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Each time I took Yael Bartana’s Inferno ride, I sat closer to the front in hopes of a better thrill. I was never let down. Admittedly, I was blown away by her film like so many others. Inferno (2013) is a well-produced cinematic treasure—a dramatic and full-blown theatrical performance with peaks and valleys of emotional swings. The story line follows the arc of a classic narrative film even without dialogue; just eighteen minutes in length, it is long enough to get you swept away by bravado but short enough to leave you wanting more. And I, for one, was in the camp wanting more. In the final scene at the Wailing Wall, viewers are met by droves of unsuspecting tourists and a digitally enhanced donkey in the middle of the film frame, placed there for some unexplained reason that I am still trying to figure out. I felt like I had been on a theme park ride, exhilarating and thrilling, and like most thrill seekers, I wanted to do it again. I did just that. I watched the film on the large screen at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage several more times during the panel discussions held concurrently with the exhibition.
What exactly makes us want to seek a thrill like this is a question best left to modern psychologists and psychotherapists. They have the tools to unlock our imagination and dreams, and help us bring meaning and understanding to our complicated and complex lives. Moving images fascinate us because they replicate our reality. They appear to be similar to what is happening outside the darkened movie theatre or museum gallery yet we know they are anything but real. We are seduced by the possibility that they can be real if we let them. Seduction, as most of us know all too well, is a sword with double edge sharpness, and enough pain to do us in, if not in the long haul then at least by making the foreseeable future miserable. Seduction is also the golden tongue of sexuality and sensuousness, a language of its own origin and destiny, spoken by every culture on earth. If two people interested in each other are ever to be together, there has to be seduction on both sides of the romance. I have been both the seducer and the seduced in my adult life, and the results have been staggeringly beautiful.
By now, you are probably wondering what seduction has to do with Israeli artist Yael Bartana. If you have watched her film, you know what I am talking about, and if you have not seen Inferno, you should. And if the Old Testament could ever be considered sexy, this is it. I will not go into details. Either you have read the Old Testament or parts of it, or you have not, but to say the least, Bartana makes the currently ongoing construction of the third Temple of Solomon (Templo de Salmão) in São Paulo by a Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal Church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), and its subsequent (in this instance, fictional) destruction, a massively orgasmic experience. With stylistic references to Hollywood action epics, rich pageantry, and hippie-like costuming, Bartana treats us to cinematic kitsch on a grand scale. Filled with clichés, conventions, and other intellectually clunky tropes, Biblical literalism in commercial films has been a vast enterprise, from the pure and saintly Moses without anger management issues, to Juda with misguided masculinity problems. As consumers of film culture, we prefer to live with the myth of a reliable religious character (in this case), when we know for damn sure from our own friends and family none exist. We are all flawed, and at times, we’re terribly unreliable.
Yael Bartana asks us to question and reflect upon our own identity and history. Her work ultimately attempts to challenge and question society. Her cinematic language draws on early 20th century Nazi, Bolshevik and Zionist propaganda films. Para-reality is a term Bartana uses to describe the gap between represented and unrepresented reality, and other unexplained mysteries. Inferno clicks along in a relentless stream of image and metaphor, for the purpose of pulling on our own misguided stereotypes and in hopes that at least in our minds and in our imagination, we destroy the third Temple of Solomon.
The mid-west premiere of Yael Bartana’s video installation Inferno is on view at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage through October 19, 2014. See http://www.maltzmuseum.org for more information.
Bruce Checefsky is a curator of contemporary art and director of the Reinberger Gallery at the Cleveland Institute of Art. View more articles by Bruce Checefsky.