Yael Bartana on the Messianic Myth, Redemption and the “Jewish Question”

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Since the beginning of the 2000s, Yael Bartana has highlighted the vestiges of the “Jewish question”. “Redemption Now,” an investigation conducted at the Jewish Museum in Berlin through October 10, includes the first videos that simultaneously detail and distance the rituals of Israeli Orthodox Jewish communities and settlers. In recent years, his work has become more and more elaborate and provocative in his choreographies and “pre-enactments”. his trilogy And Europe will be amazed, 2007-11, set the scene for the dramatic genesis of the Jewish Renaissance movement in Poland, while the whole of Philadelphia The entrepreneur, 2019, blending avant-garde choreography with the culture of Civil War reenactment and street protests. For her latest work – a sort of historic trail in which a white-robed savior rides through a temporally ambiguous Berlin – Bartana uses a critical camp strategy to address the specter of National Socialism, the pull of irredentist and messianic myths, and challenges to a nation’s conscience in a post-truth era.

ACCORDING TO JUDASM, the messiah will arrive on a donkey. In the making of my new video work Malka Germania (in Hebrew for “Queen Germania”), I knew I wanted to keep this particular part of the prophecy intact while looking at other aspects of the story. I knew early on that I didn’t want my messiah to be played by a male actor with classic Jewish attributes. It would be too much on the nose for me. Instead, I started looking for an actress similar to Tilda Swinton and found her in Gala Moody. With her androgynous features and Aryan color palette, I felt she would be the right Malka for me. The artwork is the spitting image of National Socialist propaganda and fantasy, a paradox that could challenge the public’s inherent expectations, creating confusion and curiosity by proposing that the Redeemer be with us.

In the specific historico-mythical structure of Malka Germania, the dazzling whiteness of the Queen raises the question of the role of the Jew, which is something that I have long dealt with in my global practice. Notably the notion of “useful Jew” – the incongruity of this figure animating an ideology like evangelism, with its telos of redemption, but also the proto-existentialism of the work of Franz Rosenzweig of 1921. Star of Redemption. For my staging of these topics, I have been called both “Israeli Leni Riefenstahl” and a “Helpful Jew”.

Malka GermaniaThe reception of is site-specific, as the public will encounter the work with their own historical baggage, both personal and national. The scenes take place not only throughout Berlin, but also in the city’s lush forests and lakes. There is the familiar German forest trope, which served as the backdrop to the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, to the organizations where the young bodies and minds of Nazism were conditioned, and to the horrors of the concentration camp. With the extras in the film, like the bathers of the Wannsee, it is not so much for me to insist on the clichés of the German petty bourgeoisie. What interests me more in this multigenerational but uniformly blonde cast is the blonde as such, tinged with fiction and history. When I first arrived in Germany I expected everyone to look like propaganda posters from the 1930s, which is ridiculous but tells you something about the hold of this imagery on the Israeli imagination, its sense of sovereignty and its politics. I was frankly disappointed that the population of Berlin did not match my childhood projections: this strong fascination with a “superior” people, inextricably linked to the miserable image of the Jew and, therefore, to the discourse of the anti-Semitism and extermination history. This constellation not only significantly informs the trauma of the Holocaust and the politics of remembrance, but would be deployed by the state as an ideology, the indisputable explanation of why we, as Jews, should live in Israel.

There is certainly pathos in the film, but I square, or queer, this pathos with a certain realism. In my work, realism includes unconscious or hidden currents in society, or rather these ebbs and flows of these currents, like the rebound of German identity and its opposition. I’m thinking here of the film’s nightmarish “wet dream” sequence, in which Albert Speer’s unrealized Germania dome looms up from pastoral Wannsee, popping the button of the repressed story. In my film, the function of special effects is to particularize social and historical affects, a device by which these feelings surface and become discursive. Spectacular or not, call it Zionism on steroids, the arc I propose in Malka does not resolve itself into a unifying master narrative, but will affect and “redeem” viewers and their respective conceptions of the German past and present differently. It is a transhistoric queering of contemporary Berlin in the hands of this androgynous Aryan messiah, a bit like the fictional Berlin intersection of the streets of Redemption and Occupation: a transposition of a real crossroads in Tel Aviv that sums up the dark paradox of the founding history of Israel, or really of any territorial messianic project.


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