It feels like a well kept secret. Though it has had decent publicity, Yael Bartana’s stunning exhibition ‘And Europe Will be Stunned’ has spread by word of mouth, or, more accurately, by whisper, as it feels the kind of work that should not be discussed at full volume. The venue only adds to the mysterious atmosphere: an old modernist town hall in Crouch End, currently vacant and awaiting redevelopment.
The visitor enters the 1930s reception to be greeted by a series of manifesto-posters for the ‘Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland’ which begins ‘ We want to return! Not to Uganda, to to Argentina, not to Madagascar, not even to Palestine. It is Poland that we long for, the land of our fathers and forefathers’. Viewing the first film in the exhibition, charismatic orator delivers a speech on behalf of this movement to…an empty stadium. At this point it becomes abundantly clear that this is not a conventional movement, not even an unconventional one, but rather a movement of the artist’s imagination. In the subsequent films we find out about the birth and development of this movement, how it settled the and established kibbutzim in deepest rural Poland (a direct remaking of a 1935 work of pro-aliyah Zionist propaganda) , and then how its leader we met in the first film has been assassinated (shades of both Rabin and Kennedy). All of this takes place in the leather clad benches of the disused debating chamber, adding a sense of ominous grandeur to the already disconcerting environment. The films clearly act as a subversion of Zionism, taking aim at Zionist propaganda and though, but has wider scope, referencing both soviet and fascist cinematic aesthetics. It is also, at heart about Europe, about the nation state, and about the diversity that can either be seen as threatening or redemptive. The call for 3 million Jews to return to Poland is not meant literally, but neither is it ironic – there is a heartfelt anti-homogonising ethic at the of this work: ‘With one religion, we cannot listen / With one color we cannot see / With one culture we cannot feel’. And it turns out that the line between art and reality is not so clear cut. The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMIP) movement has a website, it seeks members, and recently held its first conference in May, with debates on the EU and Poland, and with one guest speaker offering to mark delegate’s passports – with his own ‘state of Palestine’ stamps. This is artistic work with real world implications. It is seriously subversive.