East Falls: Laurel Hill Cemetery Hosts Public Performance Art

Dancers from all over Philadelphia performing Yael Bartana's work at Laurel Hill Cemetery

On a crisp Friday afternoon in Laurel Hill cemetery, just before the gates were closed to the public, a different sort of burial took place. There was no casket, no flowers and no corpse. There were only dozens of dancers from all over Philadelphia silently, solemnly dancing in a circle as part of artist Yael Bartana’s Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies! performance piece.

Bartana is a video and performance artist from Israel and her film trilogy, And Europe Will Be Stunned, is now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan. 1. The trilogy is accompanied by a series of performances, including the one in Laurel Hill on Sept. 21. Performances were filmed and will likely be used in a later project.

The performance and accompanying films tackle themes of identity, nationalism, belonging and memory through imagery of political speeches, military rituals and pageantry, and burials. Through these images, Bartana suggests the possibility of an alternate history, one where weapons are buried and the prescribed ideas and actions associated with violence are abandoned.

The actual movements of the dancers were based on a 1953 performance choreographed by Noa Eshkol in memory of the Holocaust at the dedication of a memorial.

“We were really excited about this extension of Yael’s work from behind the camera to the world of theater, the world of art in public space,” said Amanda Sroka, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the curator of this exhibition. “For [the dancers] to do this movement that is so charged by a particular moment in a particular place is to bring it to this context, and really bring those movements from 1953 into a new light and give them a new life.”

The context of Laurel Hill was one of the performance locations carefully chosen, among other locals in the city. The work was also performed twice the next day, Sept.22, at both Independence Hall and outside the museum.  However, the Friday performance was not advertised to the public.

“We did not choose the site for the public performance just because we wanted to do the public performance in a place that was incredibly central for people to get to or for passersby to come across,” Sroka said. “But because Yael filmed the entire public performance and a few of our rehearsals, we talked with Laurel Hill about actually filming the burial of the weapons into the ground, which you never actually got to see during the public performance.”

Laura Levitt, a professor of religion, Jewish studies and gender at Temple University, was in attendance at both the Independence Hall and museum performances. She said that even during the Laurel Hill performance, which was not advertised to the public, the experience of the observer and the passerby were important in processing the performance’s meaning.

“I think that’s part of Bartana’s thing, that she’s really interested in using art to be disruptive,” Levitt said, “To make you question, what is this pageantry? Is this artifice? What does it do? What did I stumble into?”

She also said that the location, as one of the most historic and iconic cemeteries in the area, is as important as the cultural context in which the performance is taking place.

“It’s important that this was a kind of acknowledgment of the kind of gun violence that is permeating American culture, but particularly Philadelphia and other urban centers,” Levitt said.

Text, images and video by Lindsay Hargrave.

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