Kings of the Hill is a single-screen video installation produced in an edition of five; Tate’s copy is fourth in the series. The video, just under eight minutes long, features footage of men driving four-wheel drive vehicles in the dusty coastal hills outside Tel Aviv. Large sports utility vehicles converge on the hills at weekends, when in a show of macho prowess locals engage in informal competitions to scale the most precipitous slopes. The video begins with the startling image of a man struggling to drive a large white four-wheel drive car up a steep incline. The vehicle is positioned at a precarious angle as the driver revs his engine an attempt to propel up an almost vertical slope.
Sequences of cars trying to negotiate tricky gradients are interspersed with shots showing the gathering crowd as the day progresses. Long shots attest to the number of vehicles involved in the pastime; rows of cars like monolithic beasts lumber slowly up the hillside, mapping the terrain in furrowed lines. From time to time the camera lingers on images of the sea lapping the shoreline. The soundtrack is full of ambient noise: revving engines, the whirr of wheels spinning as the vehicles get bogged down, the voices of spectators cheering the men on and the distant sound of the waves. The video records the gradual passage of time from day to evening and finally to night. The sky darkens and the cars’ headlights traces patterns on the ruined ground. Groups of spectators gather around small bonfires.
Bartana is partly based in Amsterdam but makes work in her native Israel. Her other video work has addressed the training of female soldiers, the ritual of mournful silence on Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for fallen soldiers, and the religious festivities of the Purim celebration. She has described her decision to concentrate on her homeland in autobiographical and political terms, saying, ‘I am focusing on Israel in order to ask: what is this place where I grew up? How long will this troubled nation continue to perpetuate this pattern of ignorance? By manipulating form, sound and movement, I create work that triggers personal resonance. Personal, intimate reactions have the potential to provoke honest responses and perhaps replace the predictable, controlled reactions encouraged by the state’ (quoted in www.praguebiennale.org/artists/illusion/bartana.asp).
While not directly political in content, Kings of the Hill has poetic resonances to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which provides the backdrop to everyday life in the region. The work’s title evokes playground battles. The cars trace patterns in the sandy hills, suggesting territorial boundaries being traversed. At times the vehicles are perilously close to one another; at other moments they manoeuvre around each other more diplomatically. The stoicism and sheer pointlessness of the activity suggests the dedicated single-mindedness of warfare. The use of heavy machinery in a ritualistic display mirrors the expensive tools of combat, while the damaged hills can be seen as a metaphor for larger-scale destruction of land. Despite the implicit aggression of the vehicles, the work also suggests the strong sense of community engendered in times of war, conveying the impression that whole families spend the day on the hill, picnicking and taking in views of the sea while the cars climb in the background.
Joan Jonas, Jane Farver and Jens Hoffmann, Tele-journeys, exhibition catalogue, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002.
Amiel Grumberg, ‘Yael Bartana’, Art Review, vol.54, December 2003-January 2004, p.102.
Andreas Schlaegel, ‘Aperto Amsterdam’, Flash Art, vol.36, January/February 2003, pp.61-4.