Swiss artist Uriel Orlow’s multi-work installation Remnants of the Future, all works 2010, ruminates on time travel, architectureand Armenia since the 1915 Ottoman-Turkish genocide, the 1988 Spitak earthquake and the collapse of the SovietUnion in 1991. The dominant element – a video loop – is astudy of Mush, a vast housing project in Gyumri, northern Armenia. Mush has had two incarnations. The first Mush was the site of massacres during the 1915 genocide, the second was constructed to accommodate the people displaced by the Spitak earthquake. This project was curtailed by the break-up of the Soviet Union, leaving the reconstruction of Mush in stasis – a hollow concrete exoskeleton haunted by the spectres of failed state capitalism and the neglect of free markets. The video is elegantly shot and edited, with striking sound. Via a sequence of long and horizontal panning shots we see Mush in topographical context, a brooding anachronism set among dun-coloured hills and arid khaki scrub. As Orlow’s camera gradually swoops closer to Mush life, colour and activity are revealed. Hawks hover and finches perch, a blue plastic carrier bag ensnared by a bush trembles frenetically in a breeze (in the gallery an identical carrier bag is suspended from the ceiling to the left of the screen). Scavengers salvage scrap metals, an elderly lady in crimson hangs laundry out to dry on dilapidated fencing, children play in a rusting playground, a cattle herd armed with a scythe walks amongst animals, rubble and thistles. An elderly male in a straw hat straightens bent wire with a hammer, his hammering a delightful series of extra-musical pings. The video’s captivating audio track, composed/designed by Mikhail Karikis, slips furtively between warm naturalism – field recordings of quotidian activity – and the cold chirruping modulations of the electro-acoustically processed radio signals of pulsars. As Mush moves from day to night the soundtrack becomes more insistent, a pulsating skein of sub bass frequencies and telegrammatic sine tones. Then, quite suddenly, an electronically processed female voice begins to speak. This section appropriates text from Mayakovsky’s play The Bathhouse. Premiered unsuccessfully a few months before the playright’s suicide in 1930, The Bathhouse is a time-travel satire that lampoons Soviet politics and bureaucracy. ‘I’m an emissary from the future. I have switched into your time for twenty four hours. Time is short and our aim high … Direction: infinity.’ The sudden introduction of this section of speech provides a compellingly odd perceptual jolt. Like Mush itself, it seems displaced; written in the 1930s by a man out of sync, speaking from the future to the past.
On a plinth, in the same space as the video loop, lies the text piece Top Lines – two heavily redacted British government policy documents concerning Armenian and Turkish relations. In the basement area of the gallery there are other supporting materials: collections of photographs, pencil tracings of Soviet death masks, Soviet Sleep, and After The End of History, a first edition book cover of Francis Fukuyama’s neo-liberal classic The End of History. The photographs consist of production stills, large colour prints of areas destroyed by the Spitak earthquake and Still Aftershock, a selection of colour and black and white images culled from personal archives, the Gyumri public library and the Gyumri city archive. Among these images are two curious shots of politicians and their spouses. One depicts a flustered looking Mikhail Gorbachev pictured with his late wife Raisa amid a crowd, the other a disturbingly vibrant image of Margaret and Dennis Thatcher standing beside a red coach surveying a scene unrevealed by the photograph. Margaret, in a blue suit with white-piping, looks perplexed and Dennis embarrassed. The day I visited the gallery the Wall Street Journal reported that, after decades of tension, attempts to develop positive diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia had collapsed. That same week miraculous stories of survival in Haiti were all over the media as people were dragged out of earthquake ruins days after official rescue operations had ceased. One wonders what Haiti’s fate will be and whether it, too, like Mush will be subject to subsequent indifference and neglect.
Uriel Orlow’s Remnants of the Future is at heart a strange and subtle paean to absence, survival and the resourcefulness of people in the aftermath of a cataclysm. It is refreshing in its empathy, subtlety and resistance to mawkishness. The video is the strongest component, though time with the other elements is necessary despite an initial sense of extraneousness.
Richard Thomas is a producer at Resonance FM.