An open-air stadium overgrown with weeds resounds to the impassioned voice of a young Polish politician, as he pleads for the reinstatement of Jews to his homeland: 'This is a call, not to the dead but to the living. We want three million Jews to return to Poland. We want you to live with us again. We need you!' It's a powerful message, but apart from a few boys and girls who gather to applaud, it's one that nobody wants to hear.
This film is the opening salvo of a devastating and far-reaching trio by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana, entitled 'And Europe Will Be Stunned'. In the final instalment the hero of the piece, Slawomir Sierakowski, lies in state, having been assassinated. His words are reduced to commemoratory laments from his fresh-faced followers who vow to continue his mission: 'Together we shall prevent the surges of nationalism and racism from flooding Europe.'
Poland once boasted the largest Jewish community in the world, but now is home to one of the smallest.
The idea that this situation might be reversed, especially now that global economies are shrinking and the eurozone is in meltdown, is implausible – with religious, national and social borders being far more likely to contract and repel any such aspirations. And that's without even invoking the horrors of pogroms and concentration camps that expelled or kept Jews away in the intervening years (though the word 'Auschwitz' is uttered like an expletive at one point). But, optimistically, Sierakowski's Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMIP) continues to recruit through rallies, manifestos and rousing song, even after its beloved leader is cut down in his prime.
Does any of this sound remotely suspicious, maybe even sinister? The uniformed, sloganeering and flag-waving acolytes are straight out of Aryan central casting, as is the oration (only in a reversal of Nazi ideology): 'With one religion we cannot listen. With one colour we cannot see…' The very notion of return, of 'going home', is also fraught with nationalist overtones, besides which, how many Jews would want to go back somewhere that had spurned them so violently? How many Israelis really want to be European when many Europeans don't even want to be European?
Part two of the trilogy follows a group of attractive Israelites, dressed in kibbutznik headscarves and workwear, as they rush unblinkingly to Warsaw to rebuild its famous ghetto. What they create, from wood and barbed wire, resembles less a Zionist utopia than it does the very kinds of watchtowers and fences that were pulled down after the Holocaust, if not the kinds of fortifications later erected to separate Israelis from Palestinians.
That such an outwardly positive, idealistic youth movement as the JRMIP seems so anachronistic nowadays is also down to the lessons of history and past misdemeanours that can't be unlearned. Even the most benign of Scout or Guide troops has the whiff of a cult or the Hitler Jugend about it and any emancipatory message in Bartana's films is further filtered through the visual language of communist or fascist propaganda – from the chest-thrusting postures down to the crested armbands.
Produced over the last five years, 'And Europe Will Be Stunned' remains a wonderfully tense project, if never more so than when it was debuted in full at the 2011 Venice Biennale, where it was controversially screened in the Polish, rather than the Israeli, pavilion. That political storm generated the heat of publicity and bums on seats, which might be lacking in London, given the decision to show the films in the out-of-the-way location of Hornsey Town Hall. Likewise, the lengthiest final chapter, commissioned by Artangel, lacks some of the tautness and high style of preceding parts, yet Bartana's ideas still threaten me, still linger on. Why?
Well, the choice of venue aids our understanding, for one. Hornsey's old council chamber is a beautiful, crumbling bit of modernist architecture, somewhere that all the hopes and dreams of a society seem captured and forgotten. Then there's the emblematic spokesman of the JRMIP who is, in real life, the leader of the leftist Political Critique party in Poland. The speech is his own too (he wasn't really assassinated, however, that bit is just acting). Finally, Bartana has given the whole concept a life outside of the art world by holding an international congress for the JRMIP in Berlin, with invited delegates and topics such as 'How should the EU change in order to welcome the Other?' Clearly, the success of 'And Europe Will Be Stunned' rests with these real-world crossovers – at the moment when art ceases to be ironic or knowing and becomes a possibility, however remote, for change.