Taking Back Poland

Diane Oh/New University

We have all learned about the Holocaust, a wretched period of extermination and dread. Perhaps we have even read an article or a headline of the Palestinian right of return, the Israeli settlement movement and Zionist dreams. As we get older, such tragedies are added to a history of competing nationalisms, militaristic animosity and rising tensions of the oppressed.

Another problem that has been enmeshed with complications to the point where it cannot be remedied is the Jews’ longing to reclaim what was once their homeland. That is what Yael Bartana’s exhibition imparts. The Israeli-born artist addresses the complex Jewish-Polish relationship by not asking, but demanding that the Jews be let back into Poland.

Housed in UC Irvine’s Contemporary Arts Center, Bartana’s works embody a film trilogy featuring performances by activists and actors. Bartana fixates upon the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), whose emblem of an eagle and the Star of David starkly sticks out in white.

The three films display an experimental form of “collective psychotherapy” that brings out intrigue and serious consideration to the art. They are actually sort of revolutionary.

The films are aptly shown in distinct dark rooms for each work, with the screens projected at the center. The simplistic setting smartly forces the onlooker to project their gaze at the object.

Just outside the three rooms is a plastered sculpture imitating a thick stack of papers, with the top sheet reading, “We reach back to the past — to the imagined world of migration, political and geographical displacement of the disintegration of reality as we knew it — in order to shape a new future — optimism is dying out. The Promised paradise has been privatized … ” On a nearby wall, in neon red and written out in a ‘60s, diner-style font, the title of the exhibit “ … and Europe will be Stunned” is spiritlessly displayed.

The first of the trio of films is “Mary Koszmary” (2007). Donning thick glasses which complement his starched shirt and red tie, a man named Slawomir Sierakowski fervently but calmly looks on with confidence. His dirty-blond hair stands out from his long, black coat that hangs on his pale, thin frame.

He presents a speech, standing in the midst of the desolate Olympic Stadium in Warsaw, Poland. Here, the grand emptiness bears surrealism and discomfort. Interestingly, the only evident audience is a group of children.

Representative of the next generation, the youngsters walk and work as one when creating the slogan, “3,300,000 Jews change the life of 40,000,000 Poles” by utilizing enormous stencils and a white powdered substance upon the grassy floor.

Sierakowski calls out to his fellow Jews, declaring, “Let us learn our prayers. With one culture, we cannot feel.” His language comes off as strong and impactful, laying out a metaphor of a helpless, old woman huddling under a blanket due to nightmares. She “dreams and trembles with fear.”

He delineates a world of optimism, beckoning that “We miss you … Instead of identical, let us be one.” Sierakowski even jokingly offers, “If you want, we’ll travel to the moon together.”

“Mur i Wieza” (2009), the next of Bartana’s artwork, appears deceiving. The beginning of the clip opens with men and women digging holes that seem to be graves at first glance. However, the workers build a wooden structure, placing the base in the cavities.

Comprising both the young and old, the collective bunch are constructed with energy and motivation. Bartana deliberately fades in and out of the shots and slows their actions. For example, the processional passing of the basket full of gravel from one person to another emphasizes the communal process. Bartana also zooms into the dripping red-colored remains of the spray-painted design. With soothing harmonica tones playing in the background, the audience notices the placement of barbed wires around the grayish roof and the planting of flowers by the crumbling bronze statues.

“Zamach” (2011) is the final installment but holds the most realistic and profound emotions. At this time, Sierakowski has died. Thus, Bartana documents a dual ceremony of a funeral and a demonstration.

Crowds of people clutch banners and flags, proudly wearing their bands on their arms, an echo of a former mandated accessory worn by Jews in the days of the ghetto. Some signs read “Fascism killer” and “We miss you.” Some wear chipped, grayish masks. Images of glossy pens on parchment-like paper and white roses harshly settle beside the “Policja,” who stand in neat rows in their pressed, ominous uniforms.

A line of speeches occur in honor of Sierakowski’s life and his legacy. Odes of “For you, I exchanged my homeland for another” and “We shall be strong in our weakness” ring with truth.

Some may find the exhibit too hopeful, too sappy or even too socialist. One woman angrily declares that “Anti-Semitism is an aberration, like necrophilia” and cries out, “Return my citizenship!” Nevertheless, the protestors perceive the tall order one finds in attaining what is not logically theirs. Blunt and slightly mocking themselves, the supporters of JRMiP understand that “only fools can yearn for a utopian world” and skirt the “brainless task of returning Jews to Europe.”

Marek Maj, an elderly scholar and one of the orators, mentions the “noble idea of coexistence.” Though “the blood on your vest has not yet dried,” unification persists, as seen by the collection of varying races present among the supporters.

Bartana peers into the Judaic diaspora with solemnity. In the viewers’ eyes, the poignancy can still be felt in the current generations who search for their identity. For the most part, he triumphantly connects to the audience through man’s desperate search for the place of acceptance, belonging and origin.