A House of Prayer for All People: Yael Bartana at Petzel
Yael Bartana at Petzel
January 8 through February 14, 2015
456 W 18th Street (between 9th and 10th avenues)
New York, 212 680 9467
Years ago I watched a puzzling documentary about a Billy Graham crusade in Brazil. A shot of a plane towing an advertisement for the event over a beach crowded with half-naked bodies left me wondering what attraction evangelical Christianity had in this land of exuberant physicality. Apparently plenty, as shown in Yael Bartana’s film Inferno, on view along with True Finn at Petzel in New York (January 8-February 15, 2015). Together, these works challenge conventional ideas of how people of a certain nationality are expected to behave.
On the border of fiction and documentary, Inferno (2013) re-enacts ancient Hebrew temple worship, using a full-scale replica of the Temple of Solomon created in Brazil by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). Worshippers dressed in white linen faux-biblical costume and led by a flamboyantly-attired Black high priest gather at the site. Helicopters swoop in to deliver an altar and giant golden menorah, similar to the one carried off by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago.
The devoted flock that arrived with goats and chickens to offer to God soon discover that they are to be the sacrifice. Suddenly the Temple is engulfed in flame, killing most of the participants. After the conflagration, the film re-enacts modern times, where the faithful place notes in a replica of the ruined Temple wall while tourists sip cold drinks from menorah-emblazoned melons.
If Inferno tells the story of one culture planting another within its borders — a kind of Disneyland Jerusalem within Brazil — True Finn (2014) tells the story of people planting a culture within themselves. Created by Bartana for the Finnish contemporary art festival Ihme, this film records the results of a gathering arranged by the artist, in which she asked several naturalized Finnish citizens to discuss what it means to be a “true” Finn. The event takes place at a lakeside cabin in the north — a kind of “holy of holies” for Finnish culture.
In the process of the experience, Finns of Japanese, Estonian, Somali, Quebecois and Roma descent reveal basic problems of citizenship in the modern world. Discussing discrimination, one begins, “I feel like a Finn, I’ve lived here a long time, but when I go into a shop…” The group then enacts a scene of discrimination. Bartana further captures the ironies of outsider status by intermingling footage from classic films that embody national mythology. We see blond-haired, blue-eyed Finns in folk costume from the film Sampo (1959), and then cut to the darker-skinned Somali participant Mustafe wearing the same outfit. Later Mustafe dons Muslim garb as he offers daily prayers in the midst of the frozen lake.
Participants engage in typical Finnish activities: eating hearty stews and lingonberry sauce, ice fishing, sitting in the sauna. They cite adopted habits, e.g. “sulking” and “wearing black” as evidence that they have been integrated into the culture. They compose a new national anthem for their country and design a new flag, exchanging Finland’s severe dark blue cross for flowing bands of white, azure and green against a yellow background.
Bartana’s videos get to the heart of the problem of citizenship and culture in a democratic society. If, to become a part of a nation, one need only pledge allegiance to its laws, how can we say that one person more authentically of that place than another? If an Estonian, a Roma, and a Quebecois absorb the trappings of Finnish culture and learn to speak its language, shouldn’t Finland absorb them? And conversely, if a group in Brazil builds its own Jerusalem, how can we consider it less authentic than the one in the middle east?