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Archive: Features


The Botanical City | Matthew Candy and Sandra Jasper

Roadside “weeds” and other routinely overlooked aspects to urban nature provide a fascinating glimpse into complex global ecologies and new cultures of nature emerging across the world. This unique collection of essays explores the botanical dimensions of urban space, ranging from scientific efforts to understand the distinctive dynamics of urban flora to the way spontaneous vegetation has inspired artists and writers.
The book comprises five thematic sections: “Histories and taxonomies,” “Botanizing the asphalt,” “The art of urban flora,” “Experiments in non-design,” and “Cartographic imaginations”. The essays explore developments in Berlin, London, Lahore, Tokyo, and many other cities, as well as more philosophical reflections on the meaning of urban nature under the putative shift to the Anthropocene.

Featuring still images from The Fairest Heritage.


Brand New Life | Philipp Spillmann | June 2018

In his long-term artistic project Theatrum Botanicum, Uriel Orlow considers plants as actors on a political stage: protagonists of colonial trade, flower diplomacy, or bio-piracy. As such, they serve as a prism through which environmental colonial history can be re-negotiated. Theatrum Botanicum can be read as an attempt to decolonize both, history and nature. And for decolonizing nature, it is crucial how plants are considered as acting and living beings. If they tell stories about colonialism, how are they brought to speak? […]

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Erik Bullot on Unmade Film

Why summon a model based on film to organise the series of visual art works making up the overall project known as Unmade Film, Uriel Orlow’s multipart body of work that is bound up with the memory of Deir Yassin? This Palestinian village is the site of a massacre in 1948 where, three years later, a psychiatric hospital was established for survivors of the Holocaust. The obvious presence of film and its paradigmatic function appears to be at the core of the work. The title immediately sets the tone: Unmade Film suggests “film to come” and “future film”, while the modifier “unmade” of course brings to mind something left undone, stressing process and production as well as promise. Moreover, it is not a stretch to hear in “unmade” a critical allusion to the Duchampian ready-made. But rather than found film in the sense of found footage – in other words a reused, recycled object–the project involves a future film, one that is pending, on hold, and what we are presented with is the preliminary work (the reconnaissance, the storyboard), or elements that are separate from the film itself (the staging, the voiceover, the score).

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Hanan Toukan | Continuity from Rupture | 2013

in Unmade Film, ed. Uriel Orlow (Zurich: edition fink, 2013)

“By the end of the [1948] war,” writes Walid Khalidi in All That Remains, “hundreds of entire villages had not only been depopulated but obliterated… travellers of Israeli roads and highways can see traces of their presence that would escape the notice of the casual passer-by: a fenced-in area – often surmounting a gentle hill – of olive and other fruit trees left untended, of cactus hedges and domesticated plants run wild. Now and then a few crumbled houses are left standing, a neglected mosque or church, collapsing walls along the ghost of a village lane, but in the vast majority of cases, all that remains is a scattering of stones and rubble across a forgotten landscape.”

Enter Uriel Orlow’s multipartite Unmade Film. This impossible film – this not-yet-made film, this fragmented film that never fully becomes one, despite its “plan” to do so – has been emerging over an extended and ongoing period of research and production that excavates multiple narratives and layered meanings that converge in Deir Yassin. Yet by never actually being realised, Orlow’s Unmade Film reconstructs a narrative of space, time and historical blind spots that adds layers of unsettled new meaning to questions of subconscious pain, trauma and suffering in the contexts of obliterated geo-histories.

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Flash Art | Virginie Bobin | July 2013

Projected Histories: Uriel Orlow’s Unmade Film
Virginie Bobin
Centre Culturel Suisse, Paris May 3 – July 14, 2013

“I discovered that the earth was fragile and the sea light; I discovered that language and metaphor are not enough to provide a place for the place. The geographical part of History is stronger than the historical part of geography. Unable to find my place on earth, I tried to find it in History. And History cannot be reduced to a compensation for a lost geography.”
Did Swiss artist Uriel Orlow think of these words by poet Mahmoud Darwish, published in Palestine as Metaphor, when he faced the difficulty of narrating the story of Deir Yassin — a former Palestinian village on the edge of Jerusalem, raided by Israeli paramilitary forces in April 1948 — from a single viewpoint? Orlow is accustomed to wandering through what he calls “secondary places” of history. His multifaceted works often weave unsettling micro-narratives into the fabric of the dominant ones. Re-assembling fragments of the past into the present with a discreet agility, Orlow’s films, installations and books compose a travelogue in which different times and figures haunt each other and alter the memories of the visitor in turn.

Unmade Film, The Voiceover, 2013

In 1949, Deir Yassin, emptied from its inhabitants, most of whom where killed in the attack, was turned into a psychiatric hospital dedicated to sheltering survivors of the Holocaust. Still active today, the hospital and thus the site of the former village are inaccessible to outside visitors. The impossibility of experiencing this space and its multilayered traumas corresponds to the impossibility of telling its story — again evoking Darwish, who deplored that Palestinians were not only deprived from their land but also from their past. Without entering it physically, Uriel Orlow chooses to map out the contours of the site through a collection of works: location shoots, rehearsals, scripts, a musical score, the deeply moving audio recording of a fictive guided tour. All comprise an Unmade Film, a work that opens windows on possible histories where the subjective and the collective meet beyond a lost place.

Unmade Film The Reconnaissance, 2012-13

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Frieze | On Rupture | April 2013

by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

How artists and curators have responded to upheaval in the Arab world, from 1967 to the present day

By almost any measure, last summer was terrible in Alexandria. For much of its modern history, Egypt’s second-largest city had been a breezy seaside refuge and an escape for those who could afford the train or bus fare from the chaos and density of Cairo. But 18 months after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s entrenched and autocratic president, the city was a wreck. The streets and public beaches were clogged with rubbish, unemployment anxiety, idle youth and festering anger. Many Cairenes who had vacationed in Alexandria as children, or who had retreated to the city in their adult lives for moments of rest and reprieve, were stunned to find it so agitated and on edge. In the sweltering heat and turbid humidity, amid cloying theories of conspiracy and counter-revolution, it felt like the place was about to explode. With the so-called Arab Spring lurching from euphoria to despair, it seemed pertinent to ask questions related to the writing of a very recent history. What had gone wrong? When had the movement for change in the most populous and politically pivotal country in the Arab world unravelled? What had caused the revolution to crack? And where was the break, the rupture, the tear in the narrative that had been so beautifully woven together on Tahrir Square?

To pose these questions to artists and curators may have seemed eccentric to members of the mainstream Arab media, where cultural production remains niche and a novelty – something wholly sidelined in times of crisis. Yet the answers were almost exactly the same as those of press-friendly pundits, political analysts and popular academics: the moment that darkened the mood of the revolution was surely the massacre in Port Said, when more than 70 football fans were killed, and over 1,000 injured, in a stadium riot that followed a match between the teams Al-Masry and Al-Ahly. The mayhem was allegedly provoked for political reasons – hardcore fans of Al-Ahly had been instrumental in the demonstrations on Tahrir and vocal in their disdain for the military – and the police were said to have stood by and done nothing. A year later, Port Said erupted in violence all over again when a local court handed down death sentences to the 21 fans of Al-Masry (the local team), holding them responsible for the loss of life. The police opened fire on a crowd of protestors, killing 30 people, and then opened fire again on their funeral procession, shooting at the families of those they had just gunned down. This threw Port Said into full revolt. The government declared a curfew, which was emphatically defied. Residents have now stated their audacious desire to secede from the country and declare themselves an independent state. As such, the massacre may soon be regarded not only as the rupture that mattered in the revolution but also as the first critical fracture, if Egypt now well and truly falls apart. But, what do such ruptures or fractures really mean? And how do they play out in and for the field of art, not as historical events or documentary subjects but rather as theoretical concepts influencing both curatorial thought and artistic practice?

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This Is Tomorrow | Matteo Lucchetti | March 2013

Remnants of the Future, Installation View, Spike Island, Bristol, 2013

Uriel Orlow: Back to Back
Spike Island
26 January – 31 March 2013
Review by Matteo Lucchetti

In ‘Illuminations’, in the section entitled ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Walter Benjamin affirms that “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past – which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l’ordre du jour – and that day is a judgment day”. In ‘Back to Back’, the solo exhibition by Uriel Orlow currently at Spike Island, two towns named Mush – one in Northern Armenia and the other in Eastern Turkey – are portrayed in their daily wait for their judgement days to come. While their lives seem stuck in an all-encompassing present, it is impossible for the inhabitants of these towns to deal with the burden of their past.

In the Armenian Mush (Remnants of the Future) for example, we witness the failure of a vast Soviet housing project, initiated after an earthquake in 1988 and then abandoned when the bloc collapsed in 1991. In the case of the Turkish Mush (Plans for the Past), the town is portrayed by the scars left by the Armenian genocide that took place in 1915. Through the creation of a diptych, where two videos are projected on opposite surfaces of the same screen, Orlow represents the routine activities of the Mushs as two sides of the same coin – obscurely connecting the historical intricacy between these two territories. Surrounding the video installation, on five plinths, are archival findings of a possible collective memory that could associate the two villages with a bigger historical framework.

From the textile industry that served the entire Soviet Union, to the empty billboards that stand in wait for the full move to a free market economy – the flow of images is disturbed only by a semi-robotic voice reciting excerpts from the play ‘Bathhouse’ by Vladimir Mayakovsky. His last play before committing suicide, the work by Mayakovsky ratifies, through a satirical mode, the impossibility of a future in the Soviet bureaucratic machine. Within ‘Back to Back’, this citation situates the idea of the future as a thing of the past: a thing that has left these lands at least since the end of the Cold War.

As an archive thinker – as Orlow himself describes the artist engaged in deconstructing the notion of “the archival” – Uriel Orlow here investigates the space and time of a place that has been left behind by a post-1989 transition elsewhere. In the piece ‘After the End of History’, where the cover of the famous Fukuyama book is drawn upside down, it is clear that any idea of the end of history – based on the notion of the spread of a universal Western liberal democracy – has been proven wrong. Many more judgement days are thus left pending in the book of history.

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Frieze | Unseen Blows | November – December 2012

by Amy Sherlock

Review of Unseen Blows, Seventeen Gallery, London

‘By means of unseen blows, some atoms strike each other.’ Appearing on-screen in Uriel Orlow’s film Holy Precursor (2011), these words are taken from ‘The Dance of the Atoms’, the second book of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. An ode to impermanence, this first-century BCE epic describes the universe as constantly in motion: all forms are transient arrangements of atoms that conjoin and are dispersed – by way of the unseen blows from which this concise and considered three-person show took its name – in a perpetual cycle of creation and destruction. Orlow intersperses lines from Lucretius with shots from in and around a Kurdish village in eastern Turkey, the site of the former Surb Karapet monastery. One of the most ancient institutions and sites of pilgrimage in Ottoman Armenia, the monastery was razed during the Armenian genocide of 1915.

The camera meanders through the village, where ramshackle houses have absorbed the ruins of the toppled monastery in new configurations. Incongruously ornate door jambs and intricately carved window sills serve as a quiet reminder that, for all its pretensions to transcendence, sacred architecture, too, is contingent and historical. Outside of the village, women lay flowers in the meadows in a kind of ritual of restitution whose unexplained significance is left to linger. Orlow’s meditation on transience is softly, understatedly mournful, more moving for the light touch with which it handles a heavy theme.

On the opposite wall of the gallery, a suite of four photographs by Mandla Reuter (from the series ‘Prospect, 330 Waldon Pl.’, 2010) documented a place of pilgrimage of a very different kind. Taken from a piece of land owned by the artist in Los Angeles, they capture the city in the hazy in-between hours of dusk and dawn. The skyline is inverted, with the muted silhouettes of distant high-rises and mountain ranges seeming to bleed down into luminous seas, giving the series a dreamily evanescent feel as they edge towards a Rothko-in-miniature abstraction. This inversion is the only nod to a practice more frequently concerned with a Michael Asher-like play of inside/outside, display/concealment within the exhibition context. As with other works, such as A Plot (2011), in which soil from this same piece of Los Angeles was transposed into the dramatic vaulted hall of De Vleeshal, Middelburg, the title of this series is playfully multivalent: the view (or ‘prospect’) from 330 Waldon Place shimmers with the balmy glow of promise and potential, playing cleverly on the landscape’s gold-rush history and its position in cultural mythology as a place where dreams are made and sold.

Toby Christian’s untitled installation intrigued by managing to be both the show’s most concrete piece and its most conceptual. Sheets of green paper printed with a descriptive text could be torn from a neat, wall-mounted A4 block. The text read like an establishing shot – panning through an empty film set with the actors holed-up in their trailers backstage. ‘Two mostly white carrier bags, one inside the other, tied together at the top, are propped against the wall near the corner of a small room, plump.’ There were no bags, of course. Which is not to say that there had not been, or might not be at some future point. And the description, whilst lingering with a certain cinematic intensity on the minutiae of surface, remained curiously, and somehow disconcertingly, non-specific. On the floor nearby, a low and unassuming L-shaped block formed the work’s sculptural element, the only one in the show. This was perhaps intended as a casual perch for the viewer, aiming to specify, or at least suggest, a location for the act of reading. Or, better, it was a plinth, anchoring the textual space in the physical context of the gallery – the imaginary in the real. Apparently empty, it was a fitting pedestal for a show paying quiet homage to ‘elsewhere’ places and unseen blows.

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Kunstbulletin | Sønke Gau | September 2011

Der Künstler Uriel Orlow untersucht in seinen vielschichtigen Videoinstallationen das Verhältnis zwischen individuellen und kollektiven Konstruktionen von Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft. Gleichzeitig thematisiert er Überlagerungen von Dokumentation und Fiktion. Mit seinen jüngsten Arbeiten ist er nun im Rahmen von ‹Chewing the Scenery› an der Biennale Venedig sowie im Kunstraum la rada in Locarno zu Gast.

Uriel Orlow – Eine Vergangenheit haben wir, Geschichte müssen wir uns geben

«Im kollektiven Gedächtnis herrscht Platzmangel», stellte die Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaftlerin Aleida Assmann einmal fest. Im Gegensatz zum individuellen Erinnern beruhe das kollektive Gedächtnis, etwa jenes von Nationen, auf narrativen Strukturen und klaren Aussagen. Diese werden getroffen anhand symbolischer Zeichen, welche «die einzelnen Erinnerungen auswählen, fixieren, verallgemeinern und über die Grenzen von Generationen hinweg tradierbar machen»1. Vergangenheit also, welche nicht in diese Konstruktion passt, wird aussortiert.
So lässt sich der Sechstagekrieg zwischen Israel und den arabischen Staaten Ägypten, Syrien und Jordanien von 1967 als Teil des kollektiven Gedächtnisses bezeichnen. Die Auswirkungen dieses Konfliktes beeinflussen die Geopolitik der Region bis heute. Weniger bekannt ist, dass die damalige Schliessung des Suezkanals dazu führte, dass vierzehn internationale Frachtschiffe und deren Besatzungen bis zur neuerlichen Öffnung der Seeverbindung im Jahr 1975 ihre Fahrt nicht fortsetzen konnten und in der breiteren Mitte des Kanals, im Great Bitter Lake, annähernd acht Jahre festsassen.

Fussnote der Geschichte
Uriel Orlow nimmt diese Fussnote der Geschichte als Ausgangspunkt seiner Arbeit ‹The Short and the Long of it›, 2010. Die auf umfangreichen Recherchen basierende Installation verknüpft verschiedene Medien und Zeitebenen, wodurch ein dichtes Netz an Bezügen entsteht: Alte Fotografien und Super8-Filme der blockierten Seeleute zeigen, wie aus der Notsituation heraus eine temporäre pan-nationale Gemeinschaft – die Great Bitter Lake Association – entstand.
Hauptziel der Vereinigung war, dass sich die Besatzungsmitglieder untereinander anfreunden, gegenseitig Hilfe leisten und sich die Wartezeit verkürzen. So feierten sie zusammen Weihnachten oder organisierten parallel zu den Olympischen Spielen in Mexiko eigene Wettkämpfe in unterschiedlichen Disziplinen. Diese Aufnahmen kombiniert Orlow mit solchen, die ihn selbst bei der Recherche vor Ort zeigen. Eine parallel ablaufende Diapräsentation blendet Texttafeln ein, auf denen neben wichtigen weltpolitischen Ereignissen gleichberechtigt die Titel von Filmen und Musikalben genannt werden, die während der achtjährigen Wartezeit erschienen sind. Ein Monitor zeigt eine an einen Granateneinschlag erinnernde Rauchsäule in Super-Zeitlupe über Wüstensand, der an eine Wasserfläche angrenzt. Dieses Wasser wiederum strömt in Normalzeit, wodurch, gepaart mit der verlangsamten Abbildung der Rauchsäule, zwei verschiedene Zeitebenen in einem Bild entstehen. Zeichnungen von Fischen, die «unbeeindruckt» von dem Geschehen über Wasser aus dem Roten Meer durch den Suezkanal in das Mittelmeer migrieren, sind neben Fotoarbeiten und weiterem Recherchematerial zu sehen. Ziel des Nebeneinanders, bzw. der komplexen Überlappungen verschiedener Referenz- und Zeitebenen ist es dabei offensichtlich nicht, die mit dem Ereignis verbundene Vergangenheit möglichst vollständig zu rekonstruieren und abzubilden, sondern eher durch die Überlappungen eine Potentialität möglicher Lesweisen zu beschreiben.
Bei ‹The Short and the Long of it› – wie auch bei den Arbeiten von Orlow im Allgemeinen – handelt es sich daher keinesfalls um Geschichtsarbeiten oder Dokumentationen im engeren Sinn. Sie behaupten nicht, die Vergangenheit habe wirklich genau so stattgefunden und sie stellen auch nicht die Frage, ob die «Realität» tatsächlich objektiv dargestellt ist. Vielmehr wird der zugrunde liegende Authentizitätsanspruch zur Diskussion gestellt. Bilder, Aussagen und Zeichen dienen hier als Ausgangsmaterial, aus dem von einer jeweiligen Gegenwart aus ein Bestand an subjektivem Sinn aktualisiert wird. In der Bewegung zwischen den Bestandteilen der Auslegeordnungen in Orlows Arbeiten, mit ihren zahlreichen materiellen, bildlichen und sensorischen Aspekten, sind es die Rezipierenden, welche als Co-Autor/innen eigene Wahrnehmungs- und Erfahrungsaspekte mit den angebotenen Elementen verbinden. Während der Begriff «Geschichte» suggeriert, dass sich diese als lineare Ordnung – quasi als roter Faden durch die Zeit – verstehen liesse, verdeutlicht der Ansatz des Künstlers, dass Geschichte aus unendlich vielen Einzelfasern besteht, die nur durch bewusste Selektion zu so etwas wie einem Faden erklärt werden kann.

Restposten der Zukunft
Dieses Prinzip liegt ebenfalls seiner kurz zuvor entstandenen Arbeit ‹Remnants of the Future›, 2009/10, zu Grunde. Auch in diesem Fall verfolgt der Künstler sein Interesse an der Überlagerung verschiedener Zeitebenen, die sich als Sedimente an einem bestimmten Ort niederschlagen und von dort aus auf der Zeitachse in verschiedene Richtungen verfolgt werden können. Um beim Bild des Fadens zu bleiben: Uriel Orlow nimmt eine Einzelfaser auf und folgt ihr, bis sich neue Verknüpfungen ergeben und so ein zuvor nicht sichtbares Gewebe an Bedeutungszusammenhängen entsteht. ‹Remnants of the Future› verbindet – auf der Basis solcher unterschiedlicher Elemente – das Motiv der Zeitreise nicht nur mit dem Kollaps der Sowjetunion, sondern auch mit der Kehrseite moderner Architektur, dem Erdbeben von Spitak, das 1988 Nordarmenien erschütterte, und nimmt ausserdem Bezug auf den im Ersten Weltkrieg stattgefundenen und umstrittenen Genozid an den Armenier/innen im Osmanischen Reich. Knotenpunkt ist dabei die doppelte (Nicht-)Existenz der Städte Mush.
Im einen Mush (heute in der Türkei) fand 1915 ein Massaker an der armenischen Bevölkerung statt, während im anderen Mush (in Armenien) ein von Michael Gorbatschow in Auftrag gegebenes Wohnprojekt für die Betroffenen des Erdbebens entstehen sollte, welches nach dem ursprünglichen Mush benannt wurde. Das Auseinanderbrechen der Sowjetunion verhinderte dessen Fertigstellung. Beide Mushs lassen sich insofern als «Geisterstädte» bezeichnen. Im Mittelpunkt der Installation steht eine Videoarbeit, welche Beobachtungen und Eindrücke aus dem nicht abgeschlossenen Wohnprojekt zu einer beinahe hypnotischen Intensität verdichtet.
Eindrückliche Bilder vermitteln einen Schwebzustand zwischen den Zeiten, und zeigen eine Stadt, die für die Zukunft entworfen wurde, in der Gegenwart aber bereits aus Ruinen2 besteht. Neben Tieren, die auf dem Areal leben, sieht man nur vereinzelt Menschen durch die Szenerie huschen, die sich hier irgendwie eingerichtet haben und Tätigkeiten nachgehen, die eng mit dem Ort verbunden sind und diesen dabei (ver-)brauchen. Unterlegt sind die Bilder mit einem Soundtrack von Mikhail Karikis, der die spärlichen Geräusche des Alltags mit Radiowellen kombiniert, welche von «sterbenden Sternen» (Pulsaren) ausgehen – lange nachdem sie explodiert sind. Am Ende spricht eine Frauenstimme aus dem kritischen Zeitreisedrama ‹Das Schwitzbad›, 1930, des russischen Regimekritikers und Futuristen Wladimir Majakowski:
«I am an emissary from the future…». Ihre Worte aus dem Off scheinen sich direkt an die Bewohner/innen von Mush zu richten.

Vorboten der Vergangenheit
Die künstlerischen Projekte Uriel Orlows verdeutlichen, wie Wissensarchitekturen durch die Anordnung von Aussagen, Artefakten oder Dokumenten entstehen. Sein Vorgehen ist ein archäologisches; die im Zuge seiner Recherchen zusammengestellten «Archive» stellen jedoch nicht den Anspruch einer allgemeingültigen Konstruktion von Erinnerung. Sie verstehen sich eher als Notizen, welche durch die Neuanordnung von Informationen Möglichkeitsräume für andere Bedeutungen eröffnen. Seine aktuellste Arbeit ‹Precursors of the Past› knüpft direkt an ‹Remnants of the Future› an und setzt die begonnene Recherche in dem ursprünglichen Mush in der Türkei fort. Elemente von beiden Arbeiten sind im Rahmen des von Andrea Thal kuratierten Projektes ‹Chewing the Scenery› auf der Biennale in Venedig zu sehen. Orlows Publikationsbeitrag und seine Lecture Performance tragen den Titel ‹Aide-Mémoire›. Im diplomatischen Verkehr werden so die kurzen notizähnlichen Niederschriften mündlicher Erklärungen bezeichnet – als Gedächtnisstützen.

Sønke Gau, Kulturwissenschaftler, Kurator und Autor.

1 Aleida Assmann: Kollektives Gedächtnis
2 Robert Smithson prägte für diesen Zustand den Begriff «Ruins in Reserve». Vgl.: Robert Smithson Gesam­-
melte Schriften, Köln/Wien 2000, S. 100


Marina Vishmidt | The External Cause of the Image | 2011

published in The Short and The Long of It, Mousse Publishing, Milan, 2011

Transnational shipping routes traverse time zones invented to synchronize the sun’s uneven impact on a globe girded by continuous capital flows. The world as calibrated in an electronic panel showing navigation or stock market data. The universality of exchange requires a homogeneous time. The principle of risk management is control of time; at the same time, entropy creates profits in a differentiated system. To dub this a rationalized time, and oppose to this a local and dense experience of lived time would be to misrecognize the abstract conditions of lived experience, whether this be the pure intuition of time as a blank medium for the human relation to the world or the really abstract time of capital, just as it would be admitting the claims of the rational in the same spirit in which they’re made. Homogeneous and empty time puts us all to work, and whatever survives is the carcass of time. How to stop the state machinery of time? As Benjamin notes, it is by stepping out of the time of everyday experience that experience can again be possible. Because there is no reality outside time, changing time underlies all modern political and artistic attempts to transform reality, from revolutionary calendars and Communards shooting the clocks, to the malleable time of experimental cinema to cut-up chronologies in the novel and the veritable agonies of durational performance.  Robert Smithson’s ‘humorous dimension of time’ has some bearing here also,  capable as it may be of bridging the utopian contretemps with time and postmodernism’s elision of history, marked by gentle and homiletic ironies: it is this latter sensibility that informs today’s reversions to modernism.

As always (perhaps), the most conclusive instances of a cultural thesis are the involuntary ones.  The episode of cargo ships trapped in the Suez Canal for eight years, following the outbreak of a war that officially lasted just six days does rather evoke a giant performance piece, read in its geopolitical and social context.  Or a mythic time: the Egyptian blockade of the canal meant to halt the incursion of the Israeli army was not unlike casting a spell over the major navigation channel.  It is baffling that the spell was so effective. What about the cargo?  What about the profits? Where were the airlifts? It is hard to imagine such a lapse of efficiency in any global trade circuit, much less the high-churn, containerized shipping industry we know from today.  In ‘The Short and Long of It’ project, incorporating the video ‘Yellow Limbo’ named after the ‘Yellow Fleet’ of 14 ships marooned from 1967 to 1975, Uriel Orlow tries to re-imagine this little-known incident.

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Passages | Lilo Weber | 2011

Hallucinating by the Suez Canal

When Israeli fighter jets attacked Egyptian airfields on 5 July 1967, triggering the Six-Day War, 14 cargo ships under the flags of eight nations were headed north on the Suez Canal. Theirs was to be a long journey. The freight- ers were ordered to halt on the Great Bitter Lake, the salt-water basin between the northern and southern arms of the canal that serves ships as a lay-by. For the 14 freighters it was to become a prison when the Suez Canal was subsequently closed for eight years. The passage between the Red Sea and the mediterranean was not re-opened until 1975, following a second conflict.
This is the stuff that Uriel Orlow’s art is made of. The London-based Swiss artist is fascinated by events that play out, as he says, “in the shadow of world history”, in which he sees great potential for artistic and representational purposes. His previous installation, “Remnants of the Future” (2010), drew on his research in a ghost town in northern Armenia. The town had been established under Mikhail Gorbachev, but remained unfinished following the col- lapse of the Soviet Union. For his latest work, “The Short and the Long of It”, Orlow traveled to Egypt and spent time on the Suez Canal. He can no longer recall when he first heard about the ships on the Bitter Lakes. most probably it was the postage stamps that alerted him to the story. […]

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Sally O’Reilly | The Short and the Long of it | 2010

While the focus of The Short and The Long of It is a real event, Uriel Orlow is more intent on permitting us glimpses than revealing the whole picture. Spilling evocative images and letting out the narrative like yards of rope, Orlow in turn leads and obscures our reading of carefully edited artefacts, images and texts, so that the momentum of our own curiosity dictates the extent of our fragmentary understanding.

The installation relates to an incident that unfolded during the outbreak of the ‘Six Day War’, or the ‘June War’ in 1967. The conflict between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria re-inscribed the US/USSR divide of the concurrent Cold War, as well as the ongoing Arab–Israeli confrontation. In short, as a result of heavy artillery fire and sunken trawlers at either end of the Suez Canal, 14 cargo ships of various nationalities were stranded for eight years in the Great Bitter Lake, a large body of water at the canal’s midpoint where ships pass one another before re-entering the one-way traffic.

Trapped in the eye of a political and military storm, this rum collection of commercial seafarers formed the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA), a pan-national alliance whose main aim was, firstly, to survive; secondly, to create a functioning society between ships; and thirdly, to fill the days, months and years ahead. The GBLA mirrored the evolution of civilisation in microcosm, quickly developing from a programme of contingent survival to one that incorporated robust infrastructures of communication, formally organised leisure pursuits and casual frivolity. Specially designed postal stamps effectively declared the lake as a territory to be factored into global geographies, while onboard Olympic Games converted what Noam Chomsky has referred to as the ‘irrational jingoism’ of the official Olympics to a pan-national gesture of resilient, playful solidarity.

The GBLA might consequently be thought of as a utopian society where antagonisms between nations, creeds, classes and so on have been eradicated; the itinerant essence of a ship, and the globalism it embodies, setting it apart from the territorializing war of attrition that raged around it. On the other hand, the reality may be less idealistic, with the hard-boiled commercial shippers’ insistence that crew remain to safeguard vessels and cargo marking an imperative that simply pitches all hands against looters instead of one another.

Orlow does not indicate which interpretation he favours. He is careful to encourage broad historical, formal or theoretical inferences over specific politics, which the divergent range of media, formats and genres scatters further through its prismatic reflection of different timeframes. A video interleaving vintage photographs and Super8 film shot by crewmembers with the artist’s own recent footage on location is paired with a series of text slides that names moments of particular relevance, general importance or personal interest from the eight years of the ships’ confinement. This three- way comparison of events, disembodied from the timeline of experience, creates a complication
of concurrence, consequence and dissociation, giving rise to a sense that time is pleated, causality radiating and that this rippling expanse of saltwater somehow communicates diagonally through time.

The accompanying selection of found material sets up a similar dynamic field of information, where historical representation is ribboned through with facts, associations, symbolism and poetics. Images of a glut of apples rotting in their boxes, for instance, becomes an exemplar of the flow of capital abruptly halted by the canal’s closure; a snapshot of men in drag hints at the socio-sexual impact of confinement; Orlow’s drawings of fish that have migrated from the Red Sea to the warmer Mediterranean express admiration for the ingenuity of nature and its continuing rhythms of passage beneath the ship’s static hulls, while a sober image of a photographic slide box reminds us of the persuasive archival processes at work that make the past shimmeringly visible. But, whereas nostalgia articulates the weighty pain of partition from a personal past and historiography bundles it with cool rationality, Orlow’s open-handed presentation retrieves a history that is buoyant with the potential of the indeterminate.

Sally O’Reilly