Yael Bartana

23 January – 28 February 2015, Captain Petzel, Berlin

By Raimar Stange

True Finn (film still), 2014. Courtesy the artist; Petzel Gallery, New York; Capitain Petzel, Berlin; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; and Sommer Contemporary, Tel Aviv Inferno (film still), 2013. Courtesy the artist; Petzel Gallery, New York; Capitain Petzel, Berlin; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; and Sommer Contemporary, Tel Aviv

In her first Berlin exhibition at Capitain Petzel, Yael Bartana is showing two newer films, Inferno (2013) and True Finn (2014). The story of Inferno is quick to tell: a replica of Solomon’s Temple is built in São Paulo by an evangelical church; ‘original’ stones are even flown in from Israel. During the ostentatious inauguration ceremony, the temple unexpectedly collapses. Yael Bartana depicts its destruction – only a single foundationwall remains – and the death of the young and emphatically ‘beautiful’ believers in the spectacular style of a Hollywood action film. In the end there is but one recourse: the use of the ruins by the tourism industry. Once again, the artist provocatively combines fictional historical narrative and prophetic criticism in this 22-minute video, but ultimately fails to exploit productively – ie, in terms of ideological criticism – the power of the counterfactual, which is usually a strength of her work. This glamorous video weaves its story too simply.

Inferno is shown in the main exhibition space – which the curators have gone to great length to appoint as a ‘black cube’ – while the projection of True Finn is somewhat tucked away in the cellar. This is a curious decision, as True Finn is far and away the more complex and more interesting work. The 50-minute video shows eight Finnish citizens as they gather at a typical Finnish wooden house in a lonely, snow-covered Finnish landscape. An open call conducted by the artist culminated in the protagonists spending seven days under one roof, eating together, going to the sauna, fishing, collecting wood and, above all, debating. The reason for their gathering is as follows. The eight exceedingly different characters of differing ages, differing beliefs and differing origins are to address the question: ‘Who is a true Finn?’ At stake in True Finn is the idea of ‘national identity’, its problematic history, contradictory present and precarious future in a globalised world. In the course of finding answers to the question posed, not only do the protagonists discuss for days on end the strained relationship between individuality and community, they also design a new Finnish flag. In so doing, they reflect upon the problem of representing national identity: which colour symbolises which typical Finnish trait, and are these traits not ultimately a more or less trite simplification?

In the same vein at a later workshop, the eight Finns also write a new national anthem, which they sing – in traditional folkloric garb – at the end of the video. This part of True Finn is conceived as documentary-style reality TV. The protagonists’ selection among themselves of the ‘True Finn of the Week’ parodies this popular genre. Bartana interrupts the staging of this reality TV show with short, pertinent excerpts from old Finnish films, in which, for instance, the difficult life story of a Roma living in Finland alternates with the mythological tale of a woman who transforms into a white reindeer. With True Finn – the title is a play on the name of a rightwing populist party in Finland – the artist succeeds in creating a multilayered reflection on the theme of nationalism, which asks many questions but consistently avoids giving answers. And in this case she relies not on loud provocation but on sensitive, thoughtful chords. As such, the exhibition reveals two sides of Bartana’s work, the ultimate effect of which is something like two sides of the same coin.

Translated from the German by Jonathan Lutes. This article was first published in the March 2015 issue.  

Read Brienne Walsh on Yael Bartana's parallel exhibition at Petzel Gallery, New York, from the March 2015 issue.