Cultural identity and the constructed systems of belief within society are questioned in the practice of Yael Bartana (b. 1970). Born in Israel, the artist blends fact and fiction in her photography, film and installation work. Bartana’s Inferno appears at the São Paulo Biennial 6 September – 7 December. She speaks to Aesthetica about the importance of video art and her term “historical pre-enactment”.
A: Please can you tell us about the ideas behind your work Inferno (2013)?
YB: The starting point for Inferno was the construction of the third Temple of Solomon (Templo de Salmão) in São Paulo (2012-2014). The building was created by a Brazilian neo-pentecostal Church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1970s that has millions of adherents in Brazil and internationally. Built to biblical specifications, this new place of worship will be a replica of the first temple in Jerusalem, the violent destruction of which signalled the diaspora of the Jewish people in the 6th century bc. Inferno confronts this conflation of place, history, and belief, providing an insight into the complex realities of Latin America that have given rise to the temple project. I shot and edited with stylistic references to Hollywood action epics, so that the final film employed a new term “historical pre-enactment,” a methodology that commingles fact and fiction, prophesy and history. I wanted the work to address the grandiose temple project through a vision of its future and to question whether its construction necessarily foreshadows its destruction. In using cinematic language, Inferno collapses histories of antiquity in the Middle East with a surreal present unfolding halfway around the world.
A: What do you want audiences to take from Inferno?
YB: I want my viewers to question and to reflect upon their own identity and history, which is sometimes built upon narratives constructed by society. I also hope they will begin to experience the possible future and consequence of constructing Solomon’s Temple in São Paulo.
A: What is it about the form of film that makes it a powerful tool for an artist?
YB: I am continually interested in the possibility of creating alternative narratives that help in expending and questioning the construction of identity (both religious and national) and its power and myth. Filmed art is an excellent tool to visually combine reality and fiction, and also mix the past, present and future.
A: Your productions often jump between fact and fiction; could the blurring of the lines become confusing to an audience? Why do you use both?
YB: I am interested in political imagination. The beginning of a work is to recognise a “problem” and to propose a possible “solution”. In the case of Inferno, I wanted to show the flexibility of faith and religion. I use both the imaginary and documented elements of life as a method to undermine the main narratives of history, the normality of society and the accepted “true” story. This system of working allows me to visually introduce the para-reality, the gaps and the unrepresented reality. The mixture of the two often confuses the audience and consequently demands that they reassess their own position.
A: How much do you see yourself as a director as opposed to an artist? Or is there no distinction?
YB: I see myself as an artist who makes films. According to the subject matter of the project, I choose a cinematic language that helps place the work in a broader historical context. In the past, I shot my compositions in the cinematic language of the early 20th century propaganda films, drawing on Nazi, Bolshevik and Zionist examples. Inferno is inspired by religious epic films, which are usually accompanied by grandeur and spectacle. This type of production often takes an historical or imagined event, mythic, legendary or heroic figure, and adds an extravagant setting, lavish costumes and a sweeping musical score.
A: Do you think the artist has a responsibility to challenge the problems with society? Do you believe art can change things?
YB: I make art in order to challenge and question society and I believe that is certainly the responsibility of an artist. I think creative work can open opportunities and change things on a small scale. It is a strong tool with which to undermine the status quo.
To find out more about Bartana’s work at the São Paulo Biennial, visit www.bienal.org.br.
1. Yael Bartana, Inferno, 2013, 22 min Video Courtesy of Petzel Gallery New York, Annet Gelink Galley Amsterdam and Sommer Contemporary Art Tel Aviv Picture credit: Marlene Bergamo.