Yael Bartana: and Europe will be stunned, 2010, neon light tubes, 106 by 76 inches.

Israeli-born, Berlin-based artist Yael Bartana makes her New York solo debut at Petzel gallery tonight, giving New York audiences their first extended opportunity to view her Polish video trilogy, And Europe Will Be Stunned. The eponymous show will be on view through May 4.

Recently acquired (in a joint acquisition with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) by the Guggenheim, where it was screened last year, the 60-minute work centers on Bartana's semi-fictive Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), which calls for the return of 3.3 million Jewish emigrants to their "ancestral homeland." The three installments, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares, 2007), Mur I Wieza (Wall and Tower, 2009) and Zamach (Assassination, 2011), adopt the structure and sensibility of early 20th-century propaganda films, but explore contested histories, collective memory, contemporary Polish anti-Semitism and conceivable futures.

Bartana collaborated with actual Polish leftist and activist S?awomir Sierakowski, who co-wrote and performed a commanding, poetic political speech in the first film. Addressing an empty, derelict Decennial Stadium in Warsaw, Sierakowski bellows, "Let the 3 million Jews that Poland has missed . . . return to Poland, to your country! Heal our wounds and you'll heal yours and we'll be together again."

In Wall and Tower, Sierakowski's followers heed his call. Handsomely costumed in the manner of 1930s Jewish kibbutzniks, they attempt to "rebuild the Jewish community in Warsaw," quickly erecting in the traditional Homa UMidgal (Wall and Tower) style, the Muranów settlement where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood. The trilogy culminates with Assassination, which documents the funeral of a now martyred Sierakowski. Visitation takes place in Warsaw's majestic ministry of culture, and often spiky political speeches are given by actual personages of Poland's and Israel's public and cultural life (Polish art historian Anda Rottenberg, Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal, Polish-born Israeli writer/illustrator Alona Frankel and Israeli journalist Yaron London). Mourners rally in front of a monumental bust of the dead leader, bearing placards that, like most everything else in these films, Bartana herself artfully designed. The posters carry aphorisms ranging from "Fascism Kills" to "I Am Sad."

A.i.A.
spoke with Bartana at a café in New York's East Village this week about the trilogy, Israeli-Polish politics and what it means to "return."

TRACY ZWICK
What brought you to Poland? You've said that while many modern Jews and Israelis in particular are comfortable traveling to Germany, they would refuse to set foot in Poland. Why?

YAEL BARTANA
I was invited by Foksal Gallery, a very important Warsaw gallery since the '60s, to make a project there. It's very, very clear what one can think of and feel as a Jew about a place like Poland, but also as anybody who was excluded from that society. My family comes from there, but they never talked about it. We were completely cut from that history. Because I am not Polish, I collaborated with this guy [Polish political leftist S?awomir Sierakowski]. I asked him to write the text [of the first film], to speak his voice and perform it.

ZWICK
I understand that you have two Polish grandparents, but, before this project, felt little personal connection to the country.

BARTANA
That's how it started, yes. But when I was there, I had this idea of looking at ways to provoke new thoughts about the situation today between Poland and Israel. For seven years I focused on Israel and Palestine, and I wanted to step out and look at how Poland is connected and how we can fix that history-how it can be a solution to the Palestinian right of return. It's a monumental idea. It's not that I push 3.3 million Jews [to leave Israel and go to Poland], but I want to think about the issue of returning.

ZWICK
I gave up counting the number of times the word "return" is used in the trilogy. When you use the word "return," what does it mean? These Jews who are being called to "return" have never been to Poland.

BARTANA
Exactly. But psychologically, they've been there. Because the Holocaust is part of their narrative, in terms of how the state of Israel came to be. Conceptually, the return, to go back to the primal scene, this is a kind of collective therapy.

ZWICK
How real is the movement you've helped to create-the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (the JRMiP)? It's been described as "quasi-fictional" and "a social experiment." But it held a congress last year in Berlin, had committee meetings and took votes on political and social issues.

BARTANA
I'm more interested in political imagination, how one can politically imagine different realities. My role is to suggest that. Therefore the Congress was an important step. It created a space for other people to imagine change.

ZWICK
Let's talk about the films themselves. The first, Nightmares, is a monologue in which Sierakowski gives a formal address in an historic Polish stadium. Though the stadium is empty, he is speaking to the 3.3 million killed or exiled Jews of Poland. The stadium clearly signifies absence.

BARTANA
Exactly. I was trying to emotionally connect you to this community that is gone. Only Nazis were allowed to be in stadiums. Jews were allowed only in camps. This was a very strong moment, for me to come to this stadium for the first time. It was built from rubble from the ruins [of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising], to celebrate 10 years of the Communist party. After the fall of communism it became the largest non-Polish market in Poland-it was a Vietnamese market. It's now being refurbished for use in the upcoming World Cup.

ZWICK
The films are distinctly and consistently stylized. They're steeped in Russian formalist notions and early 20th-century propaganda. In fact, I kept noticing your camera angles and thinking of Rodchenko's Pioneer photos and the heroic stature you give Sierakowski, his acolytes and the pioneers. Who and what influenced your esthetic choices?

BARTANA
I worked on this very, very hard. I did years of research, and wanted to keep to a Stalinistic language. In Russia people hate these films! For them these visuals suggest a horrible history. But in Europe and Israel we really live that horrific history. I felt like, if I want to talk about the early 20th century, I would also like to talk about the esthetics of that time. The use of esthetics is very simple, very direct. Leni Riefenstahl was a huge influence; the esthetics, not the ideology!

ZWICK
The production values increased dramatically from one film to the next. The cast went from essentially one (plus some extras) in the first film to a large supporting cast and a massive rally in the last one. Did you always intend to make a trilogy with stagecraft and expenses increasing in each installment?

BARTANA
I wanted to make it real. Even though it's a fiction, it's a utopian moment. I felt like I needed the masses in the last film. In the first part it was totally empty, then in the last part the leader is dead and there are all these people. I think the first film is the most interesting one. It uses a lot of imagination. I was just so fascinated by the whole idea, and I started asking questions. I felt like [the first film] is not enough. I felt like I would like to continue and question what it means to return to Europe and how.

ZWICK
I imagine each of these films is understood quite differently by Polish and Israeli audiences, and will be received differently still by New York viewers. Describe the trilogy's reception and how you've responded to charges that the project is anti-Zionist.

BARTANA
There were all kinds of reactions to my film. I included the reactions in the [third part of] the film. If you read this project in black and white, it is anti-Zionist. But be very careful about using the term anti-Zionist; maybe anti-Israel is a better way to say it. Once you start to dig in to what I'm trying to do, however, I think you can see the kind of reasoning, the intent to allow people to think. In Poland and Israel, the leftists, of course, loved it! Poland let me represent their country at the Venice Biennale in 2011. But I'm still getting a lot of horrible reactions on the Internet. They don't want the Jews back [in Poland].

ZWICK
Theodor W. Adorno wrote his essay "The Meaning of Working Through the Past" in the 1950s, following his return to Germany. He advocated lucidly working through the past in order to break its "power to fascinate" by eliminating the causes of what happened. Adorno feared that "working through the past" had become a "mod slogan" even then, and that the past was being trivialized; that supposed efforts to work through the past amounted to "an empty and cold forgetting." Do you worry about shifting responsibility for the homogeneity of contemporary Polish society from the Poles themselves?

BARTANA
I'm not so familiar with this kind of heavy theoretical background. I study Jan Thomas Gross. His book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland is very important. Poland still considers itself the victim of the world, attacked from the Russian side and from the German side. There's very active anti-Semitism there. They don't see their part as perpetrators and I think that's the reason Sierakowski was so attached to the project. He would like a more multicultural Poland. Poles and Jews were neighbors, but then came the bad guy, and neighbor did not protect neighbor.

ZWICK
I get the sense that you feel one of the big problems of modern life is that people are disengaged, and that you use a sort of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt to estrange or alienate viewers, to shake the audience awake.

BARTANA
Absolutely, estrangement is something I use always, in my early works especially. I'm very interested in anthropology and observation. As I grow up and become more mature and understand more and become more active, I feel like it's not just about observing, it's about proposing solutions. Again, I don't think 3.3 million people returning is the right solution for the problem. It's not about that. It's very fascist to think you can move people from one country to another. So I'm very aware of the problems of such a project. But I think a lot of people who are intelligent understand that it's a way to shake people. They can't not think about history in a different way after watching the film. For me that is a success.