Emotion pulls you in every direction in this apocalyptic fantasy of breathtaking destruction. Israeli artist Yael Bartana dares with high theatrics and lush symmetrics in the hellish utopia Inferno (2013). At the perfect length for outright enrapture, this 22-minute “historical pre-enactment” trails the arc of a classic narrative while employing the poignant effect of silent films. It depicts the preparation for the inauguration of the 3rd Temple of Solomon in São Paulo, Brazil and its inevitable destruction. This newly erectly temple is a replica of the original in Jerusalem. An ethnically diverse bohemian band of followers, cloaked in white and adorned in Carmen Miranda fruit hats and flowers, flock to its anointment. Helicopters are on scene air-lifting-in gaudy spiritual objects for the ceremony. Religious figures are portrayed by Brazilian drag queens aiding in the campy over-dramatization of this propaganda-esque film. A dark tonal shift incites cult-like tension and anxiety segueing into slow-motion sequences of crashes, smashes and clashes. Menorahs soar and fruit baskets are ablaze. The iconography alone is enough to make art aficionados exult and messianic believers abhor.
Employing CGI, Inferno opens with an aerial view of a rich green forest. Soaring ahead into the city using the skyline of the buildings as the focal point and final destination, a mesmerizing cityscape transpires. The lure of these architectural structures and forms is interrupted by the shadow of helicopters on rooftops and as reflections in glistening exteriors. Flying low between skyscrapers, highways and bridges, these looming aircrafts dangle larger-than-life religious objects just below them. Upon sight, the worshippers are ecstatic, smiling ear-to-ear as they eagerly wave to the sky, giving way to an uncanny sense of naivety and innocence.
Under a small crown of flowers, a young boy clutches a bundle of palms and walks slowly to the camera. A man with dreadlocks skateboards in slow motion on a ramp. Jarring geographic and time placements are felt among modest gypsy outfits, livestock and produce, signifying simpler times, situated within the city and its modern structures, technologies and graffiti.
Slow motion shots are interspersed with real-time cuts, heightening focus, dramatics and dichotomy. With literally open arms, the pilgrims of all ages, skin colours and sexes dance around in circles at their final destination. Despite the joviality, a coldness and tension occupies the space, pointing towards impending danger and disaster. The presence of goats and cows decorated in flowers, symbolizing vitality and value, suggests offering and sacrifice.
A striking close up of the group’s leader holds the screen for a haunting 30 seconds. In gold earrings and makeup, heavy eyeliner and blush, atop rich dark skin and perfect pencil-thin eyebrows, their piercing eyes hypnotize and bewitch. Without blinking, the remaining members on stage bring their hands together to form a triangle and raise them up and several times. The crowd keenly observes in a startling euphoric state beneath the soundtrack of a deep-voiced dialogue. Suddenly, icons begin to melt and the faces in the crowd turn.
In the following minutes, slow motion sequences of turmoil and destruction ensue. People catch on fire, tumbling over one another, swarming to the exit, some trying to save the religious artifacts, others falling and sinking into the enormous cracks breaking through the ground, wailing among shattering glass. Bodies flail through the air while limbs are sprawled across the floor. Anarchy concludes with the building’s combustion.
What Bartana presents to us next is a fast-forward in time. The same site of the temple has been transformed, the remains polished and revealed, a Second Wailing Wall if you will. Jam-packed with tourists and worshippers, a man leans up against it and throws off his prayer shawl to reveal a pair of wings tattooed on his shoulders much like the gold pair that embellished the altar within the Temple pre-destruction. Popcorn and paraphanelia are for sale, including mini-menorahs, decorated dishes and menorah-engraved coconuts. A man dressed as Jesus is among the crowd, as well as a man in the same humble white attire as the worshippers in the first half of the film. The notable displacement and absurdity in this commercialized and capitalist outcome of religion is audacious and provocative, to say the least.
Inferno serves as a commentary on the new religious movements in Brazil, essentially hybrid manifestations of Catholicism and Judaism. Questions are raised about Jewish displacement outside of the Holy Land along with the globalized consumerism and tourist-ification of religion. Viewers are seduced by the possibility of reality and grandiose aesthetic. Bartana dissolves the layers of our visible and invisible increasingly connected world leaving viewers in the uncomfortable present. The collapse of time, place, histories and identities points toward new constructions of collective identity, remembrance and cultural interpretations.
Inferno has screened in major galleries, museums and film festivals all over the world, including Pérez Art Museum (2013, Miami, USA), Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage (2014, Ohio, USA), Stedelijk Museum (2014, Amsterdam, Netherlands), Berlin International Film Festival (2014, Berlin, Germany), the 19th Sydney Biennale (2014, Sydney, Australia), 54th International Film Festival Rotterdam (2014, Rotterdam, Netherlands), São Paolo Biennial (2014, São Paolo, Brazil), Walter Phillips Gallery (2016, Banff, Canada), Trondheim Kunstmuseum (2016, Trondheim, Norway), and more. At a sizable projection in an enclosed blacked-out room with Avinu Malkeinu, Keren Hadar and Towering Inferno, Kiddish bellowing throughout, assuredly its flamboyance was not cut short.