Ezra Orion – Stone, Light, and Energy Builder | Yigal Zalmona

The work of Ezra Orion evolved and progressed through the years following a remarkable inner logic. Its chapters inferred from one to the next, it stretches and advances like a folding ruler as it gradually unfolds. And yet what makes Ezra an outstanding artist is the fact that it was impossible to guess the next chapter before it materialized into concrete reality, and it was only in retrospect that the inner logic of the progression became evident. I think I can venture to say that the leading principle behind this progression is essentially the one that has guided and directed sculpture from the very beginning – an awareness of gravity’s most tragic manifestation: the finity of existence. Death. This struggle lends Orion’s work a heroic dimension. I believe that, like so many other human achievements, every good art has a heroic dimension to it.

Ezra’s 1968 Sculpture Field was born out of opposition to the sociological gravity of the bourgeois urban condition. It was part of his romantic revolt against the big city, the Metropolis. He used to talk then about sculpture that is being shaped by the metropolis, its existence confined to galleries, low-ceilinged lots surrounded by walls. Small, temporary sculpture whose dimensions depend on the size of the doors it must pass through. “Miniature” and bourgeois sculpture.

“To generate a high-intensity spiritual experience sculpture must be big”, Ezra said then. Far above the people. Spanning hundreds of meters. It must command the entire space that holds the viewers, to contain them inside its inner and exterior spaces. He talked about his Sculpture Field in terms of light breaking into high masses of darkness. Darkness wrapped in concrete. Cathedrals of light and stone. Talked about communities of sculptures and fields of sculptures.

In his writings from that period glistens a particular line that could have given attentive readers a clue to the next chapter of his work. He said: “A cathedral is a vertical abyss. An expression of the drive to soar.” What does this sentence mean? That a cathedral is a stone shell of a drive.

The drive to soar is a key concept. It is the most crystallized expression of the homo-erectus. The rising man. The man whose feet are planted on the ground yet something makes him rise, stand up, stretch, revolt against submission and gravity, run away from the prison of the body. Run away from finitude and from the certainty of death.

From here, to tectonic sculpture.

In 1981 I met with Orion in my capacity as Curator of Israeli Art at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Ezra talked about his intention to build a sculpture in front of the Annapurna Massif in the Himalayas, and we decided on an exhibition to display a documentation of the endeavour – which indeed took place the following year. It was my first show as a curator at the museum. Orion had already had a solo show at the Israel Museum, in 1974. The curator was Yona Fischer and it showed the plans and models for The Sculpture Field in the Negev.

The idea of tectonic and intergalactic art was born from the desert experience. The experience of losing the self outside of its bounds, the aspiration to chain human existence with infinity, the awareness of the expressive power of tectonic processes, the conception of changes in Earth’s crust as sculpture — all these ideas were born inside the morphology of the Negev mountains. What started in Sde Boker willed almost of its own to continue on Mars.

With the Anapurna exhibition my professional life began to intertwine with Ezra’s artistic career. That exhibition traced the initial line, the vector that continued to stretch with later shared projects and with my involvement in Ezra’s  — to the extent that in some ways, the Israel Museum was the flagship of an armada that had Ezra Orion for a proper name. What fascinated me about the Himalaya sculpture was the conjoinment of a spiritual and perceptual aspiration – a stone launch pad built in front of a high massif in order to launch perception into ungraspable distances – with the concrete, earthly aspect of production. There was a dimension of ancient pilgrimage to the project, that long journey from country to country all the way to Kathmandu, the trudge of the delegation to the appointed site, the exhausting climb to the plateau facing the mountain with rocks on their backs – all this slow and difficult progress toward erecting what was none other than a secular altar — then united with the launching of perception into the imperceptible. Sweat, muscles, hardship and stone commingled with ideas like human perception and spirit. Our shared past; the ancient and the primal; the cultural genes that connect us to our ancestors who similarly built tumuli to communicate with greater powers – all of these intertwined with an awareness firmly western, firmly contemporary, firmly atheist and modern.

And this too is Ezra Orion, merging as he did his respect for a place, for its past, its shape, its physical and cultural presence – with the soaring away from it. Coupling a capacity for setting the world in motion with a poet’s soul.

I think that Ezra Orion is one of the most fascinating artists to have worked here. The idea that sculpture, in its broadest sense, is the shaping of mass through impact – a conception that led him to understand tectonic processes as sculpting and to join along with them – this idea was by all measures a unique and groundbreaking epiphany. The mountain ranges of the Negev, the Himalaya, the Ararat were for Ezra launch pads for shooting consciousness beyond the bubble of the visible universe. More than that, Orion’s new, or revitalized, sculpture, the enormous paths of stones that he laid before mountain ridges, were for him launch pads into infinite spectrums. They shoot the observer’s body, eye and perception – not necessarily into infinity, but into void; a process of launching – taking off – gliding – soaring – to the extremities of perception, into recognizing the bounds of human existence. In a similar manner, the German artist Casper David Friedrich painted his famous monk on the edge of abyss, facing an Alpine ridge, or similarly the sea. But this monk strives to unite with a God that is limited. He is painted inside a small, framed square of cloth. Sublime, but entirely finite. The hugely important sculptor Brâncuși makes a sculpture titled “The Infinity Column.” This column, too, launches perception to different ranges. But this column is a finite bloc of stone. Ezra creates meta-sculpture. Like a jiu jitsu fighter, he joins the existing forces, onward to the mountains range and beyond, and pulls a brilliant trick on historic sculpture. His art can be categorized with the cosmic martial arts. He expresses the human will to run away as far as possible from limitations. Ezra planned to build a line of stones on the edge of the Valles Marineris canyon on Mars using NASA’s spacecraft. It was supposed to be an operation for advancing the launch pads of perception to higher reaches, but this concept lies essentially with tectonic sculpting.

In every great work of art there is something of the pagan, a spiritual generator. The cathedral Ezra talked about in the past, it too is a concept from the category of sanctity. But this act of uniting with the infinite is essentially an atheistic act. Ezra Orion was profoundly and unmistakably antireligious. “God,” he once wrote, “is a concept mixed in the studios of human perception, a process of auto-portrayal.” In another place he wrote: “I believe in perfect faith in the non-arrival of the Messiach.”

If there is something of the religious in this soaring to infinite spectrums, it lies rather in what Freud called the oceanic feeling – that feeling of losing ourselves before of an infinite ocean, which underlies the sacred experience.

The understanding that mass is in fact also energy allowed Orion to develop an inter-universal, intergalactic sculpture, ejecting sculpture from within its history, from within the materials that have shaped it since prehistory.

On 27 April 1992 a vertical beam was launched using the global Wegener Laser Ranging network from the Bar Giora Observatory near Jerusalem, with the support of the Israel Museum and the Israeli Space Agency. The launching lasted 55 minutes and 33 seconds. It was a launching, in effect, of a light beam, an obelisk of energy 15cm in diameter and one billion km long. It left the Solar System within five hours and a half, passed by the space probe Voyager 2 which was launched five years earlier, penetrated an opening in the observable universe and shot into galactic infinity. This is an infinite journey that has a human dimension because it was made by a human being (Ezra wanted the beam measured to fit his own body dimensions but it exists nonetheless in the inter-universal dimension. As well as in the inter-temporal dimension: in the future this light cathedral will reach ancient times, when humans were yet to appear on the face of the earth. The space-time dimension in historical sculpture turns on its head, changes. And this too is sculpture, because if, according to Einstein, mass is energy, then sculpture can shape energy as well. But let’s admit that this is sculpture whose state of matter is different from the one we know, and with a different status.

When we enter the circle of galaxies we are aware that we are all micro-galaxies. Ezra Orion’s human being knows that it nothing but “a terminal of intergalactic dust particles – a drifting human plankton” – like the world itself. We are made from same material and we follow the same laws.

Heidegger wrote that the human entity is an entity of existential throwness. To be is to be-there. The Being of humans is a being that is thrown toward death.

We know that we make part of the common being, but one creating man teaches us to acquiesce with it, to accept it, though without servility.

The galactic scale lets us understand ourselves as vector beams. Connecting in one end to the primordial past, to the tumuli and barrows of our ancestors in order to reach beyond them, and in the other end to the micro and macro-cosmic .

Since the Israel Museum served as the defense umbrella above the Bar Giora launching project, I was present in the event and also said a few words before the launch button was pressed.

On the way to Bar Giora I was astounded by the multitude of jackals running around the site’s gate. Herds of them. Howling desert furs. Inside, crowds of scorpions were crawling across the ground with upcurved tails.

I remember that as I looked at the launched beam, I thought about the scorpions and heard the howls of the jackals and at the same time I tried, and succeeded, to connect with the experience of soaring into infinity. I tried to split, to forget the scorpions that reminded me of the feet, to forget the fact that I am planted on the ground with my legs while my consciousness takes off with a part of my brain. And then I realized that galactic sculpture was not meant to get anywhere. It was not meant to hit the infinite like some virtual wall. It was meant to be a total experience. To scoop up the soil and the scorpions and the jackals and be in truth a total work of art.

That night the head of the space agency told Ezra that the same idea could have been expressed with a simple pocket flashlight.

It is a mistake. What’s important here is the totality. This is no conceptual art, but concrete art.

It is concrete exactly because of the physicality of the vast dimensions . It is concrete because it has astronomic scales.  It is concrete because it is an embodiment of a spiritual creation.

And it is important to add that in this Nietzschean will to power also lies tragedy. It is tragic to acknowledge finality and death, and it is tragic to recognize that death is but cosmic dust.  Intergalactic sculpture is a sombre and apocalyptic art. It is the launching of light beams that traverse darkness. It is a pioneering headfirst dive into infinite darkness. It is to drift in a godless world but with enormous quantities of grace, and courage, and awareness, and with the ability to look in the eye of existence’s absurdity and finality; it is therefore also a work of triumph.

Linking between past and future beyond time, here and there beyond place, local and universal beyond culture, particular and common beyond the human – this art is nonetheless a unique contribution of the here, with Ezra for its gifted and sophisticated ambassador, to the annals of human spirit. We live in a postmodern world. I hate this empty phrase, but what it means really is that the systems of worldviews that used to provide high-level interpretation of reality and of the world had crashed, collapsed, folded into a void; all that is left is the buzz of minor coincidence, tiny bifurcating details and a complete lack of values. The world is a global village that is nothing but a media-made uniform hodgepodge, dotted with conservative and violent enclaves, each seeking to interpret its surroundings with its archaic tools. Ezra’s brushstroke stretched from here all the way to Mars.

Ezra Orion’s actions, the beams of energy he shot across universes far away from the human crowd on Earth’s crust, remind us that the existential act is valid even when it is absurde. His art begins with finitude and tragedy and proceeds into infinity, allowing us in fact to better live with our condition as finite creatures, temporary terminals of galactic dust.

In this context, it is crucial to note that the art of Ezra Orion has an extremely important moral aspect to it. In a work like his, making its way the farthest, the highest above coincidence and everyday life, lies a quality of a moral compass. His work, as well as his conduct on his way to accomplishing it – firm, uncompromising – sets a high bar of behaviour for all of us, formulating standards that equip our worldview with certain proportions. By this I mean that the consciousness that had been launched into a comprehension of the infinite, and which nearly, metaphorically, looks back to us from above,  seeing differently notions like limited lifetime, the bounds of a country, an identity. It is a fascinating exercise in seeing yourself from a distance. Much like the exercises that Roger-Pol Droit recommends in his charming  101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life. Feel eternal. Peel an apple in your head. Weep at the cinema. Imagine your imminent death. He has, Droit, a proposal for an experiment that he calls “See the Stars Below You.” Lie down on your back, look up at the sky, and:

“Take the necessary time, and wait until you get the feeling you are riveted to the ground, almost crushed by that immensity, a tiny dot with all of infinity above you. The experiment consists simply in overturning the universe. Little by little you will now convince yourself that the stars you are watching are below you. You are overlooking them. A massive force keeps you on the earth. But the vast sky is down below. You are flying over that abyss of stars, into which you risk falling forever.”

Then “it would take nothing, a sudden gust, a brief failure of gravity, possibly even a momentary lapse of attention, and there you are, floating off very slowly, between the earth and nothingness, travelling down the sky.

“When you get up, do so slowly – and mind your step.”

Orion’s recommendations to us echo this exercise – but much more dangerously, much higher, much greater in totality and in depth.

An erlier version of this text was presented in a lecture as part of the conference “Peaks and Human Spirit: A Tribute to Ezra Orion”, 23/4/2004