Uriel Orlow uses diverse artforms to investigate where history, place and memory intersect and resonate in the present, whether in archived documents, the physical body or in geographical locations themselves. Rather than reconstruct history as the past, for which the viewer may feel little or no responsibility, Orlow’s work traces history’s charge in the present so that the viewer may experience its living continuity. His work asks what are the terms in which experience, either overwhelmingly traumatic, such as the Holocaust, or learned, as in classical music training, is contained. What are the means by which we classify, categorise and assimilate knowledge, both intellectually and physically? Like points in a stellar constellation, Orlow’s work shapes connections between these systems, making what seems untranslatable, both poetic and precise.
In ‘1942 Poznan’ 1996-2002, Orlow films the site of a Polish synagogue which was converted into a public swimming pool by the Nazis. In a vertical pan of almost 360 degrees, that scans the tiled floor, a swimmer doing a length, the architectural signs of the synagogue, the viewer becomes inserted into the gap to complete the circle, thereby experiencing the ‘now’ of the Holocaust’s legacy. A Hungarian cantor’s mourning song delicately situates the sorrow of the evacuation of cultural and spiritual meaning and the Jews themselves.
‘Housed Memory’ 2002, made during a residency at the Weiner Library, which archives the Holocaust, uses the powerful trope of absence to articulate history’s expansive and determining presence. Rather than film the horrors of the documents themselves, Orlow uses a tracking shot of the library shelves to communicate the engulfing weight of knowledge they house. Interviews with the staff of the library provide an emotional and intimate counterbalance in the soundtrack. The piece evokes the enormity of the trauma of the Holocaust by showing the impossibility of its representation. The unthinkable becomes part of a larger whole happening in the present. The length of time it took to film each shelf determined the nine hours’ duration of the artwork as though it was Orlow’s responsibility in his attempt to honour the material and the lost lives it records to avoid the possibility of creating yet another gap.
‘The Benin Project’ 2007, continues this examination of the far-reaching legacy of history, tracing the story of the thousands of bronze artefacts stolen from the Kingdom of Benin by the British in 1897. Becoming a character in a modern quest tale, Orlow travels to Benin to ask the King and his chiefs how they feel without the artefacts, which were essential tools to serve their collective memory. His questions and their responses highlight the cultural and historical slippages that hamper their communication. Another piece called ‘Worldwide Benin’ 2007, tracks the dispersion of the looted objects throughout the western world in a scrolling video list and a wall drawing of a global constellation showing their 500 locations.
The sorting and untwisting of information overload is another key theme in Orlow’s work and the burden of the task of selecting images and text that comprise knowledge, and art itself, is shared through his practice. ‘Satellite Contact’ 2004-5, made with Ruth McLennan, delivers the mechanical marvel of the shifting of data in the National Archives in Kew (formerly the Public Records Office) in which two back-to-back cameras track the progress of boxes on tracks through the hidden interior of the building, coming to rest in a spilt screen that paints a series of abstract, unreadable diptych.
The formal strategy of the video diptych is also used in ‘Midday, Midnight’ 2006, a one minute loop which measures the time it takes to cross a steel bridge at midday and midnight on each solstice within the Arctic Circle. Here time is condensed like a haiku to ‘Housed Memory’’s epic. While historical time has immeasurable emotional lifetimes, natural cycles of time can be collated in a snapshot, but here the brightness and dimness are reversed leaving the viewer destabilised, out of place and time.
The trope of absence/presence is visualised in two further video pieces: in ‘In Concert’ 2005, a cellist and a pianist play along to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 without their instruments. In this poignant, virtuoso inversion of karaoke, Orlow looks at how the body itself stores memory in ways we cannot quantify or capture on film. Are there ways in which gestures and movements retell our pasts without our knowledge and thus determine how we occupy the present and our futures? This theme is continued in ‘Descent’ 2006, in which a young pregnant Israeli woman talks about her reaction to living in Switzerland and her body’s inscribed reaction to a fire alarm as if it were an air-raid siren. She speaks of the ‘bubble of quiet’, which she finds almost as disturbing as the constant fear she lived with before. Again Orlow is drawn to the unsaid, the gaps in her narrative which embody the ongoing, painful legacy of war, displacement and the Holocaust.
© Cherry Smyth