MEDFORD — In 2011, the Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana presented a series of films at the Venice Biennale called “And Europe Will Be Stunned.” Europe, surely, would not be alone. In a dark room at the Tufts University Art Galleries, film #1 unspooled a bespectacled young Polish demagogue sermonizing to a comically small group of adoring youngsters (for the record, it’s called “Mary Koszmary,” or nightmares; you are warned). As he laid out his vision to resurrect his country to some past greatness, his audience, wearing what looked like khaki scout uniforms, beamed unblinkingly; all around, the crumbling remains of a soccer stadium stood overgrown with creeping vines and tree-size weeds.
Now, about that vision. The solution to all of Poland’s problems is simple, he says: Convince enough Jewish people to move to Poland to restore the original Jewish population there before World War II. With the piece’s sweeping vistas and bright-eyed youth, the echoes of the Nazi propaganda films by Leni Riefenstahl are intentional, and clear. Muddying fiction and reality further — and this is fiction — the demagogue is played by a real-life, left-wing Polish sociologist and political activist, Slawomir Sierakowski. “Let us live together!” he bellows, his voice echoing through the ruins while his acolytes stencil slogans on the field in chalk: “3,300,000 Jews can change the life of 40,000,000 Poles.” The number has meaning: Before the war, the Polish Jewish population was right around that number; roughly 3 million were murdered by the Nazis.
I saw the whole of Bartana’s series not long after its Venice stop, pausing now and then to pick my jaw up off the floor. The films had scenes of young Jewish people, dressed like post-apocalyptic candy-stripers, cheerily building a kibbutz in a public square in Warsaw complete with watchtowers and barbed wire; it ends poorly for the baby-faced demagogue with a scene of his body lying in state, post-assassination, while his dream struggles to live on.
Maybe I’m a little sensitive to demagoguery these days — can you blame me? — but the bleak, absurdist humor that gives Bartana’s fictive dystopia its life now feels like a sideshow to an alarming political reality. Here in the real world, complex problems are increasingly met with simplistic solutions, often with a dose of chest-beating nationalism. If that strategy sounds familiar, it should — it’s been bleating from your TV and radio for months in the lead-up to the midterm elections. Most people blanch at complex. They favor simple, however implausible, and our politics play to that weakness.
Bartana’s piece is the most powerful element of “The Sun Rises in the West and Sets in the East,” the current feature exhibition at the Tufts galleries. Dystopia is its lingua franca shared among its 11 artists from as many countries; its title, a paraphrased mashup of various elements of global folklore, evokes a doomsday vision of the Earth reversing course.
Even so, there’s a smattering of hope: The show, curated by Sara Raza, means to explore an artist’s role in “inspiring dialogue and reassessing political futures and structures.” If there was a time to reassess, it’s now. The UK is on its third prime minister in not even as many months, Italy just elected a fascist, and here at home, things are just fine. No, wait — that’s not right. Democracy itself is in peril, poised to make what could be a last stand in the midterm elections in a couple of weeks.
The exhibition is populated by notions just as dark, though surely more beautiful: Lebanese artist Ali Cherri’s softly gorgeous watercolor portraits of songbird corpses from 2020, which he intends, the label says, as a critique of romantic European depictions of conquest, hang just inside the entrance (their collective title: “Dead Inside”).
Past the title wall, “What We Have Overlooked,” a 2011 film by the Afghani artist Lida Abdul, tracks a man as he tries to plant a flag in the middle of a lake but slips silently into its depths. French-Algerian artist Kader Attia’s untitled piece — a pair of prosthetic forearms mounted on snaking lengths of rebar fixed to wood block on the floor — is more oblique, and chilling. It evokes a hobbled figure, displaced, and groping blindly for home. Anton Ginzburg, born in Russia and based in New York, offers an angular mound of charred wood, based on the constructivist abstractions of Alexander Rodchenko. It has beguiling material presence — though what it’s doing here, I’m not exactly sure. Let’s call it a mood enhancer, an accessory to ever-present apocalypse.
Not everything here fits; odd, given the expansive precept. Downstairs, a video by the Bulgarian-born Turkish artist Ergin Cavusoglu of the undersides of hulls filmed from the bottom of a busy shipping channel folds in a complex history: The scene is shot near a sunken warship, whose last moments on the surface saw a world alien to the one above now. There’s a tangent to cling to here about continuums of change in complex systems, but it’s a reach. Beside it, Tunisian-born Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s “NYSE Road Works (Remont II)” is lovely, and precarious enough to need an insurance waiver — it’s a grid of uneven granite cobblestones you can walk on, cast beneath the shadow of a cross-hatched scrim of fabric — but even more of a stretch. Building and rebuilding, maybe, in a permanent state of impermanence? Works for me.
Pieces like Bartana’s — about the dark consequences of nation-building, the violence inherent, the terror that difference can spark — represent the show at its best. Terror is buried deep in Emily Jacir’s series “Where We Come From,” 2001-03, but it’s there all the same. For the project, Jacir, who is Palestinian, proposed a question to 30 people exiled from the region: “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?”
Her American passport — she naturalized as a citizen after earning degrees in Dallas and Memphis — gave her safe passage to Palestine, where she carried out wishes mundane and profound: Pay my phone bill. Hug my mother. High five the first Palestinian boy you meet. Go take a picture of my brother and his kids, who I haven’t seen in five years. Dutifully, she carried out every wish, photographing along the way. What emerges is a civic life by proxy. Is there a greater dystopia than that?
THE SUN RISES IN THE WEST AND SETS IN THE EAST
Through Dec. 11. Tufts University Art Galleries, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford. 617-627-3518, artgalleries.tufts.edu/