The Shofar School

The Diasporic Schools — Online

Made from a ram’s horn, the shofar is an instrument played at different moments in the Jewish calendar, and almost an iconic element in Judaism and among its diasporic communities. The very history of the shofar is linked to the need for communication from a distance: it was used to communicate between remote mountain villages, to warn of the sighting of the new moon and to mark the beginning of the new month. Its loud sound is also strongly bound up in the history of the diaspora, and the fact that in several circumstances and for centuries Jewish people risked their lives to exit the obligation of listening to the loud call of the shofar. The person who is able to blow the shofar is seen as one of the most honourable members of the community. However, both historically and nowadays, learning to play the shofar is subject to normative criteria, and although women are not prohibited from playing the instrument, it is an honour reserved for men. In her work, Yael Bartana explores the imagery of identity. She delves into the complexity of the Jewish diaspora and often confronts political and feminist issues by exploring rituals. In The Shofar School Bartana is creating an online platform to connect people in the Jewish diaspora, regardless of gender, to learn together how to blow the shofar; a learning process that becomes the pretext for sharing stories and redefining what a shared identity is today and what its limits are. Finally, the project reappropriates the idea of empowerment that was traditionally linked to blowing the shofar: for one month, a group of people in different parts of the world will simultaneously blow the horn as a collective call to challenge and reimagine new forms of identity. The Shofar School is taking place in parallel with a performance given by Bartana in Baden-Baden, in which a woman will play the shofar from a helicopter flying over the city.

Every Monday during the month of October, artist Yael Bartana brings together a group of 12 participants, based in different cities in the world, in The Shofar School. Through the learning of shofar, the participants collectively reflect on how ritual practices can be torn into political act. On the 01.11 at 16:00, Yael Bartana will present the results of The Shofar School on the occasion of the Public Programme.

Two minutes before midnight. On the work of Yael Bartana.

 By Joanna Warsza

“Jews! Fellow countrymen! People! (…) Return to Poland, to your country”: the speech delivered in Warsaw’s derelict communist stadium in Yael Bartana’s 2007 film Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) is a desperate cry for the reinvention of a lost eastern European cultural heterogeneity. This call by a leftist activist to the empty stands (perhaps sounding more topical then ever today) is both an expression of despair at the terror of homogeneity and the phantom pain of a lost culture, but also reflects a dire need for otherness. The speech to Jewish countrymen made in an eerie Warsaw stadium overgrown with weeds was in fact heard only by the Vietnamese, Ukrainian and Belorussian vendors trading in the upper section of the sports arena. They are the ones who ‘returned’ to Poland, the modern invisibles, the constructors of a new economy on the ruins of communism, and now actually counting in the millions. Bartana chose this multi-layered site as the setting for the first film in her trilogy And Europe Will be Stunned (2011), probably also because of the stadium’s foundations – it was erected in 1954-55 using rubble from a war-ruined Warsaw and especially from the remains of the Jewish Ghetto.  

This cinematic trilogy also led to the inauguration of Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland and, as often in the works of Bartana, a coming-and-going between the art of representation and political reality in a form of an assembly taking place on stage. The artist convened the 1st congress of the JRMiP in May 2012 in HAU Berlin as part of the 7th Berlin Biennale. It was a testing ground of how to think the impossible: arranging the return of three million Jews to Poland with the help of Germany, Palestine and the international community. Highly risky, vulnerable and implausible, and yet there we were debating the interdependences and intricacies of memory and the present between Central Europe and the Middle East. The setting was a wild rehearsal of sorts, a training for the future, or what the theorist Olivier Marchart calls a pre-enactment. A pre-enactment is a form of art rehearsing for the unknown; it is a “pre-formance of a future political event”. A pre-enactment is also a temporary inversion of a re-enactment. Since – according to Marchart – it is impossible for us to directly enact the political because instead we are enacted by it, we can test and anticipate certain political conditions, with art being a perfect seismograph for it. Marchart notices that happenings first took place in an art field and only later in a political field, building up the protest vocabulary of 1968 or pointing to Occupy movements as heralding anxieties of the future.  

Bartana has also always been interested in the embodiment of the politics of memory and relations between a performance and a ritual, first happening mostly only once and second being repeated many times and occurring regularly according to a certain script. She tends to shift, reverse or re-contextualise those cultural ceremonies, as in the upcoming The Shofar School, where a community comes together digitally to practise the new use of the traditional horn instrument, which at various times in the Jewish calendar is usually only played by men. Back in 2013, inspired by the Israeli day of remembrance, Yom HaShoah, that commemorates victims and resistance fighters of the Holocaust with two minutes’ silence, Bartana proposed relocating this ceremony just for a day to the German city of Cologne as part of the Impulse Theater Biennale. A symbolic interruption of everyday life, Two Minutes of Standstill (2013) was mix of a social sculpture, a political intervention and a collective performance. Her proposition was not only to commemorate the dead, but to ask how newcomers and refugees, or mixed couples for example, can situate themselves in the plots of German history and their relationship with the present. How can it be commemorated without relativising, but also without exclusion? How can those who made Germany their home find a place in its memory culture, remembrance and responsibility? The project proved to highly controversial, stirring up a cocktail of emotions from left and right, as often with her works creating polarised views.  

In recent years Bartana has continued with another long-term project, What if Women Ruled the World (2016-), commissioned by Manchester International Festival, European Capital of Culture Aarhus 2017 and Volksbühne Berlin, with its itineration in Philadelphia, and now culminating in a film. A stage was turned into a meeting hall where an all-female government was debating in a version of the War Room from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove. However just changing the sex of the people in charge, and flipping the gendered reading of politics, was not Bartana’s main aim. This performative and discursive setting, half scripted, half documentary, was designed to question the very hegemonic construction of political structures, and offer ideas of what feminist, not necessarily female-only, governance looks like, where plurality, care, strategic weakness and vulnerability are the cards being played. It used the theatre setting to exercise the “force of nonviolence”, to quote the title of Judith Butler’s latest book.  

What if Women Ruled the World was also a funny, empowering but gloomy performance revealing the obvious, namely that women are still a marginalised group in politics, a counter-public excluded from the long process of formation of the European public sphere into which many of us were born or socialised. Not surprisingly, this documentary theatre piece-cum-installation, now a film Two Minutes to Midnight (2020), is both a political hallucination and a counter-proposal to heroic and masculine visions of political agency.  

On the same spring day in 2018 when Chris Dercon resigned as director of the Volksbühne, we saw one of the premieres of What if Women Ruled the World on the main stage. A circle of women in the think-tank assembly was guiding humanity away from the brink, two minutes before midnight. And suddenly during the applause it felt like toxic patriarchy is a dying species. Rituals are altered, identities shifted, powers weakened and The Shofar School will blow the horn. Is this art or reality, Yael?    

Joanna Warsza, October 2020

Joanna Warsza is independent curator and programme director of CuratorLab at Konstfack University. She was an associate curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale at which the 1st Congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland was held.  

Bio

Yael Bartana is a visual artist born in Israel in 1970. Her films, installations and photographs explore the imagery of identity through political imagination. Taking as a starting point national consciousness and traditions, in her work she focuses on ceremonies, public rituals and social diversions that are intended to reaffirm the collective identity of the nation state. Bartana investigates these through the realisation of “pre-enactments” that comment on our reality by suggesting alternative presents and possible futures, juxtaposing real life and fiction, and confronting her audiences with their personal and collective responsibilities. Bartana represented Poland in the 54th International Art Exhibition in Venice (2011) with the trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned. The trilogy was followed by major commissions realised across the globe, such as Inferno (2013), True Finn (2014) and Tashlikh (cast off, 2017). In recent years Bartana has been expanding her artistic practice and experimenting with various forms, such as sound, sculpture and theatre. Her latest work is the ongoing project What If Women Ruled the World (2016-) which combines fictional settings and real life participants, setting up a particular forum for action while exploring possible alternatives to a world dominated by men and traditional perception of power. The Undertaker (2019) and Two Minutes to Midnight (2020) both emerged from this survey.

Credits

Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts

A project by: Yael Bartana
Participants: Annie Albagli, Harry Dukker, Thomas Lunderquist, Yarden Stern, Jeannine Dath, Gabriel Nahoum, Nikolay Karabinovych, Arthur Hirsch, David Bernstein, Solange Akierman, Katja Petrowskaja, Elisabeth Belisário
Shofar tacher: Miriam Camerini
Respondents: Wanda Nanibush, Banjamin Seroussi

A project initiated and coproduced by Kunstenfestivaldesarts in the frame of The Diasporic Schools
In collaboration with: Casa do Povo