The Boundaries of Contiguity between the Moist and the Arid | Ofri Ilany

Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

Every day at dusk, Ezra Orion would appear beyond the fence surrounding Midreshet Ben-Gurion on the trail to Sde Zin, where the route of his daily run passed. He would run by bare-chested, Har Zror looming behind him, past the field of sculptures, the “Launch Pad for Consciousness” aimed at Hod Akev, which Orion himself had installed in Sde Zin. Then his muscular body would glisten against the backdrop of Matzok Hatzinim, and vanish into the distance.

Students at the High School for Environmental Education, where I was a student at the time, would stop their afternoon activity and follow him with their eyes. Sometimes one of the boys would mutter: “What a man!” In the regularity of his appearance he was like a natural element, like a geological formation, like Hod Akev itself. Yet we did not really know how to relate to him. He was over sixty at the time, and most of his creative endeavor was already behind him. At Midreshet Ben-Gurion of the 1990s the status of a mythological figure was reserved for him, but one whose brilliance had faded somewhat.

Residents of small localities tend to treat artists living among them with suspicion. Although many of the residents of the Midrasha are scientists, there is no lack of provinciality there – especially of the rationalistic-positivistic kind. And indeed, there was resentment toward Orion on more than one occasion. After all, the school’s focus was hikes and environmental preservation, not art. Still, the fact that he served as manager of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel field school in the 1970s gained him points. But there were those who complained about the landscape damage caused by his sculptures – for example the trail to Hod Akev which he opened up with dynamite. It was claimed that his environmental sculptures damage the landscape, and in any case few people tried to understand them or accord them meaning. Hardly anyone read the Svivot (Environments) journal which he edited. His writing style, with the characteristic syntax and sculptural use of hyphens, often evoked ridicule.

Added to all this is Orion’s character, which was abstruse and enigmatic. For us at least. In eleventh grade, when my year was in charge of organizing the Adloyada Purim parade, we looked for people in the Midrasha who could serve as judges in the competition between the grades. I called Ezra Orion from the boarding school telephone. He picked up; I heard him breathing and listening. I politely explained that we would be delighted if he agreed to judge at the event. After a brief silence, he replied: “I’m not the person for funny things. And as for the reason – ask the adults”. After that I never dared speak to him again.

It is, however, difficult to say that he was a gloomy man, and certainly not dark. Metaphors from the world of shadows and romance are not suited to him at all. Moreover, Orion was no stranger to local culture. After all, he was an officer in the army, a lieutenant colonel, and in his past he engaged in “education” – a fundamental code word in Israeli ideology. It would be appropriate to say he was a professional who with his creative power brought about a distillation of existing forms in Zionist-settlement culture and aesthetics.

In this regard it should be stated that Zionist settlement in the Negev Mountains, which is ostensibly free of the tension associated with the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distills one of the fundamental characteristics of Zionism: colonization based on a frontier perception. This spatial-political configuration reached its ultimate form in the American expansion to the west. W.J.T. Mitchell described the Nevada landscape, as “a place in the backwash of the desert frontier, after its violence has receded and left behind petrifying, desiccated relics”. However, just as important in the Zionist context is the German expansion to the east, from the nineteenth century until World War Two.

As a phenomenon, the frontier marks a complex dialectic between the space defined as “civilization” and the one defined as “wilderness”. It is not a borderline in its simple meaning, but a dynamic frontier of civilization which expands by means of the actions of individuals thirsty for self-realization. The historical dynamic is one of eradicating the wilderness, but within this dynamic the conditions on the civilizational side of the frontier are also changed. The frontier of human transformation does not occur in the metropolis on the home front, but on the frontier proper. The people of the frontier are the emissaries of civilization, but they exist in constant conflict with the people of the metropolis. They move along a certain spectrum of hybrid ranks between the railroad engineer and the Red Indian. They are at odds with both poles, and simultaneously identify with them.

In this regard, Orion was an artist of the frontier. In his text “Desert Sculpting” from 1982, he writes thus: “In the desert you identify, in your sandals, on the surface, life’s edges; the boundaries of contiguity between the moist and the arid; the diminishing, fascinating, fleeting presence of the human”. He rejected the monumental environmental sculpture approach, whose forms are imported from the centers of urbanization and industrialization, but at the same time he also rejected the assimilation approach, hiding in materials identical to those of the environment out of a desire to blend with the infinite. Orion’s work functioned as a rusting frontier outpost between the human and the natural. Indeed, he was not an archetypal nature preserver. He was a sculptor and a settler.

Orion in effect extracted the geopolitical forms of Zionist settlement and took them out of their familiar context until they became isolated, transcendent, almost cosmic objects. He formulated a form of cosmic Zionism – a figure so abstract that it contains no national and Jewish characteristics. In my view, this is how his intergalactic works, such as his energy obelisk “Super Cathedral” and the “Stone Line” he designed on Mars, should be understood. He was not a Canaanite, since locality was not central to his interest. In this regard, he actually resembled an anti-urban version of David Avidan. The surname he chose for himself expressed his aspiration to universality in the literal sense of the word: cosmicality.

Nor was he a humanist. Once, when I was in ninth grade, I interviewed him for the school newspaper. To the best of my recollection, this issue was never published. However, I remember one part of our conversation. I asked him why most of his work is done in the desert and barely responds to the art displayed in galleries and museums. And this was his answer, as far as I can reconstruct it in my memory: Of all the planetary surfaces in the universe, biospheres occupy a miniscule part, a fraction of a percent. In contrast, more than 99.99999 percent of the universe is desert. So in the scale of the universe, deserts are much more substantial than biospheres.


Svivot: Are we your catastrophe – –

Earth: (slow, faint)… Man – he is your catastrophe – – the biosphere’s – –

But this is not the first holocaust on my – –

Before – the sun – extinguishes – – – s – – –

(Very slow) Then – I shall be able – in the darkness – to hear the silence – s – s –

Of – the in – finity – of the uni-verses – s – –

–                                                           –                                                                                               –                                    –                                   s

–                         –                                   s –        –

–                                                           –                                   –                                                                                   –

–                                               –                                   s                       –

[Orion, from “Conversation With Earth”, Svivot, 32]