Trilogy Prompts Questions on Nationalism

Dancers perform on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. | Selah Maya Zighelboim

The young men and women worked together, carrying spades, learning a new language and hammering slats of wood to build their new home, complete with a watchtower and fences.

They wore white tops and khakis or green uniforms resembling those worn by Israel Defense Forces soldiers. Their dark hair spilled out from beneath caps or kerchiefs. At the end of the day, they collapsed in a pile, laughing and seemingly dreaming of the settlement they were building for themselves.

A casual passerby might think these were scenes of Israeli kibbutznikim, the early founders of the Jewish state whose communal farms and settlements marked the country’s borders.

Image from Zamach (Assassination) by Yael Bartana. From the trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned. (Collection of both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis) | Image courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018

But the symbol on their armbands — a red eagle in front of the Star of David — tells a different story. The setting, too, seems to suggest somewhere different, as people mill around their settlement in a cityscape.

These men and women are part of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, a fictional political movement from And Europe Will Be Stunned that calls for the return of more than 3 million Jews to their homeland in Poland.

And Europe Will Be Stunned is a film trilogy by Israeli artist Yael Bartana that uses familiar images from nationalist movements’ propaganda to question ideas of nationhood, homeland and memory. Despite the nationalist elements of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, though, the language of the movement’s manifesto — phrases like, “With one color, we cannot see” — also seems to call for a kind of globalism.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting the trilogy at the Perelman Building from Sept. 21 to Jan. 1.

“I feel we are trapped in the nation-state,” Bartana recently told WHYY’s Peter Crimmins. “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.”

Each of the films in the trilogy chronicles a different moment in time for the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland.

In the first, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), the movement’s leader, Slawomir Sierakowski — named after the Polish activist who helped Bartana with this project — delivers a speech in a mostly empty stadium, calling for the return of 3 million Jews to Poland. The second, Mur i weiza (Wall and Tower), includes the aforementioned scenes of Israelis building a settlement in Warsaw. The final installment, Zamach (Assassination), covers Sierakowski’s death and the passion it inspires in the movement’s followers.

Yael Bartana | Photo by Birgit Kaulfuss, courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art

“As is the nature of Yael’s work, she takes very specific narratives, very specific histories and uses them to have a more global, universal dialogue about what is possible, what is possible at a larger level for a more universal conversation,” said Amanda Sroka, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art. “Here, within the context of the trilogy, it’s a question and conversation around what nationalism is, how it’s formed, drawing an attention to and an awareness of ways in which we may or may not be implicated in that formation.”

The exhibit includes red posters with the Polish eagle and Jewish Star symbol for attendees to take, as well as a visual archive that includes images that inspired some of the aesthetics of the films.

Some of this imagery includes the repeated use of red, black and white — a color combination associated with fascist political movements and a color motif that runs throughout the trilogy.

“The images that are included in the archive come up throughout the films, that you kind of see them referenced throughout, but you’re not necessarily sure exactly what it might be, is part of our collective memory,” Sroka said. “It’s part of our collective memory, whether you’re aware of it or not.”

The museum also commissioned Bartana for a public and interactive performance that took place throughout the city on Sept. 22. The performance, titled Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies!, was a funeral for guns reminiscent of the final film of And Europe Will Be Stunned. It started as a funeral procession in Washington Square then headed to Independence Mall, where different speakers shared personal stories of their experiences with systems of violence. These speeches served as a collective eulogy for the weapons, Sroka said.

During the performance of Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies!, dancers lie around three coffins filled with prop guns.

The performance ended at the museum. There, dancers called out the names of various guns before placing prop guns in coffins. They then engaged in a dance inspired by the work of Israeli dance composer Noa Eshkol, specifically her 1953 memorial performed in remembrance of the Holocaust. The coffins were later buried.

“[The performance] developed out of conversations with Yael and research here specific to Philadelphia and specific to some of the issues and urgencies of this city, this place and this time,” Sroka said.

Though not an extension of And Europe Will Be Stunned, Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies! shares a thematic connection with the trilogy, Sroka said.

And Europe Will Be Stunned premiered as Poland’s submission at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Usually, countries choose artists who are from or are currently living in working in that country. Bartana was the first artist to represent Poland who breaks that trend, “a radical gesture for Poland,” Sroka said. Through just this initial presentation of the trilogy, Bartana managed to question what nationality means.

“It’s really exciting to be able to bring Yael’s work into the collection,” Sroka said. “It represents our commitment as an institution to time-based media and also represents our commitment to artists who are continuously pushing the boundaries of what art is and can be.” 

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