Yael Bartana in the Weserburg Bremen: There is a little consolation

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Written By Maya Cantina

Yael Bartana is skeptical about the salvation promises of art. For her exhibition in Bremen, she staged a utopian encounter.

A neon work.  The text says

Alternative etymologies: Yael Bartana “Crisis – Crysis – Crycis”, 2021 Photo: Tobias Hübel, courtesy: Capitain Petzel Gallery/Annet Gelink Gallery/Sommer Contemporary Art/Galleria Rafaella Cortese/Petzel Gallery/Cecilia Hillström Gallery

Yael Bartana’s art cannot be enjoyed. Even though in her film and video works – a mix of, for example, Richard Wagner, Leni Riefenstahl and Peter Jackson – she makes extensive use of neo-romantic, exuberant images in which parts of current culture feel quite comfortable: embracing the power of seduction To enjoy this overwhelmingly crafted image production, all you have to do is ignore their participation in the worst.

On the contrary, the Israeli artist Bartana, who lives in Berlin, makes it palpably clear in a killjoy – three years ago in the Jewish Museum Berlin, currently in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. And now also in Bremen: On Friday the exhibition “Utopia Now!” was opened in the Weserburg Museum. opened.

Only four film and video installations and three neon installations will be shown. And yet the visit forces you to find a quiet spot on the shore afterwards. First of all, to recover from the cacophony in which the sounds of the moving image works in the exhibition are absorbed.

On the other hand, to collect yourself and understand: the disturbance that this art causes is not in the images, not even in the eye, but in the unconscious of the viewer. Anyone who overlooks these can only see them as helpless moral outrage pornographic and naive at the same timeas happened at the Berlin exhibition ‘Redemption Now’, which Bartana in Bremen refers to in the title.

Pathos turns into the ridiculous

On closer inspection, however, Bartana’s works appear to be creatively virtuoso and art historically well informed. Even in the most solemn atmosphere that the great videos create, the opposite is always lurking. The exaggeration makes the pathos ridiculous. The redemption event turns into a slapstick, vicious comedy.

Also present in Bremen is the monumental video ‘Malka Germania’, in which an arch-blonde, androgynous messiah figure, supported by soldiers, conquers Berlin. The three-channel work was outraged there in 2021 because of the last series. In it, instead of the Heavenly Jerusalem, Albert Speer’s model of the world capital Germania rises from the waters – of course – of the Wannsee: a harsh joke that at the same time reminds us that the difference between salvation and crimes against humanity is only two letters .

Bartana’s deep skepticism proves easier to understand and less disturbing in the neon installations, especially in the title work “Utopia Now!”, made for Bremen: the promise of every utopia is much less concrete than a supposed redemption.

It may be what remains since October 7 in the face of terror and counter-terror. Either way, the letters of thin fluorescent tubes tilt horizontally to the right with little fidelity.

Utopia is a fraud

The effect that the biting red light creates in combination with the outline of the letters painted in black on the wall is fascinating. The color loses its definition, the slogan appears to consist of oversized Russian bread letters cast in stainless steel. Even the dream of a peaceful paradise somewhere exists only as an optical illusion.

Dancing people with headdresses

Scene from Yael Bartana’s “Mir Zaynen Do!” (We are here!)”, 2024 Photo: Courtesy: Capitain Petzel Gallery/Annet Gelink Gallery/Sommer Contemporary Art/Galleria Rafaella Cortese/Petzel Gallery/Cecilia Hillström Gallery

And yet: the large one-channel work of the music video installation “Mir Zaynen Do!”, which will premiere in Bremen, seems movingly hopeful. The title is Yiddish and can be interpreted as a defiant “We are here!”

In and for the film, Bartana brought together the Coral Tradição, founded in São Paulo in 1946 by Jewish immigrants from Europe, and the street music ensemble Ilu Obá De Min. This consists entirely of descendants by Maroons. These rebels who had escaped from slavery were hunted mercilessly by the plantation owners.

A community is created

The encounter between survivors of the Shoah and colonial crimes is carefully staged step by step, in the image of the increasingly crowded stage of the Teatro de Arte Israelita Brasileiro. Community is created through curiosity and without giving up what is unique, an optical and acoustic crescendo of eleven and a half minutes.

The beginning of this story in the dark room is marked by the lonely appearance of the choir conductor Hugueta Sendacz. The 97-year-old, born in Poland, stands there, wiry, all alone on the conductor’s podium, giving directions with an indulgent smile and extremely specific gestures.

Only later does it become clear: she is not conducting a ghost choir. The melodies sound. And the musicians live, even if the fact of their existence borders on a miracle. No one is saved here. Your own remains. And that is precisely why the fleeting encounter through art creates a moment of healing and comfort. It’s bad enough that it remains fiction and has to be called utopia.

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