Courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018
Detail image from ‘Zamach’ (‘Assassination’), 2011, by Yael Bartana, from the trilogy ‘And Europe Will Be Stunned.’Courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018
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Jewish Pioneers Return to Poland

A new exhibit of works by the activist-artist Yael Bartana at the Philadelphia Museum of Art stars her video trilogy ‘And Europe Will Be Stunned.’ Was it a glimpse of a neo-Zionist utopian future, or a relic of a disappearing past?

J. Hoberman
October 25, 2018
Courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018
Detail image from 'Zamach' ('Assassination'), 2011, by Yael Bartana, from the trilogy 'And Europe Will Be Stunned.'Courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018

Are we not the People of the Book? Zionism was a utopian project first imagined by writers— Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky among them.

As that thought experiment was early realized in Herzl’s 1902 novel, Altneuland, so the activist-artist Yael Bartana, born in a moshav ovdim in northern Israel, willed into existence a reverse (or perhaps alt) Zionism with her video trilogy, And Europe Will Be Stunned—namely the not quite fictitious or entirely ironic Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland.

Originally installed in the Polish pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, And Europe Will Be Stunned lived up to its title by causing a small sensation. “Such a hit that it was quite difficult to get to see,” Roberta Smith reported in The New York Times, praising the piece as an “ineffably wry confusion of ideology, geography, propaganda and history.” A lengthy review in The Jerusalem Post, occasioned by the video trilogy’s exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art noted that while “it is difficult to tell whether Bartana is being ironic,” And Europe Will Be Stunned is “sure to become part of the Israeli art canon.”

At once satiric and heart-rending, Bartana’s trilogy charts the origin, flowering, and violent end of a quixotic campaign to restore Jewish life in Poland. In the first and shortest video, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), the young Polish leftist Sławomir Sierakowski, recruited by Bartana while she was undertaking her research, addresses a handful of child spectators in Warsaw’s dilapidated, soon-to-be-demolished 10th-Anniversary Stadium, the former site of official ceremonies in People’s Poland. He asks Jews to return, arguing that Poland needs them in a defense of pluralism that aspires to poetry:

With one religion, we cannot listen.
With one color, we cannot see.
With one culture, we cannot feel.
Without you, we can’t even remember.
Without you, we will remain locked away in the past.
With you a future will open for us …

“Join us, and Europe will be stunned!” Sierakowski promises. His call is heeded in the trilogy’s second part, Mur i Weiza (Wall and Tower). A delegation of sturdy, resolute young chalutzim arrive in Warsaw, tools in hand, to construct a kibbutz on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto in the once Jewish neighborhood of Muranów. Sierakowski presents the pioneers with his movement’s red and white flag, a banner combining the Mogen David and the Polish Eagle. The returning Jews joyously build (and take time to learn a few words of Polish). Meanwhile, the presence of curious onlookers suggests that Bartana’s video documents the making of an actual art project, which, when completed, resembles nothing so much as a wooden concentration camp, complete with barbed wire.

The artist’s elaborate, sardonic fantasy concludes in its third and longest part, Zamach (Assassination), with a quasi-state funeral at the Palace of Culture and Science. Sierakowski is dead. In Bartana’s imagined world, he was shot three times by an unknown assailant at Warsaw’s National Museum while admiring a painting by Bruno Schultz. His wife delivers a eulogy in Hebrew. The ceremony, which, even more than in the trilogy’s first two parts, oscillates between the heart-rending and the absurd, not least in the unveiling of a giant bust worthy of Mussolini. (Inside the hall, one can glimpse a socialist realist canvas of Sierakowski at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium.) The speakers include the Polish-born Israeli illustrator of children’s books, Alona Frankel, who demands restitution of her Polish citizenship, and the Israeli television personality Yaron London who, more in incredulity than anger, denounces “the brainless task of returning the Jews to Europe.” Both speeches were written by the speakers in response to Bartana’s fiction.

Was it all a joke? And if so, on whom? Zionists or anti-Zionists? Did the artist mean to issue the manifesto of a new territorialism? Was she really advocating a second Jewish homeland outside of eretz Israel, a version of the Diasporism half-seriously proposed by Philip Roth (or rather, a character who runs around Israel impersonating Philip Roth) in his 1993 novel Operation Shylock? Was this resettlement movement an inclusive International welcoming all outcasts? The vanguard of a healthy pluralism? A new version of Kafka’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma? A defense of displaced people issued just as Europe was to be flooded with Syrian and other refugees?

Everything has a double meaning. Most obviously, Sierakowski’s opening address is an artful bit of psychological jiujitsu meant to encourage Israeli identification with uprooted Palestinians and thus make an argument for a binational state. Indeed, Zamach is dedicated to the memory of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a prominent Israeli screenwriter and actor of mixed Arab and Jewish parentage, as well as a cultural activist, shot dead in front of his Freedom Theater in the West Bank city of Jenin while Bartana’s video was in production. Just as his killer or killers are unknown, so are those responsible for Sierakowski’s imaginary death, unless of course, the artist herself killed him off.

Post-Sierakowski, Bartana became the de facto leader of the movement she invented. In 2012, as part of the Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art, she went all out for political theater by organizing the first congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP). When I met her briefly in early 2012, she seemed amused by the prospect. The official recordings of the three-day conclave show delegates energetically debating the European Union’s relation to the Other, Poland’s place in the EU, and Israel’s role in the Middle East, while the artist watched and presumably taped from the balcony.

Actual thinking is going on. Resolutions included the abolition of national languages, the extension of EU membership to China, the diversion of profits from “Holocaust tourism” to former European colonies, the undermining of Polish patriarchy by inviting back only Jewish women, and the creation of state-subsidized Birthright Poland trips. In the end however the resolutions were uniformly anti-Zionist: to guarantee a Palestinian right of return, strip Israel of its Jewish character and create a state for the stateless.

There does not appear to have been a second congress … yet. Meanwhile, And Europe Will Be Stunned, currently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through the end of 2018, continues to have a life of its own.

Needless to say, we live in a different world than in 2007, the year Bartana began her project, or 2011, the year And Europe Will Be Stunned was premiered in Venice.

When I first saw the trilogy in late 2011, it seemed of a piece with the ongoing Arab Spring, the social justice protests that challenged Netanyahu that summer in Israel and the Occupy movement, which in its opposition to the 1 percent spread from Wall Street to corporate headquarters and college campuses around the country. The recently formed Russian anarcho-punk-feminist collective Pussy Riot was another point of reference. In every case a radical, even utopian, thought experiment appeared to challenge authority in advance of a particular ideological position.

Not dead after all, Sierakowski was unexpectedly drafted as an occasional opinion writer for The New York Times. Poland, which I had just visited for the first time in 20 years, seemed surprisingly hopeful—or at least, in their eagerness to join Europe, English-speaking young people did. Things were happening. While visiting Wrocław, still unaware of the JRMiP, I discovered hidden traces of a short-lived but actual post-World War II Jewish political entity inspiring me to make notes for a counterfactual fiction titled “Polestine.”

The spirit of 2011 proved ephemeral. Seven years later, populist xenophobia, illiberal democracy, militant tribalism, and various types of theocratic fascism are in the ascendency—fueled by an ever more virulent nationalist fervor. Sierakowski no longer writes for the Times. His last piece, published in July 2017 (a few weeks before the Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville) decried the rise of Polish authoritarianism: “Poland Turns Away From Democracy, Thanks to the U.S.” And Europe Will Be Stunned no longer seems to me like a fond self-mocking projection of future hopes but a melancholy reflection on past ones.

A tragic parody of 20th-century utopian illusions, Bartana’s trilogy is essentially a period piece. Her iconography alludes to Soviet propaganda and even Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia; she is fascinated by the Zionist instrumentalization of these European models. When And Europe Will Be Stunned was shown at the 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival it was projected with material from U.S.-Soviet and Labor Zionist films made in the 1930s to publicize the resettlement of Jews on the land. Bartana references these as well, not least with her stirring sound design. (In two segments of the trilogy, “Hatikvah” may be heard played backwards.) Similarly, the installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art includes a vitrine of imagined archival material, actual and invented.

Such once-stirring chalutzim prop is as quaint as Bartana’s videos. Israel is a fact on the ground—prosperous self-governing ghetto or fearsome nuclear-armed golem—and all Jews, however critical or unwilling or fatalistic, are all pretty much Zionists now, even if, as the JRMiP manifesto prettily puts it, “the kibbutz apples and watermelons are no longer as ripe.” Thus, And Europe Will Be Stunned sets itself against history not so much by declaring Israel a failure as by suggesting that the Jewish state has extinguished the pintele yid.

Bartana’s trilogy evokes the blasphemous, nostalgic notion proposed by Operation Shylock (and more seriously by Enzo Traverso in The End of Jewish Modernity) that the era of Jewish particularity is over. In the first of several Diasporist monologues, the fake “Philip Roth” declares:

The so-called normalization of the Jew was a tragic illusion from the start. But when this normalization is expected to flourish in the very heart of Islam, it is even worse than tragic—it is suicidal. … The time has come to return to the Europe that was for centuries and remains to this day, the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever been …

In Bartana’s scenario, the “innocent Pole” Sierakowski argues that Poland cannot be Poland without Jews. In Roth’s novel the mad “Philip Roth” maintains that Jews—as he understands them—can only be themselves as rootless cosmopolitans. In an abstract sense both propositions are true; in actually existing reality both have been proved both wrong.

To my mind, And Europe Will Be Stunned addresses the existential crisis faced by those Jews who are neither observant nor nationalist but, as Roth wrote at the end of The Counterlife, “just the object itself, like a glass or an apple” and have assumed the burden of searching for another Jewish identity. Some found it in Yiddishland. (See for example, Molly Crabapple’s recent essay on her great-grandfather the Bundist.) Others look for the pintele yid in Hollywood or Freud or the struggle for social justice or the history of the New York intellectuals. Might it also be found in Tablet or the “brainless” utopian Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland?

In any case, Bartana, who now lives in Europe, has moved on. Although her website includes an amusing series of self-portraits in which she poses as Theodor Herzl, her most recent thought experiment is a two-hour performance piece, What If Women Ruled the World?

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.