Who will write our stories when we are gone? Will we be chronicled in history books, or will we be forgotten footnotes? Swiss artist Uriel Orlow is drawn to the stories that aren’t told; the discarded footnotes of a time past, which are the remnants of the future.
Speaking to Daily New Egypt, he says, “I’m drawn to the leftover dregs. When the party is over, I want to tell the story of what’s left behind.
Currently in Cairo on a Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council residency program, Orlow screened and discussed his latest work, “Remnants of the Future, at Darb 1718 last Monday. Despite the blustery wind, the audience braved the cold at the outdoor evening screening; huddling into cozy beanbags, tightly wrapped in the shawls provided by Darb.
As a prelude to the film, Orlow showed a series of death masks – including Lenin, Tolstoy, Eisenstein and Mayakovsky – made by Sergey Merkurov, a Gyumri-born sculptor. The masks are displayed at a site close to the film’s location. “Let those who have something to say come forward and be silent, appears on the screen.
Silence lies at the core of Orlow’s communicative work. Focusing on the visual artistry of storytelling, Orlow has created an evocative piece of almost silent film. “Every place has a way of showing itself, of telling its own story, he explains. Accompanying the visuals is the sound-scape by Mikhail Karikis, using the radio waves emitted by dying stars (pulsars), which still reach us after the star has died.
Described as a contemplative sci-fi documentary, “Remnants of the Future is set in the town of Mush, a discarded housing project just outside of the north Armenian town of Gyumri and named after the once flourishing Armenian town in Eastern Anatolia, which in 1915, during the Armenian genocide, became the site of massacres and deportations.
Construction of the ‘new’ Mush began a few months after the major Spitak earthquake in 1988, which destroyed many of Gyumri’s housing blocks and left thousands of people homeless. Promised to be completed within two years, construction of the new Soviet-style suburb eventually came to an abrupt halt as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian construction workers were recalled by Moscow.
The landscape speaks of barrenness, but potent symbols of life are clearly visible. The film uses the timeframe of a single day, from dawn to dusk. As an artist, Orlow finds inspiration in what others may perceive as desolation.
The sun rises on a wide screen shot of concrete shells, starkly grey against the rosy hues of dawn. A flock of birds chirp life into the frame. The human presence is introduced with a burning cigarette butt.
Mush is a ghost town brought to life, with washing waving limply on a line strung between buildings, with people moving lethargically from dawn to dusk.
“The only sign of vigorous life, says Orlow, “is a blue plastic bag flying in the wind. But there are children too, playing in a time-warp, waiting for the future.
The inhabitants make their living by selling the stolen scrap metal. Both the birds and metal are symbolic of life, malleable in nature. Orlow refers to the place as ‘inverted ruins.’ decayed before completion. “But life continues, and nature takes over.
It is fitting that Orlow ends the film by using the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a disillusioned Soviet revolutionary. The people of Mush are visited by the Phosphorescent Woman, a time traveling character from Mayakovsky’s play “The Bathhouse, which was intended as an attack on Soviet bureaucracy.
“The first-time shuttle for the future leaves at midnight, intones the voice.
The future can only be accessed by knowing the past. Orlow is masterful in allowing the silence to speak, documenting that which isn’t told.
“I’m attracted by absence rather than presence, he reveals. Orlow’s next project will tell the story of the absent footnote of the ships which were passing through the Suez Canal, and got caught in the Six Day War of 1967. They were eventually held there for eight years.
He’s also fascinated by the rich history of downtown Cairo, leaning toward the less famous; choosing the absence of fame of Groppi over the infamous presence of Café Riche.
Orlow’s work can be found at http://www.urielorlow.net/