Art & Photography

Unseen Blows

William Kherbek applauds Uriel Orlow for defying Turkish national amnesia over the Armenian Genocide in his film Holy Precursor,
part of a three artist exhibition at Seventeen Gallery, Kingsland Road

Still from Holy Precursor, Uriel Orlow, 2011
Still from Holy Precursor, Uriel Orlow, 2011

It was during a speech shortly before the invasion of Poland in 1939 in which Hitler exhorted his Wehrmacht commanders to, “kill without mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language”, that he went on to ask, in justification of his genocidal orders, the, presumably rhetorical, question, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians”?

The extermination in question has come to be known as the Armenian Genocide, and, for those who haven’t heard anyone nowadays talking of the subject, it was one

of the bloodiest episodes of the 20th century in which at least a million-and-a-half Armenians were killed, and uncountable numbers displaced, some subjected to “Turkification” reminiscent of treatment meted out to Australian Aborigines or American Indians.

The impressive capacity for selective forgetfulness on the part of post-war European policymakers reshaping various maps between the wars exemplified the tragically prophetic words of the writer Ernst Renan that nations are composed as much of collective forgetfulness as collective

memory, and, of course, allowed Hitler to casually say what everyone was not thinking.

Today, a number of heroic Turkish intellectuals, including the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and the writer Ragib Zarakolu, have faced prosecution and ostracism for attempting to keep the genocide from their national memory hole.
In their efforts, they are joined by the artist, Uriel Orlow.

“The transmutation of suffering into art is only a comfort and not a remedy”

The Armenian Genocide and its aftermath is the subject of Orlow’s film Holy Precursor included in a show titled Unseen Blows at Seventeen Gallery on Kingsland Road. Orlow’s film centres on the ruins of an ancient Armenian monastery dedicated to St. John the Baptist which was partially destroyed during the 1915-16 genocide, but which, in scrupulously Renanian fashion, the Turkish authorities managed to finally get around to fully destroying in the 1960s.

That the site of the monastery is presently surrounded by a village of Kurds—a community that is no stranger to savage

repression by Turkish authorities—makes drawing parallels between past and present inevitable.Though the Turkish branch of the Kurdish nation may have a few things it might care to systematically forget with regard to the Armenian slaughter of the First World War, there can be no doubt, as a contemporary villager sings the words to a folk song about a “top commander” who “has no mercy”, that the transmutation of suffering into art is only a comfort and not a remedy.

Orlow’s film takes its time, alternating between images from village life as it

proceeds today and quotations from the Roman philosopher Lucretius from which the show’s title is taken. Lucretius’ musings on the nature of the universe suggested that motion was the only constant in a universe that would continue to unfold forever beyond the reach and power of divinities.

Orlow’s film seems to suggest something different; power is sometimes brutally visible, and its desperate attempts to obscure that visibility also leave traces which people and nations can never fully forget, no matter how assiduously they try.

Unseen Blows is at Seventeen until
29th September