Uriel Orlow interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini and Elisa Adami.
This is the second part of our interview with Uriel Orlow about his latest show in London, The Reconnaissance at Seventeen Gallery. The Reconnaissance is one of ten elements that make up the project Unmade Film (2012-13). In this second part of our interview, we will be exploring The Reconnaissance, while in Part 1 we discussed Unmade Film.
A Conversation about The Reconnaissance
EA: When looking at The Reconnaissance, I was struck by the conversation between Pier Paolo Pasolini and Robert Smithson. That’s an interesting match. They are quite different characters: one is an Italian film-maker and writer who laments the loss of an archaic, peasant and pre-capitalist culture; the other an American artist with a background in geology, who explores and studies the architectural by-products or detritus of the capitalist society as one can analyse the fossils of different ages. I’m curious, how did the idea of putting these two characters in conversation occur to you?
UO: I think your question puts it very well. There is a connection between these two laments, from different times and places. While I was researching for The Reconnaissance I re-watched Pasolini’s documentary-film Sopralluoghi in Palestina per il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1963-64). It was very interesting to me because it documents Pasolini’s journey through Palestine looking for the location for his movie Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, which, eventually, he ended up shooting in Italy. In Sopralluoghi… there is a sense of impossibility and disappointment: the impossibility of making the movie in Palestine and the disenchantment of a biblical landscape that Pasolini expected but did not find. But what I was specifically interested in was this underlying sentiment of disappointment, impossibility and failure. So I transcribed the whole film, everything that Pasolini said and a whole conversation emerged. He is disappointed that there was too much architecture there, which was in the way of the biblical landscape. The film is quite problematic on a political level – Pasolini doesn’t look into what is actually happening there at the time. But for me it seemed that his disappointment can still speak to us today and I wanted to re-activate it, as it were. I was interested in a kind of ruin which is not a ruin.
Specifically, The Reconnaissance came about because I didn’t have access to the mental hospital at the beginning. I found out about Lifta, the closest village to the mental hospital, which is in fact the only village of 418 villages that were depopulated in 1948 that still exists as a ruin today. All the others have been destroyed or re-purposed. So I decided to set my film there and then, while travelling in the area, I also came across a contemporary Palestinian settlement, in the governatorate of Ramallah, that was an unfinished construction. It was a ruin as well, but it had never been inhabited. The two immediately connected because I was already interested in this tension between ‘real ruins’ and what Smithson calls ‘ruins in reverse’. I thought it would be interesting to create a conversation that uses these two positions. I was interested in thinking about what happens when these ideas come together, rather than imagining what Pasolini and Smithson would have talked about if they had actually met. This was one of the reasons why I have decided to create a conversation between three voices. So even though it is effectively a conversation between these two, it is actually spoken by three voices – we don’t know who is who. This is a constructed conversation, to which I added my own writing. It is scripted…..
AF: In a way, the third person could be you…
UO: Yes, precisely, but it cannot be attributed. The text extracts are mixed with my own writing, they are not used as quotes. It has become something else….
EA: I’m very interested in the concept of ‘abandoned sets of futures’ and of ‘ruins in reverse’ (Smithson). In particular I am interested in the confusion of temporalities embedded in the figure of the ruin: the way in which they point not only to the past, but to the future as well. You have already explored this entanglement in the work Remnants of the Future. Could you please tell us a bit more about this?
UO: In the text that I have created, the future appears several times, it has an element of hope and of being defunct, a false future. I think it connects very much to that place, the hopes that existed and still exist for it, and the disappointment in relation to that. It also relates to ruins and the notion of ghosts, the fact of thinking about the future and the past simultaneously. It is not just about turning back to the past and trying to make sense of it, it is about making sense of the past for and as and in the future. The confusion or complication of temporality, which comes as a result of taking something out of a linear progression of time (past-present-future), is very important to me. This can be achieved, on one hand, by thinking spatially as there is no separation in space, everything is simultaneous: past, future and present are all happening at the same time. In constrast, if you confine the past to the past, it does not concern us. For me, to think of present and future in relation to the past entails an ethical command of and by the past.
AF: I am wondering about the relation between the natural and built environment that is at work in The Reconnaissance and, in particular, about their relation to temporality. On one hand you have exhibited images of derelict buildings, while on the other you have created a slideshow of natural images which depict weeds and flowers that have spontaneously grown over the ruins. This dualistic split between the natural and the artificial, is reinforced by the use of different media: the slides are projected and set in motion and seem to be portraying a thriving reality, while the printed photographs of the buildings are still and static, almost frozen, somehow suggesting the failure of progress and manmade environments. Could you please expand on the relation between these two different registers?
UO: There are two different aspects to this relation between ruins and nature. On the one hand there I am referencing the idea of nature returning to take over architecture, a place; this is the Romantic notion of the ruin, something that I am interested in questioning, especially in terms of what it might mean today. On the other hand, I am interested in the idea of nature, in relation to the notion of natural history put forward by Walter Benjamin, namely that we can think of nature as a silent witness of human history. The slide piece connects to this.
I know that The Reconnaissance is set up in a kind of duality but at the same time I want to break through this. Yes, there are images of contemporary ruins (‘ruins in reverse’) and older ruins which have been taken over by nature, but ultimately, they are both set in nature. For instance, in the images of Paused Prospect, through the windows we can see trees, plants and the sky. In both series of pictures I was focusing on texture. Since the texture of the old ruins is already infused with nostalgia, I decided to move away from it, and look at the plants. Whereas, in the contemporary ruins there is something interesting about the tactility of the buildings themselves.
AF: Could you expand on the way you have framed these images?
UO: I’m interested in the idea of images being too close or too far away but never really at the right distance; it’s another play on the cinematic close-up and long-shot. On the big, wall-sized image in the exhibition, the buildings are tiny, we are too far away from them to really see them, while in the images of contemporary ruins I have zoomed-in onto the fabric of the buildings. On the other hand, within the slides, the buildings only appear cropped, out of focus, in the background. Overall, you are missing the context.
AF: And this can be also applied to the way we look at time, the past, present, future…
UO: Yes, it is about a lack of mastery, being too close to something or too far, you cannot see it properly. Our relationship to time is very similar to this.
EA: The tension between natural and built environment is making me think about the concept of ‘eternity’, the way nature ultimately takes over human history. Also, the box of sand that you have included in the exhibition, this miniature model of a desert, reminds me of the fact that nature goes on in spite of human history.
UO: For me it is not about eternity, as there is an almost religious, romantic undertone to eternity. For me nature is clearly a counterforce to human history, it is a different register, it is cyclical and it is about continuation, rather than being event-based. I am not interested in something that conveys eternity, as a value that would be redemptive. Rather, I am using nature as a witness: it was there fifty years ago, it is still there, the same plants are still there and there is something about that continuity that tells us we are not cut-off from our own past.
AF: Could you tell us a bit more about The Closing Credits?
UO: I guess both The Reconnaissance and The Closing Credits are a kind of frame for Unmade Film. They are not specifically about the mental hospital, they are more about the context. The hill that you see in The Reconnaissance is actually the hill behind which the mental hospital Kfar Shau’l is – you don’t get to see it but it is there.
The specific history I refer to in Unmade Film, is historically singular – like every event is. This is an idea that I have retained from trauma theory. At the same time, this history is obviously connected to a much larger history. Deir Yassin was not the only village that was depopulated in 1948, there were 418. So for me it was important to create that context. When thinking about the closing credits, the first thing that came to mind was to list all the names of the villages that were depopulated in 1948. I decided that I did not just want the list them as a scroll, but that I wanted to return those names to the map, while losing the map. So I made a film – it had to be celluloid – where each village is represented as a dot on that map, on its precise location. However, there is no map, only a white dot on a black background. The map is gone…. There are just the places that light up, flashing and disappearing, like stars that have died but whose light still reaches us. The piece lasts 418 seconds, one second per village.
AF: That makes me think of the notion of ‘blind-spot’..
UO: All these places are gone and are invisible now. The work is not necessarily about making them visible but about evoking them, thinking about what relationship we can have with them, how we can return a consciousness to them.
You can read the press release of The Reconnaissance at Seventeen Gallery here.
You can visit Uriel Orlow’s website here.