To say that Yael Bartana’s latest film, Inferno, opens in epic fashion would be a bit of an understatement. Accompanied by a dramatic score, the initial shot begins with a flyover of an expansive forest, which suddenly opens up to the colossal cityscape of São Paulo. Dominating the frame, the city appears as a vast empire, an allusion that sets up the rest of the film. The aerial shots continue, focusing on overcrowded and sometimes deteriorating residential areas as well as modern skyscrapers, both emblematic of the South American metropolis. This series concludes with a shot flying directly over the monumental Altino Arantes building, a midcentury skyscraper that evokes the Empire State Building both in style and cultural significance.
This film by the Israeli-born artist was commissioned by the 19th Biennale of Sydney and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, where it is currently on view in the Project Gallery. Bartana was among several artists invited to participate in a residency in São Paulo by curators Eyal Danon and Benjamin Seroussi to explore the influx of religious movements in Brazil and their connections to Israel. In this context, Bartana’s work relates to the meteoric rise of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a neo-Pentecostal church movement that started in the 1970s. This extremely profitable church is currently building an oversized replica of the Temple of Solomon, built in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians some four centuries later, according to the Hebrew Bible. A second temple was subsequently built and later destroyed, making the UCKG’s Templo de Salomão the third—and most ostentatious—iteration of this religious site.
Presented cinematically in large format with surround sound in a dark gallery, Bartana’s film picks up with the christening of such a temple, and the flyovers are revealed to be a first-person view from a trio of helicopters transporting massive religious icons to complete the construction of the temple. Faithful natives of the city cheer on the arrival of these icons and begin to march en masse to the temple, where they earnestly participate in a ritualistic, cult-like ceremony led by a priest-like figure. Bartana’s remarkable ability to conflate notions of time is immediately apparent in these opening scenes. Despite the title screen indicating a setting of 2014, the building of the temple, the mystic performance, the panoramas of skyscrapers, and the natives’ retro-futurist garb all signify different time periods.
In the ceremony within the temple, followers are enraptured by the priest and the massive golden relics, but an ominous feeling pervades the scene, as Bartana focuses on the relics becoming liquefied by flame during a hauntingly narrated rendition of a Hebrew mourning prayer. Suddenly the temple begins imploding, causing masses of people to flee in terror. Bartana here represents the tumult with a melodramatic montage: a stampede of people fleeing, having to traverse dead and wounded bodies on the ground; women emerging from the ruins with children in their arms; and men struggling to save the relics that the helicopters delivered. For much of the chaos, Bartana utilizes overhead shots of the destruction, giving viewers a godlike perspective of the emerging maelstrom. As the dust begins to settle, the priest-like figure casually strides out of the temple, which eventually crumbles to the ground in a scene that evokes summer-blockbuster action films with awe-inspiring CGI effects. The film concludes with a scene of pilgrims praying at the Western Wall—however, it is revealed that this wall is the only remaining ruin of the former temple, which has become a contemporary religious site: Beyond the traditional worshippers stand tourists with cameras and vendors peddling menorah-themed souvenirs and coconuts.
Illustrating the complex nature of religion in modern times, this final scene emphasizes Bartana’s nimble handling of dichotomies. The temple ruin creates a site that is sacred—as evidenced by the mass of worshippers—but also profane, becoming a tourist site for economic gain. Throughout the film, native followers are dressed in retro-futuristic garments and accessories that allude to both the traditional dress of the region, including crowns of flowers and headdresses of fruit, and a utopian future. The relics are transported to the temple not with typical cargo helicopters, but by sleek, attack-oriented Blackhawk-style aircraft, linking emblems of a modern military-industrial complex with institutional religion. Similarly, Bartana’s cinematic style is a rich amalgamation of techniques, oscillating between narrative and documentary; her use of mise-en-scène within the temple and its ceremony, for instance, clashes with the more objective views of the native people in the beginning and the worshippers and tourists at the end of the film.
In her last major film, And Europe Will be Stunned, Bartana explored the displacement of 3.3 million Jews from their Polish homeland; with Inferno, she contemplates the displacement and transformation of a religious site by inserting the Western Wall into São Paulo. Drawing on the context of the UCKG—an evangelical Protestant church that would bear great expense to build a temple (or mega-church, in today’s terminology) that is closely aligned with Jewish tradition—the artist deftly considers the complicated and perplexing nature of contemporary religious movements and sites.
Yael Bartana’s Inferno is on view in the Project Gallery of the Pérez Art Museum Miami through April 20, 2014.