Israeli Yael Bartana creates a hellish drama out of religious devotion through “historical pre-enactment”.
On view at Norway’s Trondheim Kunstmuseum until 16 October 2016, Inferno explores the depth of religious devotion and its ensuing spectacle merging past and present histories, through a dystopic view of São Paulo’s Jewish community and its multicultural complexity.
Courting controversy while embracing the historical past has been a recurring act in Yael Bartana’s artistic career. The Israeli-born artist’s works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as at the São Paulo Biennal, and most recently in the fall of 2016, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bartana has made a name for herself producing video and photo installations that centre on the nationalist underpinnings of her native Israel while interrogating the conceptual boundaries of belonging. Ultimately, her work considers the nuances of collective identity in the face of violence and adversity.
Bartana’s 22-minutes-long, 2013 film Inferno is the latest iteration of film and video art to be presented at Norway’s Trondheim Kunstmuseum in collaboration with About Art – a year-long project running until 14 January 2017 that also includes works by Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis and others. Inferno, on show at the museum until 16 October 2016, was produced in collaboration with New York’s Petzel Gallery and commissioned by the Perez Art Museum Miami for the 19th edition of the Biennale of Sydney. Directed by Bartana and produced by Naama Pyritz, the film escorts the viewer to a São Paulo that is not quite in our present and nods to the distant past – a practice that Bartana calls “historical pre-enactment”.
The film opens with dizzying shots of the megalopolis’s numerous skyscrapers and brings us down to the frenetic activity of its inhabitants. Dressed in white linen that recalls Brazil’s folkloric tradition, the men, women and children, accompanied by various livestock, traverse the urban landscape to head to a massive temple. They are in celebration: they lock hands and dance in a circle, and point excitedly at two massive helicopters bearing large golden ornaments – among them, notably, a menorah. The crowd eventually files into a massive temple. At the front of the altar, a black priest leads a ceremony fuelled by flames licking at the golden ornaments behind him.
Eventually, these flames begin to engulf the temple and chaos ensues as a stampede of screaming devotees flee the now crumbling structure. Limbs and slack bodies litter the ground as the worshippers carry out the large menorah and golden palanquin. The priest remains unscathed and an image of his face is followed by a brief blackout. The next scene shows the remnants of the temple – a large wall recalling the Western wall. On one side, worshippers dressed in white cloaks pray in unison toward the wall, the crevices of which are filled with folded notes. On the other, the scene is quite different: a bare-chested man with wings tattooed onto his back makes a gesture of devotion. Tourists with Nikon cameras, merchants selling menorah souvenirs and embossed green coconuts all take up the space. We are left with this final scene of modern, globalised tourism.
Inferno’s final message hints at the dichotomy between the piety of a distant past and a heavily gestured loss of such history in the present, but the specific images are rooted in the context of Judaism in contemporary São Paulo. The massive temple structure in the film is based on the USD300-million-dollar edifice constructed by the neo-Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in 2014, which in turn is a replica of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. At the time of filming, the temple was not yet complete, prompting Bartana to film the interior temple scenes in a cavernous hangar and use CGI to fill in the necessary gaps in the exterior structure and the massive ornaments carried by the helicopters.
In combining CGI with shots of contemporary São Paulo, home to Brazil’s largest Jewish community, Bartana evokes the “historical pre-enactment” of her practice most effectively through the evocation of apocalypse. The heightened tension evoked by the frenzy of the temple’s ritual led by the priest, and the ensuing destruction of the temple, with its flying rubble and flailing limbs, instills a sense of fatalism that is heightened further by the implied dystopia presented by the commercialisation of faith in the film’s final elements.
It is worth noting that the São Paulo Temple of Solomon was funded by the billionaire Edir Macedo, a Catholic convert to Judaism who currently serves as the bishop of the Temple of Solomon and is the owner of several Evangelical media entities. Bartana’s distinct visions of a historical past and her interpretation of our capitalist present subtly nod at the Church’s extravagance and profligate operations.
Yet, the most captivating element of Bartana’s endeavour is its multiculturalism. Bartana has expressed an interest in the expression of Judaism outside of Israel, and her decision to focus on São Paulo offers a unique perspective on the fluid tension between culture and faith, historical tradition and contemporary interpretations of the past. The range of actors in the film nod to Brazil’s racial and ethnic diversity, and as Bartana relates, some are actually of Jewish faith. The lead priest in the film is played by Carlos Marcio José da Silva, more widely known as Marcia Pantera, a well-regarded drag performer. It is this particular dedication to portraying complexity, rather than merely juxtaposing the past and present, that makes Bartana’s work worth watching.
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