WORDS: CHELSEA HAITH
IMAGES: URIEL ORLOW
“Art is like falling in love. You can be open to it, but you can’t force it to happen.”
The small boned man hunched his shoulders as he sat on the hard wooden bench of the lecture venue, his hands held between his knees, keen eyes watching as I hunted for a pen. Uriel Orlow misses nothing, his eyes open for the next story, the next piece in the puzzle.
“I don’t look for stories, they find me,” Orlow said smiling, in response to a question about the genesis of his work. His projects seem to focus on infinitesimally small details in the world, which he then blows up to mammoth proportions.
He ran his hand over the stubble on his recently shaved head and into his full beard while he thought further. “I did find that the singular, making a single work that would contain everything, quite problematic. A lot of these subjects are complex and I didn’t want to burden one work with everything, which is how they started to fragment,” he said, explaining why his installations are so large and include so many different mediums.
Born in Zurich from Polish, Hungarian and Turkish backgrounds, his accented voice pulls words from this foreign, but not alien language, to explain what he calls his ‘exploded films’. The fragments of his work come together to create an overall impression of a film but he explained that his focus is still artistic, not cinematic. “I guess it did start with something filmic, but I was never interested in telling a single narrative from beginning to end in a film, I find that aspect of films quite problematic, so I always went outside of it.”
One of his artworks, a beautiful cinematic video visual and soundscape heavy piece titled Yellow Limbo was inspired by a postage stamp he discovered quite by accident. His work tells the story of ships that got stuck in the Suez Canal for years during the conflict in the Middle East in the 1960s and 70s. It is a story that is insignificant to human history and to the outcome of the war and so was lost until Orlow hunted it out and built the archive of information around the event from the testimonies of old sailors who were there, photographs and some visuals from that brief moment in history.
He explained that he likes to focus on small things because they talk about broader issues. “It’s like seeing instances of something, it can be anything, plants or ships, anything that talks about itself, which is already interesting, but which also talks about something much larger than itself. I’m interested in the nodes of where things come together,” Orlow said.
Orlow rejects narratives that define the story. “I found particular kinds of narrative that close things down and tell you what something was or what happened problematic,” he said. “That is why I don’t make films that have a verbal narrative. It still constructs a story but it needs the viewers’ involvement in that.”
“I’m interested in looking at speaking with people, not on behalf of people, to tell those stories,” Orlow said of the self-defined ‘blindspots’ in his work, adding, “I don’t mind if I need to take three months to learn enough Arabic to be able to communicate with Egyptian fishermen.” The blindspots he explained are the perspectives in his work from which the artist and viewer experience the subject.
Orlow undertakes large-scale projects in multiple mediums such as film, drawing and photography and adds to these articulate and vivid soundscapes in collaboration with audio artist Mikhail Karikis. The final products are strangely absorbing and produce the effect of synaesthesia due to the multi-sensory appeal of the work.
Orlow was in South Africa for three months researching his next project, which focuses on the politics of plants, looking at the intersection between human history and natural history.