Broken promised land

An Israeli artist plumbs identity and history.

HILL OF A SITUATION In works like Kings of the Hill, Israeli artist Yael bartana, explores her country's current predicament.

HILL OF A SITUATION In works like Kings of the Hill, Israeli artist Yael bartana, explores her country's current predicament. Photographs: Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, and the Artist

In conversation one evening last October at the City Hotel in Tel Aviv, Israeli artist Yael Bartana, whose videos are the subject of a small survey opening Sunday 19 at P.S.1, said, “It feels to me like the end of Zionism.” It was a stunning statement, given the intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, not incidentally, our country’s virtually uncritical support of Israeli policy. But, as Bartana quickly added, “I don’t want to be saying this is black and white.”

Quite the opposite: Although the five films that curator Klaus Biesenbach has chosen for the show probe the complex issues of Zionism, anti-Semitism and the wars that have shaped Israel’s national story, they are not political statements per se. Instead, they are open-ended, poetic explorations of personal identity and shared history, patriotism and dissent, idealism and reality.

Bartana was born in 1970 in Afula, a conservative municipality of approximately 150,000 in Southern Galilee, and grew up in a family she described as “very Zionist.” She spent the late 1990s in New York, where she lived in the East Village, studied at SVA, and mainly hung out with other Israelis, known in Hebrew as yordim. The term, derived from the verb to descend, suggests betrayal of the homeland, and indeed most of these exiles were left of center and came here to escape a society beset by a siege mentality.

While studying in Amsterdam in 2000, Bartana began traveling to Israel to shoot short videos. What she found was both familiar and alien. “I left Israel when I was 26, and that physical and mental distance made it possible to be more critical. It was important to me to…understand what is there,” she explained, describing her interest in the public rituals and social dynamics which reinforce Israeli identity.

For example, Trembling Time (2001), the earliest work at P.S.1, was filmed in Tel Aviv on Soldier’s Memorial Day, when the nation pauses in silent commemoration of its fallen. Shot from a highway overpass, the video shows traffic grinding to a halt as drivers get out and stand by their cars. Bartana filmed the sequence in slow motion, manipulating the footage so that vehicles appear to leave ghostly trails before vanishing. As the film itself seems to tremble, it serves as a metaphor for the way individual loss turns into public tragedy and Israelis become citizens united by a sense of constant threat—and, paradoxically, a resulting sense of isolation.

Bartana’s technical finesse impressed Biesenbach when he first saw her work in Europe, but it was her piece Summer Camp (2007), screened at last year’s Documenta in Kassel, Germany, which convinced him to organize an exhibition. “I’m always interested in how she deals with time, the way she loops her film,” he explains, but in Summer Camp he believed Bartana had reached a new level of thematic complexity and skill. It was an “image I couldn’t get out of my mind,” he adds.

Summer Camp depicts volunteers with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions rebuilding a Palestinian home destroyed by Israeli forces in the West Bank. With poignant irony, Bartana based her piece on Helmar Lerski’s 1935 film, Avodah (Work), which celebrates the redemption of the land by Zionist pioneers. Carefully following the structure of Avodah, and lifting passages from its heroic soundtrack, she contrasts the triumphant settlers who built villages in a desolate land with the new activists who oppose Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.

For the P.S.1 installation, Bartana decided to screen Summer Camp with an abridged version of Avodah. “I thought it would be interesting to use one soundtrack to connect the two works,” she explains by phone from Milan. “Not a lot of people are familiar with Zionist propaganda film, so this makes the relationship between Zionism and anti-Zionism clearer. It’s a metaphor for the end of Zionism, the hope of the pioneersto create a safe home [for Jews]. The dream and utopia don’t function because of the occupation.”

And, with a sad expression which should resonate with any American aghast at our nation’s misadventures and frustrated that protest is now branded as unpatriotic, she adds, “Reconstruction suggests a possibility to deal with the occupation; it can create change in a minor way, but can it change the situation in a major one?”

Yael Bartana’s videos are on view at P.S.1 Sun 19–Jan 19.