Uriel Orlow’s multi-media installations reflect his interest in the role of the artist as archivist and historian. He uses film, photography, artefacts and extensive archival research to produce works that frequently take traumatic historical events as their starting point. In doing so, he challenges official histories, focusing on blind spots of representation and forms of haunting. Among his recent research projects are The Benin Project (2007-8) and Remnants of the Future (2010-2012).
Remnants of the Future
This installation focuses on the fates of two towns in the South Caucasus that share a common name, Mush. It reflects on forgotten tragedies and disrupted lives through two films, Remnants of the Future and Plans for the Past, together with a set of image based works that include black and white photographs, Dream of the Future (Mayakovsky), Still Aftershock and a set of twenty pencil drawings of death masks of leading Soviet figures that are now housed in a small museum in Armenia.
The dominant element is a video loop in which the two films are shown back to back. Remnants of the Future is a haunting portrait of Mush, a vast, unfinished housing project in Northern Armenia named after the once flourishing Armenian town in Eastern Turkey that was begun on the orders of Mikhail Gorbachev to house the people displaced by the 1988 Spitak earthquake. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 abruptly halted the ambitious development and it has since remained in a ghostly state of incompletion and near desertion, inhabited only by migrating birds and isolated human scavengers who live in parts of the big, skeletal housing blocks. Although it resembles a documentary, Orlow has woven fictional elements into the video: electronic soundscapes of dying stars mingle with the noises of animals and the everyday activities of the few inhabitants, whilst folk songs sit alongside the computerised voice of a time travelling character from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s satirical play The Bathhouse. These interventions draw attention to the artist’s or historian’s role in constructing a version of reality and the power that such an act holds.
The second film, Plans for the Past, is set in the original Mush in Eastern Anatolia. Once a flourishing town, it became the site of massacres and deportations during the Armenian genocide of 1915. Despite previous attempts to erase the history of an entire people, traces of them are still visible in the stones used in domestic and religious buildings. In Orlow’s film, the present is imbued with a sense of the past, thereby disrupting the idea of chronological time that is of primary importance in the work of the historian or archivist.
The Benin Project
Orlow’s starting point for this multi-media installation is the British Punitive Expedition of 1897, in which British forces invaded and ransacked the West African kingdom of Benin. After forcing its ruler into exile, the British Admiralty seized and auctioned off a large number of sculptures and other artworks to defray the costs of the expedition. The castings ended up in private and public collections all over Europe and North America, where many of them remain to this day. In the Benin Project, Orlow explores the ways in which they are complicit in the relationships between the past and the present, and between different geographical and cultural spaces. In moving between the different artworks, the viewer mirrors the journeys undertaken both by the artist and by the Benin Bronzes themselves across geographical space and historical time.
Lost Wax consists of a series of videos that show different phases in the ancient lost wax process of brass casting by contemporary sculptors in Benin City, Nigeria. Filmed images of the sculptors pouring hot wax into clay moulds buried in the ground or polishing the brass castings are punctuated by the sound of radios playing and sculptors hammering and filing their works. Orlow’s camera lingers on the hands of the sculptors moulding and shaping their raw materials into contemporary artworks, some of which are in the historical style looted by the British in 1897. The visual and auditory input from monitors in different parts of the gallery mirrors the simultaneity of different processes and stages of production. On a separate monitor, set apart from the others that make up Lost Wax, is a roll-call of museums and collections around the world that now hold examples of the Benin brass castings seized as booty over a century ago. Devoid of any visual references, it makes visible the global scale of appropriation and its remoteness from the living practice of contemporary sculptors in Benin.
Alongside the geographical index of stolen booty is another catalogue entitled A Very Fine Cast. Orlow presents this in the form of line block engravings which reproduce a selection of verbal descriptions of Benin Bronzes drawn from auction catalogues, books and museum displays written over the last 110 years. By privileging the linguistic over the visual, Orlow builds a subversive archive which substitutes the traditional objects of the museum archive - the physical artefacts – for their verbal descriptions, which unintentionally catalogue the racist and colonial narratives that surround the Benin Bronzes into the present. Fixed and frozen by the printing process, these texts are produced from linguistic negative casts in the form of the metal engraving plates which, quite literally, set into relief the darker, historical context and frame for the museum collections.
For information about some of Uriel Orlow's other projects, please click here.