Video artist asks questions, captures complexities of Israeli life

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All day every day, an Israeli flag is perched upon Andromeda Rock near the coast in the Mediterranean Sea.

The flag on that rock makes Yael Bartana angry.

“I don’t like patriotism or nationalism, and that the flag is next to Jaffa (a largely Arab area near Tel Aviv) makes it a sensitive issue for me,” she said.

So Bartana, an Israeli video artist, grabbed her camcorder, a canoe and an olive tree. She arranged to videotape a friend as he paddled out to the rock and replaced the flag with the tree. (She promised the police monitoring the waters that she would replace the flag after her shoot.)

The result — the seven-minute video “A Declaration” — can be viewed in a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Bartana aims for the video to raise questions about the role of Zionism today.

“It’s a naïve piece but I like it,” she said Jan. 27 while in San Francisco to help install the exhibit “Short Memory.” “That the flag was removed shows what just one citizen can propose.

Footage from Yael Bartana’s “Summer Camp”. photos | courtesy of P.S.1 contemporary art center

Five of her videos will be on display as part of Dateline ’09, a series at the CJM that seeks to spark dialogue about the Jewish experience in the early 21st century. Dateline ’09 also features a photography exhibit by Adi Nes, an Israeli photographer who reimagines biblical scenes in contemporary settings.

Bartana’s work is certain to spark conversation among museumgoers; watching her videos is not a passive pursuit. She poses so many questions about Israeli society, culture and nationalism, that viewers are bound to walk away wrestling with issues.

“It’s extraordinary work,” said Dara Solomon, associate curator at the CJM. “It’s difficult for us as diaspora Jews to fully understand the complexities of living in Israel, and the ambiguity Israelis feel is captured so beautifully and poetically in Yael’s work.”

Bartana has shown her compositions throughout Europe and Israel. Her videos at the CJM were previously in a show at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (a Museum of Modern Art affiliate) in New York. That’s where CJM Director Connie Wolf first saw the videos, and knew she wanted to bring them to San Francisco.

When “A Declaration” was shown at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, some people wrote in the museum’s comment book that Bartana was “an Israel hater.”

Footage from Yael Bartana’s “Wild Seeds”.

“I am not so disturbed by it,” she said. “It’s good that people can get so emotional from a video.”

Bartana was born in 1970 in Afula, Israel, and grew up on a nearby moshav. She currently divides her time between Tel Aviv and Amsterdam.

She’s worked as a video artist for eight years. During that time, she’s been particularly interested in national identity and how social rituals forge that identity. Her artwork has helped her sort out the duality of feeling both estranged and at home in Israel.

The oldest piece in her Dateline exhibit is the six-minute-long “Trembling Time.” From the vantage point of a bridge above the main highway in Tel Aviv, footage captures what happens below as an 8 p.m. siren marks the beginning of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, when the country pauses for two minutes.

In Bartana’s video, motorists stop their vehicles, step outside and stand for a moment of silence as she plays with the speed of the tape and superimposes images of the cars moving forward.

“I was interested in how the state manipulates citizens to shape a collective identity,” she explained.

Her shorts expose real events, such as the moment of silence in “Trembling Time,” and also reconstruct them, such as in the staged rowing in “A Declaration.”

Sometimes she blends the two techniques. For example, in “Summer Camp,” Bartana videotaped volunteers with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition as they rebuilt Palestinian homes in the West Bank. She shot the scenes in the cinematic style of early Zionist films, and borrowed music from those films to serve as the soundtrack.

“There is this notion that resistance is about bringing something down, but this group was actually constructing something as they resisted the occupation,” she said. Bartana borrowed the style and sound from Zionist films because “I wanted to create my own pseudopropaganda.”

Viewers of her work have both revered and reviled it. She’s happy with the range of reactions.

“In general, I don’t believe in conformism,” she said. “It’s the responsibility of all citizens to not only follow one point of view.”

Yael Bartana’s “Short Memory” and Adi Nes’ “Biblical Stories” in Dateline ’09 opens today and runs through March 17 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Information: www.thecjm.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.