in Features | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

War and Peace

Israeli artist Yael Bartana asks: ‘What is this place where I grew up?’

in Features | 01 APR 08

On 21 May 2007 Shirel Friedman and her mother Adela, out shopping for the Shavuot holiday, rested a moment on a park bench in the Israeli town of Sderot. When Adela said she felt cold, Shirel offered to scoot back home to fetch a sweater. Taking a shortcut through the parking lot of the town shopping centre, Shirel was killed when a Qassam rocket landed on a parked car and exploded. Sderot, a town of about 20,000 inhabitants, lies one kilometre from the Gaza Strip. Visit Sderot on Google Earth and it’s easy to see why the town has been a target for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad since October 2000 and the beginning of the Second Intifada. By November 2007, 6,311 Qassam rockets had fallen on Sderot and, since these homemade projectiles have no guidance system, they kill, wound and cause havoc at random, keeping Sderot’s population trapped by psychological trauma. A recent report from NATAL, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, indicates that 74 percent of Sderot’s children suffer anxiety due to the rocket attacks.

Yom Hazikaron is the annual day of remembrance for Israel’s ‘fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism’. On 7 May, Shirel Friedman will be remembered along with 65 other civilians – although that number may well rise – who have been killed in hostile action in the past year. On Yom Hazikaron a two-minute siren sounds, and all Israeli citizens are expected to pause in remembrance. The vast majority will; even motorway traffic comes to a halt as drivers step from their cars.

To the other side of Israel’s dead, The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group reports that, as of this writing, 4,961 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the Second Intifada. Palestinians have their own memorial day, Nakba Day, which Yasser Arafat inaugurated on 15 May 1998 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the forced displacement of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians when the state of Israel was established. A week after Shirel is mourned, Palestinians will remember their own war dead, including ten-year-old Mahmoud Ghazal and his two cousins, ten-year-old Sara and 12-year-old Yehiya, who died last August when Israeli forces attacked rocket launchers in northern Gaza aimed at southern Israel. Traumatic stress in Gaza surely matches that found in Sderot.

Can artists find a relevant way to address the deaths of Shirel Friedman and the Ghazals, and, by extension, the myriad other victims of war? In last September’s issue of this magazine, reviewing Nahum Tevet’s retrospective at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, I speculated about what I called ‘war-zone art’: a kind of art that seems reluctant to define itself by the blinkered debating-club rigmarole at the art world’s centre, and which subsequently appears less relevant to the art world. Why less relevant? Because ‘war-zone art’ is defined by the intensity and nuance of living with war – something especially difficult to grasp second-hand. Assessing Erik van Lieshout’s video After The Riot (2007), an absurdist road-trip exploration of middle America in the exhibition ‘Memorial to the Iraq War’ at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2007, Iraqi artist Rashad Selim commented: ‘I wonder […] with the reality of the destruction, the grief, the trauma, whether [if Iraqis saw this work] it might add insult to injury or whether it would just crack everybody up?’1 Those artists, choreographers, poets, composers and playwrights who continue their work embedded in war, are granted the dispensation of speaking in the first, rather than the third, person. Can we expect greater consequences from them, just as we did from television journalists who shaped public opinion because they were reporting from battle zones in Vietnam? Is the measure of relevance a matter of close witnessing, as war photographer Robert Capa implied when he once said: ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ Does relevance, otherwise unavailable, spring from that experience?

Yael Bartana makes ‘war-zone art’. Her practice evinces a set of hard-won priorities: first-hand experience of war filtered into accounts of aberrant behaviour. Noticeably, like war journalists, she seems to side with the idea that life in a conflict zone is defined by simple realities: run to grab a sweater in Israel or Palestine and there’s a substantial chance you may never come back. Bartana, who divides her time between Tel Aviv and Amsterdam, has said: ‘I am focusing on Israel in order to ask: what is this place where I grew up?’ To answer that question she works from the disinterested vantage of an anthropologist, a reporter or ethnographer allowing persuasiveness, relevance and conclusions to galvanize around bald-faced anecdotes. Her well-known video Trembling Time (2001) is impassive; shot from an overpass, it depicts cars speeding along a highway until, one by one, they slow to a stop. As if choreographed by Pina Bausch, drivers step out of their cars and stand in a uniformed and solemn repose. Artistically speaking, Bartana is an agnostic; her films take an open hand to subjective experience, leaving them, at least initially, inherently unknowable. Trembling Time stands up to the documentary style of what is arguably the first ethnographic film, the Lumière brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, 1895); a single, unedited view illustrating an aspect of everyday life. Trembling Time may seem to thrive on ambiguity, yet its ambiguity is true to life. We may venture that we see a ritual where individual and collective behaviour agree, a religious ceremony or social tradition, or even some kind of performance. Discovering that Trembling Time is the raw documentary of Yom Hazikaron jerks it back into the reality of living and dying in war (where nationalism, militarization and cultural identity, more often than not, overrule individual behaviour) and, as a result, speaks fluently regarding what is surreal and alien to most eyes: the iconology of war.

Her two-screen video projection Wild Seeds (2005) appears to depict a kids’ playground game of rough and tumble until you learn that these young Israelis have devised their own re-enactment of the forced evacuation of Jewish settlers from the Gilad’s Colony in 2002. Caught within the frame of a circling camera, one team – playing the authorities charged with removing the settlers – try to break up the other team – playing the settlers who decide to stick it out – in order to win. This unexpected shift in context, from the everyday to the unfathomable, fills Bartana’s oeuvre with a surfeit of a horrible relevance. Watching her 2003 film Kings of the Hill, where men play an aggressive motor sport – trying to drive their SUVs up impossibly steep hills near Tel Aviv – while women and children watch the action, one can’t help but wonder what other, more subtle games indigenous to this society have evolved as a means of liberating its inhabitants from war’s endless tension and tragedy. Is this furious entertainment only a substitute for combat? Bartana hands us this carefully processed, anthropological material – that is presented without a voice-over, written commentary or strongly suggestive editing – allowing us to reconstruct what it must be like to live, play and remember in a war zone. Play in a war? Relax in a war? Make art in a war? Bartana leaves her audience wondering how any of it could be possible.

What differentiates Bartana’s practice from the conflict-based work produced by ‘non-war-zone’ artists? Trembling Time is not simply a dispassionate account of Yom Hazikaron, it is the testament that Bartana – along with Shirel Friedman, Mahmoud Ghazal, the motorists depicted and countless others – has confronted the unmediated horror of war. It is this that makes the difference, that echoes Martin Heidegger’s distinction between ‘being’ and ‘is’. Does this difference necessarily make great art? It can; think back to Francisco Goya’s series ‘Los desastres de la guerra’ (Disasters of War, 1810–20), his record of the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, and especially the eyewitness accounts that are part of it, such as Así sucedió (This is How it Happened, c. 1820).

In Wars I Have Seen (1945), Gertrude Stein wrote that she only became alarmed about World War II when American soldiers arrived in Culoz, France, where she was living and she began ‘hearing what had been happening to others’. Stein lived within a war but, unlike Bartana, she never confronted it. This is a convenience that has now become impossible not only in Sderot or Gaza, but also in Madrid, London, Bali or New York. Terrorism has fundamentally changed the terms of living within a conflict because it has become, as Jean Baudrillard observed, ‘the most radical, most intense contemporary form of the denial of the whole representative system’. Globalization, late-capitalism and Western culture are now assailed and often defeated by what Baudrillard calls ‘the spirit of terrorism’.2 Although we may not yet realize it, today we are all living in a potential war zone, and all artists therefore have the potential to become true ‘war-zone artists’.

Bartana’s video Mary Koszmary (2007), continues the artist’s study of psychological fall-out, but shifts its focus from war to politics. At face value, this is a film about guilt and reconciliation. Like an amateurish political broadcast, it records a speech written and delivered by Sławomir Sierakowski in Warsaw’s abandoned Stadion Dziesiçiolecia, which was built in 1953 out of rubble resulting from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Sierakowski, a sociologist committed to re-establishing left-wing politics in Poland, tries to be cunning in his delivery: he pleads for Jews to return to Poland – three million were killed between 1939 and 1945 as a consequence of the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact – as a cure for the tyranny of globalization. His political reasoning, like quirky Utopianism, echoes around the empty stadium, itself a carcass of Poland’s failed socialist state: return to rebuild the ruins of what never existed! The Polish left-wing was largely discredited in the country’s 2005 general elections, when it gained only 11 percent of the vote, making Sierakowski’s passionate rhetoric seem immune to realpolitik. While he is speaking, schoolchildren stencil the phrase ‘3,300,000 JEWS CAN CHANGE THE LIFE OF 40,000,000 POLES’ across the stadium pitch. Mary Koszmary translates into English as either ‘dreams and nightmares’ or ‘ghost and nightmares’, with mary meaning not only ‘dream’ but also the personification of a nightmare, and therefore ‘ghost’. The film seems far removed from the stark realities of Bartana’s earlier work, but is it? Who is the haunting ghost of Mary Koszmary: Sierakowski’s Jews, leftist politics, communism or all three?

Mary Koszmary, far from the blunt realities of Bartana’s earlier work, is closely allied to another project from 2007 entitled Summer Camp. In both films she steps away from producing mute chronicles where the social speaks for itself, to adopt the propagandistic voice that once shaped the social. The style of Summer Camp mimics Helmar Lerski’s film Awodah (1935), which foretold the dream of a Zionist state. Bartana adeptly merges Summer Camp with the preaching in Mary Koszmary: ‘Rebuild what never existed!’ But only to twist that rallying call to its breaking point. Her film recounts the harrowing but non-violent work of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which enlists Israelis, Palestinians and international volunteers to rebuild Palestinian homes demolished by Israeli authorities. According to the Land Research Center, 120 Palestinian homes were demolished in 2005 leaving 481 residents, including 249 children, homeless. In this film ICAHD rebuilds the home of the Hamdan family, destroyed in 2005, and along the way recounts administrative skirmishes with the Jerusalem municipality – ICAHD lacked a building permit – and clashes between Israeli Border Patrol policemen and Palestinian youths who heave rocks and tear gas in a choreography that has by now become routine. To accompany her film, Bartana produced posters depicting ICAHD workers as heroes portrayed together with the maxim ‘BUILD, REBUILD, RESIST’. The motto originally appearing in Lerski’s Zionist film – ‘We came to Israel to build and to be built!’ – is turned into a double-edged sword.

Bartana’s art is a test bed for the relevance of artistic practice that is absent from the ‘war bad/peace good’ sloganeering to which ‘political’ art has been so long devoted. It is too soon to tell if her work will be accorded the persuasiveness we grant Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii (1784) or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), a tapestry reproduction of which usually hangs in the United Nations building in New York as a reminder of the horrors of war, but which was concealed by a curtain for a press conference during the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But Bartana’s prerogative is to bear witness and to say with authority, as Goya did: ‘I Saw This.’ And that may well be enough. Her anthropological approach makes us witnesses to the terror the Ghazals and Shirel Friedman experienced. In so doing, she impeaches relativism and its nowhere reality. Terror is terror, Bartana says from the war zone, and its consequences are certain.

1 Quoted in Patrick Johnson, ‘Iraq War reaches the art world’, BBC News, 23 May 2007
2 Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of Silent Majorities or, The End of the Social and Other Essays, Semiotext(e), New York, 1983 trans. Paul Foss, John Johnston and Paul Patton, p. 52