Yael Bartana Two Minutes to Midnight

Cecilia Hillström Gallery, Stockholm, SWE
April 7, 2022 – May 14, 2022

More Information here

Review in Svenska Dagbladet [SE]
Joanna Persman

Yael Bartana
”Two Minutes to Midnight”
At Cecilia Hillström Gallery
7 April–14 May 2022

Yael Bartana. Ominously close to Putin’s threat of nuclear war

If women ruled the world, would then peace be given a chance? The question is posed by Yael Bartana in her terrifyingly intriguing film where a female government is facing a nuclear threat from a nation ruled by men.

Doomsday is approaching mercilessly in Yael Bartana’s film from 2021. It is strong and suggestive. The reality with dramatic news from the war in Ukraine, the (in)secure situation in the world and conversations about NATO make the work shockingly relevant.

The scenario is made up, but the references to reality are astonishing. President Arnold Twittler (all associations allowed) is engaging in nuclear rattling while twittering, watching TV and talking nonsense. A government, consisting of only women, is gathering to discuss the gravity of the threat and the possibilities to counterbalance it.

“What is part of the script? What is improvised?”

“Si vis pace, para bellum…” The famous words from the Roman writer Vegetius’ “De re militari” echo in my head. In the 5th century, he wrote “If you want peace, prepare for war”. But how? Should a threat be met by an even larger military threat to evoke the opponent’s respect? Is disarmament or military alliances the right way? Which impact has diplomacy when people are murdered in their homes?

“We will never use nuclear weapons. Not even as a deterrent” says the whitehaired president in Bartana’s film. She is immediately challenged. “Your ideals, Madam President, cannot guarantee the safety of 144 million people”. Advisors – all women – are summoned to “The Peace Room”, a parallel to “The War Room” in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy “Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964).

Yael Bartana’s ability to mix facts with fiction and the mistakes of the past with hopes for the future is puzzlingly efficient. The government is played by actors. On the contrary, the invited experts represent real offices and organizations.

Here is Lone Træholt, the first woman General in the Danish armed forces, and the Finnish politician Tarja Cronberg, previously a member of the European Parliament. Expert advice is also collected from the Icelandic poet and politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the Human Rights Lawyer Irena Sabic and the art historian Reem Fadda.

Drone operators meet peace activists. It is almost as Ursula von der Leyen or our own Magdalena Andersson would walk into the room any minute.

What is part of the script? What is improvised? The clock is ticking. Time is running out. The red telephone rings again: “Twittler has positioned his missiles against our country and our allies”.

Bartana raises vital questions. They deal with leadership, crisis management, conflict resolution, climate crisis, gender equality and motherhood. Funny episodes enforce the gravity of the situation. The pregnant Army Chief of Staff is called by her husband who has failed to put their son to bed. Somewhat embarrassed she sings the lullaby for the child on the other side of the hotline.

Would I want to live in a world ruled exclusively by women? As a matter of fact, I would not prefer it to living in a world mainly ruled by men. It was merely 100 years ago, in September 1921, that women were finally allowed to vote in the general elections in Sweden. From this perspective, Bartana’s thought experiment about a “female” government is utopian and mind blowing. What if?

“A half-naked male waiter graciously enters to serve”.

The concept of replacing male power with female is not really problematized in the Peace Room.  A half-naked male waiter graciously enters to serve fruit for the congregation. These absurd reversed roles make visible how silly it is with rooms of power filled with men waited by women.

Bartana gives a word of warning. The competence and leadership skills of women should not be diminished anymore. But it should not be romanticized either. The most powerful quality in her work is that it gets into the mind of the viewer and turns around traditional preconceptions. The film is intriguing, disturbing and touching in its form.

The ending should not be spoiled. But when the credits roll to the lyrics of Vera Lynn's melancholy song "We'll meet again / Don’t know where / Don’t know when…" – which during World War II was a cry of both hope and despair – it is difficult to hold back the tears for us, unfortunate people. Two minutes to midnight we are facing a chaos created by ourselves and with more questions than answers about our continued existence.

Translation: Cecilia Hillström