Hundreds gathered in the Carnegie Museum of Art last week for an evening with Israeli filmmaker Yael Bartana, and to see her artistic treatment of an unusual, perhaps controversial, topic.
That topic? Returning Jews to Poland.
Bartana, a 2013 Carnegie International artist, came to Pittsburgh to participate in the screening and discussion of her trilogy, “And Europe Will Be Stunned.” The three-part film follows the Jewish Resistance Movement in Poland and its call for a return of 3.3 million Jews to their ancestral land.
The notion of Jews returning to a post-Holocaust Poland piqued many people’s interests.
“It’s certainly interesting from the way they described it, if there were a renaissance of Jews in Poland, that’s pretty provocative,” said Annette Kolski-Andreaco.
Daniel Baumann, co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International, though initially surprised by the proposed movement of Jews, questioned the implications of Bartana’s trilogy:
“I mean when I heard about it, this idea of bringing 3.3 million Jews back to Poland, what a crazy idea right? But then if you start to think about it, it’s not so much if you can do it or not, but I think it’s about thinking about history and what happens, and how we can approach it.”
Bartana, whose work has been shown in Vienna and New York but never before in Pittsburgh, admitted she doesn’t shy away from conflict.
“It is a provocative project that is meant to create intellectual discussion, emotional reactions and to activate people toward the subject of nation states,” she said. “Often, I think the issue of the work will be read as black and white — a return of 3.3 million Jews to Poland — but obviously there is a lot of ambiguity in the work itself.”
That ambiguity raised differing responses.
“It’s confusing. I don’t know if she means it to be confusing, but I’m not always sure what she’s trying to say; there’s some kind of struggle to figure things out for herself,” said Kolski-Andreaco.
But Sheila Chamovitz liked what she saw.
“What was really interesting to me was the evolution of the film in three pieces,” she said.
Over the years, Bartana has grown familiar with divergent reactions toward her work and the subject of Israel.
“What happens very often,” she said, “is people get very confused, very critical, about what they feel about Israel, and the situation in Israel.”
In addition to her films, Bartana established the political group “Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland” (JRMiP). The movement, whose work can be found at jrmip.org, held a congress in Berlin in 2012 to develop its future agenda. At the meeting, the group welcomed delegates from across Europe and the Middle East.
For Bartana, there is an intimate bond between politics and art, one that she hopes will only increase.
“I feel I am a citizen of Israel who happens to be an artist,” she said. “And my way to talk about the situation there is by making art; it’s just part of who I am. I would like politicians to use art tools, the same as many artists use political tools in their work; I think it would be great if politicians did the same, but with art tools.”
The idea of politicians creating art may bewilder some, but not Baumann.
“She [Bartana] comes up with something quite surprising, but it should add another layer.”
Between her political movement, or the idea of 3.3 million Jews returning to Poland, Bartana raises serious questions.
“Whether you like it or not, she puts out interesting thoughts,” said Baumann. “It’s a call for discussion.”
(Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)