Film trilogy meant to provoke debate

Israeli installation artist Yael Bartana will inaugurate the new 4,000-square-foot gallery at UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts with the American debut of her trilogy of thought-provoking films about national identity and the Jewish question.

Starting Oct. 5, and running till March 10, the trio of short films, collectively titled "… And Europe will be stunned," will simultaneously screen in the gallery at UCI's Contemporary Arts Center.

Juli Carson, gallery director and associate professor of Studio Art, says she was thrilled that Bartana's exhibit, currently installed in Venice, Italy, will be coming to the newly-completed center because "I couldn't have shown that in the university art space built here in the 1960s."

A special set will be built to accommodate the exhibit, dividing the gallery into three rooms, where visitors can view each film.

Bartana's films aren't of the entertainment kind. You can't see them in the cinema or via Netflix. The artist's goal is to provoke thought, dialogue and debate.

When viewed sequentially, "Nightmare," "Wall and Tower" and "Assassination" offer viewers an intense experience that spans just over an hour. And they tread into highly sensitive territory by challenging some of the fundamental principles of Zionism, the political doctrine that underlies the State of Israel.

"The way that one experiences it is very much part of the installation," Carson says as she guides a reporter around the empty gallery. "It's the experience of the space and moving through the space."

The thrust of the Bartana film trilogy rests on a deliberate and provocative hypothesis: the proposed repatriation of Poland's 3.3 million Jews — that Eastern European country's Jewish population before the Holocaust.

"I can be found everywhere," says the character of Rivka, who appears in the final film "Assassination" as an apparition symbolizing Poland's uprooted Jews.

"I am the ghost of the return, the return returning to herself, sunken in the crypt of grief that cannot be expressed in words…," her ghostly monologue continues.

Bartana has deliberately filmed the three pieces in a cinematographic style emulating the Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s. The films also contain ironic twists and provocative role reversals.

For example, the younger proponents of this fictional Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland appear in many shots dressed in uniforms resembling those of bygone Nazi youth. In the second film, "Wall and Tower," members of a Kibbutz build a wooden camp fenced off with barbed wire in the middle of modern-day Poland.

The movement even has a manifesto with a red-and-white logo depicting the Star of David intertwined with the eagle emblem from the Polish national flag.

Although works of fiction, the films also push the envelope separating fiction from fact. They make veiled references to the real-world tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis, and others living side by side in close quarters.

"It's continually blurring the lines of whether this is real," Carson said.

Bartana's "… And Europe will be stunned" trilogy is currently being exhibited as Poland's official entry at the 54th Biennale Art Festival in Venice.

Bartana could not be reached for an interview.

But in a letter that she co-wrote with Galit Eilat and Sebastian Chichocki, which is published in a book that will accompany the exhibit to UCI, the artist offers a flavor behind what motivated her.

"The Polish trilogy can be read in a broader context, apart from the complex Polish-Jewish relationship, as an experimental form of collective psychotherapy, through which national demons are stirred and dragged into daylight," reads an excerpt from the letter.

In persuading Bartana to bring her exhibit to UCI, Carson thought that the campus would be an appropriate setting. She was mindful of UCI's reputation as a Southern California focal point for debates between local Jews and Arabs around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, such as the ongoing case of the so-called "Irvine 11."

Carson plans to organize a symposium at UCI in January or February that will focus around the films' themes and embedded ideas. Bartana is expected to take part in the symposium, which will be open to all parties in the local debate.

The upcoming exhibit was made possible through support from Artis — Contemporary Israeli Art Fund, the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation, and the Mondriaan Foundation, according to school officials.

"If there's any resistance and controversy, then we get together and deal with it intelligently and academically as a teachable moment," Carson said.

Twitter: @ImranVittachi

If You Go

What: Opening reception for "… And Europe will be stunned" exhibit

When: 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 5

Where: CAC Gallery, Contemporary Arts Center, Building 712, UC Irvine.

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