Domus | Simona Bordone | July 2018
Memory Montage | An interview with Omar Kholeif
In this interview Omar Kholeif talks to Uriel Orlow about his recent project for Ibraaz Platform 008: 2922 Days(2014), a culmination of two earlier works that uncover the undocumented eight-year entrapment of 14 cargo ships in the Suez Canal at the outbreak of the 1967 war between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Orlow explains how his discovery of this un-authored historical moment and subsequent detective-like research developed into a project in which the ‘heterotopia’ of creativity and community-building became manifest in the montage approach he adopted for the work, connecting this ‘time-capsule’ in the Great Bitter Lake with other events taking place across the world during this period.
Omar Kholeif: How did 2922 Days (2014) begin as a project?
Uriel Orlow: 2922 Days remixes two previous works The Bitterlake Chronicles and Anatopism – both of which are part of the work-cycle The Short and the Long of It (2010–12). The Bitterlake Chronicles consists of images presented on a display table while Anatopism is a slide projection. I wanted to explore the possibilities of combining the two works. I was interested in the time-capsule aspect of the community of sailors trapped in the Suez Canal from 1967 to 1975 – not just what was going on aboard the ships but also in the world around them. I collected book, film and music titles as well as events that occurred during the eight years of the ships’ entrapment. These are not presented chronologically in the work; my interest lies more in the connections, repetitions and developments but also arbitrary associations. The apparent standstill at the Great Bitter Lake transforms into the centre of the world and everything revolves around it.More
A Conversation about Unmade Film
Andrea Thal: I would like to start our conversation by considering the form and the title of your body of work Unmade Film and how these relate to the contents. Over the last few years you have created works in the form of assemblages comprising diverse media and formats, which are configured differently, depending on the context and the exhibition situation –we’ve already talked about that on another occasion.1 In the case of Unmade Film, this fragmentation and the implicit refusal to settle for a finished, fixed form has given the work its title. “Unmade” points both to the idea of a film that was planned but never made and to a film that once existed but has now been dismantled again. In that sense, the title also touches on aspects of temporality, in that it transposes us into a time both before and after the making of the “film”, in such a way that these two conditions both connect and remain in a state of abeyance. Unmade Film also addresses again questions and issues surrounding the politics of history and memory in connection with the Holocaust and, as such, the history of your own family, which already played a central part in your earliest artistic works. This return to your family’s own history in Unmade Film is characterised by the superimposition of multiple traumas and injuries resulting from the catastrophic impact of the Shoah and the Nakba. However, this simultaneous presence is extremely fragile, not only because the horror and the incomprehensibility of those events are all but impossible to pin down but also because they are suppressed, and the connection between the two is highly problematic in many respects. I would be interested to know how your personal experience plays into the complexity (in terms of both time and the politics of memory) of society’s “blind spots” concerning those events and how these relate to the form and concept of an “unmade film” and to the limits of representability?
Uriel Orlow: Already in these earlier works, which were concerned with the Holocaust, I was struggling with the impossibility of representation and memory. The unsaid and unsayable, and the absence of memory in my family were just as deep-rooted within me as the fragments of this dark prehistory that I did pick up as a child. Trauma arises from the paradox that it is not over and keeps coming back – like a symptom or an affliction – precisely because it resists memory and, as such, any form of processing. As someone born after the event, I am transgenerationally “haunted” by its implications. In these works, I didn’t want to focus on the past as such or to specifically address my own family history–it seemed inappropriate to simply attempt to bridge the temporal and representational gap. I began to think about history in spatial (rather than chronological) terms and concentrated on evidence that can still be located at specific sites. These places, for instance a synagogue in Poznan that was turned into a swimming pool by the Nazis in 1942 and became the core of my video 1942 (Poznan), are exactly the kind of “blind spots” you mentioned. The violence is at the heart of these places and they bear witness to it without representing it. So I was not trying to represent that past but rather the questions it poses for us, and approach the ethics and the politics of memory in the present. I felt it was important not only to engage with these questions with reference to my own identity but also to situate them in a wider context. In later works, I looked at other historically charged places to which I had no personal connection and started to examine my own position in relation to them (as an outsider, albeit an outsider who is implicated in a much wider historical configuration). Unmade Film unites these two positions because, although there is a personal connection, this work also required me to address a history that is not my own. Some years ago, when I became aware of the connection between the Israeli mental health centre Kfar Sha’ul and the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, which was depopulated in a massacre committed by Zionist militias in 1948, I felt personally affected. During family holidays in Israel as a child and a teenager, I had often visited my great-aunt in that same clinic. She had survived Auschwitz and emigrated to Palestine, where she suffered a nervous breakdown in the early 1950s. Eventually, she was admitted to Kfar Sha’ul, where she died more than thirty years later. The listless patients sitting around the grounds of Kfar Sha’ul and its desolate atmosphere left a deep impression on me. Although Holocaust survivors had found refuge in Israel and in this hospital, it was, at the same time, as though they had been put away and completely forgotten by society at large (while the Holocaust played, and still plays, a central part in the national discourse). I felt incredulous, distressed, and angry at the realisation that precisely this refuge had been constructed amongst the ruins of a Palestinian village that was ethnically cleansed just a few years earlier; angry also at the silence surrounding these circumstances to this day (there’s no commemorative plaque, for instance). This willful ignorance is not just about suppressing history, it also involves the physical covering up of one trauma with another. What does it mean when one trauma conceals another, in other words, when one trauma’s immanent incapacity for remembrance becomes the obstruction of memory for another? These questions are also bound up in the politics of memory and the position and role the Holocaust plays in the national discourse within Israel (and elsewhere in the Jewish Diaspora). At the same time, in both physical-geographical and mental-conceptual terms, the layering of the Shoah and the Nakba at Deir Yassin / Kfar Sha’ul also leads to new aporias. Although it forces us to think of the Holocaust and the Nakba together, it would be problematic if this led to making comparisons that would implicitly equate one trauma with the other. The open, fragmentary form of Unmade Film arose from precisely the impossibility of doing justice to all the different aspects and the complexity of this place and its history in a single work. The usual memory-pitfalls surrounding the Holocaust and the Nakba and the specific configuration of Deir Yassin and Kfar Sha’ul coupled with my own growing awareness of a kind of hegemony of memory (in other words, the secrecy and/or determination to suppress the consequences of the Zionist politics of occupation) became the starting point for this project. That and the problem I have already touched on, the problem of the logic of comparisons, convinced me that I couldn’t simply juxtapose the story of my great-aunt with the history of Deir Yassin, although she and my personal, emotional connection to the place were, of course, central to the process of Unmade Film (and are present in The Stills, for instance). As in earlier works, I felt it was important to get away from the temporal and narrative dimensions of history and to approach the historical palimpsest spatially, through place, as is the case in The Voiceover, an imaginary audio tour through Deir Yassin /Kfar Sha’ul. The history of the massacre of 9April 1948 and its crucial influence on the subsequent Palestinian exodus has been written about (although it is still a source of controversy and debate in the Israeli mainstream) and has in some ways come to epitomise the Nakba in Palestinian collective memory. Nevertheless, the place itself–that’s to say, Deir Yassin /Kfar Sha’ul–remains all but unknown, geographically invisible (like over four hundred other villages that were cleared in 1948). This is also due to the fact that in many senses this place is “out of bounds”, Survivors of the massacre or their descendants who now live on the West Bank are often not permitted to travel to Jerusalem; and then there is also the fact that Kfar Sha’ul, as a mental health centre, is not open to the general public, which means that it also eludes representation in a physical sense. The place is in a mental realm, in all respects.More
Chewing The Scenery
ed. Andrea Thal (Zürich: Edition Fink, 2011)
Produced for Switzerland’s contribution at the 54th Venice Biennale, designed by Georg Rutishauser and Anna Frei, with artistic contributions by Maria Iorio / Raphaël Cuomo, Uriel Orlow and Eran Schaerf.More
ed. Tirdad Zolghadr (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010)
Contributions by Claire Feely, Eva Weinmayr, Judith Raum, Shirana Shahbazi, Oraib Toukan, Linda Franke, Erik Wenzel, Gürsoy Dogtas, Bettina Malcomess, Mariangela Méndez, Agnieszka Kurant, Ricardo Valentim, Ethan Breckenridge.
Correspondence between Uriel Orlow and Hans-Rudolf Reust: Download PDFMore
The Transgenerational Memory of Monkeys
Contributions by Stuart Brisley, Zoe Brown, Nichola Bruce and Rebecca Marshall, Jem Finer, Judith Goddard, Dryden Goodwin, Tony Grisony, Mark Harris, Andrew Kötting, J. Maizlish, Trine Lise Nederaas, Saskia Olde Wolbers, Uriel Orlow, Tom Paine, Sarah Pucill, Alice Maude-Roxby, Tal Sterngast, Gary Stevens, Peter Suchin.More
Life is More Important Than Art
ed. by Gilane Tawadros w. introduction by Paul Hobson (Ostrich, 2007)
An investigation of the current conditions for making and presenting contemporary art with contributions from Faisal Abdu’Allah, Wendy Anderson, Stuart Brisley, Simon Callery, Stuart Croft, Yara El-Sherbini, Raimi Gbadamosi, Susan Hiller, Gabriel Kuri, David Medalla, Stephen Nelson, Uriel Orlow, João Penalva, Zineb Sedira, John Seth, Yinka Shonibare, Terry Smith, Alia Syed, Anne Tallentire and Simon Tegala.More