Welcome to Yael Bartana’s Berlin: a surrealist hellscape haunted by armed soldiers and towering Nazi structures. In her new video work, to be screened at the Jewish Museum, the Israeli-born artist delves into the darkest recesses of the city’s collective unconscious and, like trauma therapy, brings it all flooding out onto the surface.
Entitled “Malka Germania”, this 43-minute video work is the centrepiece of Bartana’s latest solo exhibition, Redemption Now. Seductively shot in a style that draws on Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s, the film is steeped in a quasi-profundity that seamlessly weaves the contemporary life of the city with inverted acts of antisemitism and glorified right-wing fantasies.
In one scene, an enjoyable day out for Berliners on Wannsee beach is disturbed by the grotesque emergence of Albert Speer’s model of Germania – Hitler’s pet project to renew Berlin – rising slowly out of the water.
The city’s upheaval is precipitated by the sudden appearance of an Aryan, androgynous figure, riding in on a donkey like the true messiah as prophesied in Judaism. But the question of why they have arrived is left unanswered. Are they seeking revenge for Nazi crimes? A chance to atone? Or is this a warning to not let the atrocities of the past be forgotten?
For Shelley Harten, the co-curator of the exhibition, that ambivalence is the real strength of Bartana’s work: “At first you think it is clear and ideological, that the images have aesthetic ideological national movements. And then it crumbles: everything breaks down and nothing remains as you expect it to be. It makes you start to question everything.”
According to Harten, the film speaks to fears that “Germany might still be an antisemitic society” – fears that are borne out in rising hate crime figures. Through its multi-layered complexity, the work also explores the prejudices of the traditional, right-wing mindset, with all its fears and insecurities. At one point in the film, young Israelis replace well-known Berlin street signs with their Hebrew names, reversing the Nazis’ eradication of Jewish identity from the German capital 75 years earlier.
With such provocative imagery, is the museum not worried it might antagonise certain sections of the Jewish community? In 2019, Peter Schäfer was forced to step down as museum director after the Central Council of Jews in Germany and other organisations complained that the museum’s official Twitter account had attached “#mustread” to an article criticising the German parliament’s decision to ban the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement for being antisemitic.
“It has not always been obvious what to show in the Jewish Museum after the events of the last years,” Gregor Lersch, the other co-curator, explains. Harten points to the museum’s new motto – “to be open and to open up to the world” – and says the aim of the piece is to spark debate. There is no doubt that an artwork of this kind will prove to be a lightning rod for discussion.
Yael Bartana’s Redemption Now / Jewish Museum, Kreuzberg / Until October 10