Yael Bartana’s Mary Koszmary and Galut Melancholy

Carol Zemel

Mary Koszmary means nightmares in Polish, and as the title of Yael Bartana's ten-and-a-half minute video/film, it heralds the fears and fascinations such dreams inspire. As enacted here, these dimensions are deeply social and multicultural— calling up issues of pain, pleasure, and ambivalence for Poles, Jews, Israelis, and uprooted people everywhere. I find the video especially timely in its exploration of a current urgency in Israeli art, as well as a signal of a larger tension in diasporic Jewish consciousness.

Recognized in her native country, where she won the Gottesdiener Foundation Prize in 2007, 40-year-old Bartana is part of a generation of Israeli artists, including Boaz Arad, Miki Kratsman, Adi Nes, and others, whose work is often labeled "post-Zionist" in its critical representations of the Jewish state. In 2010, Bartana received the prestigious Artes Mundi 4 Prize (UK) for work that "stimulated thinking about the human condition and added to understanding of humanity." This success at home and abroad is politically significant. Israeli cultural institutions are uncensored; anyone who follows the art scene there can see a constant showcase of controversial and provocative work. This is less the case for far more cautious support of culture by the Jewish community in diaspora. New York's Jewish Museum, which has repeatedly exhibited Bartana's art, as well as critical work by Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israeli artists, is an important exception. Whether due to timidity or conservatism, work that is critical of Israel has a hard time. On the other hand, pro-Israel art is now scarcely seen in the artistic venues of the international mainstream.

While Bartana's professional life has been peripatetic—she has lived in the Netherlands and the United States, as well as Israel—her work has always addressed the emotional tensions of her homeland's peoples and geography. Indeed, as the symbol of Zionist return and reclamation, and the mainstay of modern nationalism, land in her videos figures as a site of beauty, conflict, and ambivalence. In Kings of the Hill (2003), for example, we watch a regular weekend pastime of men gunning their all-terrain vehicles up the sandy hills south of Tel Aviv. Dazzling in its scenic beauty, the seaside dunes landscape both entices and resists these macho conquerors, who in the end, battle for something won, stand as anonymous male silhouettes against the sky.

But Israeli as its focus has been, Bartana's work in recent years evokes a sort of "diasporism," to use the term of artist R. B. Kitaj's First Diasporist Manifesto (1989). In Kitaj's view, the unmoored condition of many modern artists (not only Jews), set adrift from the privileges of homeland made Diaspora "another theater in which human, artistic instinct comes into play." In this sense, Bartana's Mary Koszmary and its companion piece Wall and Tower (2009)—two parts of a planned Polish Trilogy—expand on the conflicts of Jewish geography. Though translated as nightmare, to English speaking viewers Mary Koszmary suggests a Polish Christian name, and the ambiguity enhances the layered ambivalence of the piece. Set in a run-down public stadium, its banks green and overgrown, the site is a bucolic ruin that not only evokes its ghosts, as all ruins do, but in this instance, an uncanny sense of disappearance, and unsettled memory. With its text subtitled in English, the film features Slawomir Sierakowski, a well-known journalist and leader of the Polish New Left—and a man too young to have experienced either World War II or the Communist period—who exhorts Jews to return and his fellow Poles to welcome them back. "Jews! Fellow countrymen! People! Peeeeeeople!" Sierakowski's call begins:

You think the old woman who still sleeps under Rifke's quilt doesn't want to see you? Has forgotten about you? You're wrong. She dreams about you every night. Dreams and trembles with fear. . . .
Return to Poland. . . .
What do we want it [this quilt] for? There's no longer any down in it, only pain. Heal our wounds, and you'll heal yours.
And we'll be together again.

The poignancy and unimaginability of Jewish return to Poland is not, of course, Bartana's invention. It was cynically imagined by Philip Roth's Diasporist alter-ego in Operation Shylock (1993), where the idea of ending a judenrein Poland is met with the narrator's sarcasm:

You know what will happen in Warsaw, at the railway station, when the first trainload of Jews returns? There will be crowds to welcome them. People will be jubilant. People will be in tears. They will be shouting: "Our Jews are back! Our Jews are back!"

Mary Koszmary, however, modulates the cynicism of the invitation. Protracted beyond a simple mordant exchange, the polemic of the film coaxes both Jew and Poles to form an interdependant community again. Sierakowski and co-worker Kinga Dunin wrote the text, and the Polish voice is crucial. Indeed, Polish attention to the destruction and absence of their Jewish population has deepened considerably, at least on a scholarly level, though not without gaps and strange emphases, and these, in fact, are signs of a traumatic wound. But if Poland is a haunted space—for Poles haunted by Jews who appear nostalgically in souvenir dolls, music festivals, and museological display; for Jews haunted by the mixed memory of familiarity and alienation— so, too, may modern Israel, in its silences and its history be haunted by its Arab population and the traces of their past. If Mary Koszmary's call for Jewish return and Polish welcome asks Jews to imagine a Polish recognition of Shoah history and Polish anti-Semitism, it should seem no less imaginable than the same call to Palestinians, as Israeli scholar and curator Ariella Azoulay eloquently interprets Bartana's work. Invoking the film's call, "Come back! We need you!" Azoulay reinforces the post-Zionist politics of Bartana's metaphor.

Of course, we have certainly heard this positional shift before—the notion of Shoah victims becoming Israeli oppressors—and usually with more inflammatory framing. It resonates stylistically in Bartana's work, where close-ups of the leather-cloaked Sierakowski, his fatherly attentions to a group of Polish boy scouts, and the camera pans across the empty stadium recall Leni Reifenstal's 1935 Triumph of the Will, the classic film of invocation and rant, with its close-ups of Hitler, marching Hitler Youth, and sweeping panoramas of Nuremburg's packed stadium. The analogy of Poles/Jews and Zionists/Palestinians, and the tacit connection of both Poles and Zionists to Nazis, may be too facile for some, even if the political appeal is urgent and the politics compelling. But in carrying the fascinations of the excessive and unimaginable, Mary Kozmary opens up the associations of this analogy. If the call to "come back" implies a return "home," then for both European and Middle Eastern contexts, the meaning of home must be modified to mean geography and consciousness rather than property or entitlement. We must recognize that the stolen comfort of "Rifke's quilt," so eloquently invoked by Sierakowski, is by now flattened and featherless, an icon of maternal plenitude never to be regained. So too, we may recognize a simple return-to-the-ruin—like Holocaust tourism in its various forms—as itself a traumatic symptom, a melancholic repetition of what is lost and cannot be retrieved.

There is more, I believe, in the appeal of Mary Koszmary's polemic. Bartana's allegory announces a new diasporic voice, a call to rethink history and put to rest worn out ghosts. If dreams—even koszmary or nightmares— are the locus of unconscious desire, then here too we may locate the ambivalent force of melancholy. Diaspora Jewry may be haunted by the Holocaust, but those ghosts have been partnered by a fiercely recuperative attachment to Zionism as a utopian ideal. As generations pass, the pain of Shoah history and trauma must also subside and change; mourning must reconfigure into commemorative ritual if it is not to lapse into endless melancholy. That notion of a utopian Israel as an alternative or substitutive love object—the Manic Defense in Freud's model of melancholia— must also change, partly because time passes and new generations arrive, but also because utopias are fixed and imaginary constructs hardly suited to the inevitable flux of world politics and events. Must the frozen Galut model of Zion, or for that matter the Zionist one of Galut—both reinforced by Shoah history—persist as a recuperative icon, permanently fixed to this particular incarnation of the state? Or, as Mary Koszmary invites us, can we relinquish the nightmare of that fierce attachment, and allow the ambivalences that a dream and new return demand?