilat (ed.), A Cookbook for Political Imagination, op. cit., p.163.