Astro-Chasms: A photographic perspective of what’s been done between Mars and the Negev | Rotem Rozental

Sep 28th, 2016 | By | Category: Orion

Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

In the “Sculpture in the Solar System” category in his website, Ezra Orion, apparently the first and the only intergalactic Zionist sculptor who worked at Sde Boker – up to the time of writing – outlines a plan for a sculptural projection on Mars. With a considerable number of dashes, which clearly could have been replaced with a wider range of punctuation marks, Orion indicates how, in 1982 he met with scientists in Pasadena, California, in order to explore the feasibility of a project to install a series of stones in the solar system.[1] That first meeting led to further conversations throughout the decade, in the course of which Orion executed a series of simulations closer to home, in Israel’s desert landscape.

Five photographs appear with the text, four of which are numbered. In fact, Orion’s text also opens with a reference to photography. “On 28 November 1964 the United States launched the Mariner 4 spacecraft to Mars whose surface it explored in flyby mode,” he writes, “on 14 July 1965 at a distance of 8,000 miles, and photographed that desert for the first time at this range,” [sic]. The photograph is mentioned in the text as the opening point  of the relationship between space researchers and galactic expanses, for following this photograph missions to Mars were launched. Orion notes the Lander that touched down there in July 1976 and plowed the planet’s dusty surface, sampled it, “and moved several rocks in search of signs of life.” Here I would like to suggest that the presence of the photographic image in the text, both the historical photograph mentioned in the text and the photographs before us, is not random. This is a technological, conceptual, and visual array that opens up the possibility of creating a different perspective of Orion’s project and thinking, and of how he conceptualizes  time, land, and expanse. Additionally, this photographic presence offers a point of connection between him and his contemporary land and conceptual artists who were working at the same time on a different planet – in the desert regions  of the United States. I therefore seek to contend that by considering the photographic elements in Orion’s work, it might be possible to also reposition  his motivation to influence the landscape, and the ways in which the landscape could be re-formulated.

What, then, do Orion’s photographs offer us, the ones he chose to publicly share online? The images, captured from a video by Danny Sasson, appear on the screen in a vertical column. In the first black and white photograph the viewpoint is also vertical. A bulldozer is moving diagonally from the right of the picture into the image, making its way to a mound in the middle, where  a path splits it into two mounds, or two summits. The bulldozer advances over rocks and gravel, clearly in a moment of activity, and we are invited to or insist on following it to the horizon. It is unclear what is to be found, if at all, behind the mound at the edge of the image that divides the horizon and defines the perspective of the image, and in a way, the movement of the earth: what it could be, the sculptural potential that erupts, spreads, and rises from within it. And despite the sense of motion, silence is clearly evident in the photograph. The bulldozer seems almost solitary. Is it working on its own on the solar system Orion is simulating in Sde Boker?

The four numbered photographs (a small number appears in the right hand corner of each one) are horizontal and feature a black frame and grainy sepia hues. Each of them presents an additional stage in the simulated sculpture, an additional stage in the preparation for the transition to Mars. Together they propose frozen moments of progress. In contrast to the first photograph on the page, here the bulldozer appears in the left hand corner, carrying large rock. We follow it as it positions the rock. The last photograph shows a close-up of the rock with the bulldozer’s bucket above it, and for a moment it seems that we are looking at a bird’s beak hovering over an egg that is about to hatch.

The photograph with which Orion opened his text can be found on NASA’s website. He is probably referring to the photograph catalogued there under the caption: “First close-up image of Mars, from the Mariner 4 spacecraft”.[2] The grainy black and white photograph shows the planet’s surface. The accompanying caption explains the location of the image captured in the photograph. These are coordinates that stimulate the imagination, even if they do not explain anything about places that are familiar to it: “The area is near the boundary of Elysium Planitia to the west and Arcadia Planitia to the east”. This is an imagined sphere portrayed before our eyes in low resolution, grainy, and blurred. Following Paula Amad, who proposes viewing aerial photographs in a “fluid relational context,” I shall position these photographs – whose aerial point of view appears to be their point of departure – in the wider context of the way they were created, their various uses, and their dissemination in  global media as an inseparable part of the context in which they should be read and deciphered.[3] When Amad examines aerial photographs she seeks to go beyond a panoptic understanding of power structures, of power relations in which power is attained by constant observation and exposure of the observed object, as formulated by Foucault.[4] Amad shifts between aerial aesthetics, a military and governmental context, and observing spatial and temporal perspectives that are opened up in aerial photographs[5]. Following Amad, when I observe the first photograph sent from Mariner 4 to Earth, I seek to investigate the nuances revealed in the photograph, between the aesthetic unveiled  from east to west, to the government website where I observe the image and its accompanying caption, without which it would be virtually impossible to understand what am I looking at. In this respect, the text and the conceptual frame by means of which the photograph is read are crucial and cannot be detached from it.[6]

When this photograph was created between Elysium and Arcadia (names that were of course given to it by the deciphering and external eye of the US government), it sent to Earth dwellers an image from an unattainable, indistinguishable, undecoded sphere.[7] The photograph was of course taken by a government agency whose space project gave rise to economic industries that helped the US to strengthen its dominance as a world power.[8] More than twenty photographs captured by the spacecraft appear on the website, and together they offer a typology of a space landscape on Mars[9]. These photographs provide us with concepts by means of which it is possible to talk about the landscape overlooking us from above. And it is difficult to talk about this landscape as it appears in the photographs viewed on the screen. They are blurred, pixelated, it is difficult to distinguish anything apart from changes in shades of grey, and the almost random appearance of dark circles (the captions tell us they are craters). Thus, the images are organized around the abstraction of landscape forms. These photographs are produced out of a deep desire that is translated into technology that observes its surroundings by means of sensors: a desire to conquer the unconquerable land from a bird’s eye view, land whose owners are unknown to us, and it not known if they even exist – if there are any “them”, and whether “they” have walked among the craters. This bird’s eye view attempts to analyze this land, to decode and translate it into tools we can understand. But the images remain comprehensible only to those who launched the photographing machine to the heavens. This desire is almost forced to admit it will never be satisfied, never discover all the answers to quell that desire. In this respect, observing this group of photographs reveals a typology of landscape wherein it is actually its concreteness that fixes its status as an unattainable fantasy. Exposure of the surface reminds us how far this effort is from being fully realized.

The photographs of the simulation on Orion’s website can also be observed by viewing photographs created by artists such as Robert Smithson, who perceived pictures as “squaring” and flattening everything, as enabling the quantification and measurement of random ideas and attempts to go beyond, to the infinite.[10] The picture contains the idea and also an amorphous element. For Smithson, a dialectic is created between openness and closures.[11] The artist’s photographs, which he created at his monumental installation sites around the US – during preparatory trips, simulations, and after the initial work processes on the projects were completed – were often exhibited alongside materials from the sites themselves. In this respect the photographs constitute an inseparable stage of every project and its attendant archive. They are, on the one hand, standalone pieces, and at the same time they are immersed in belonging to a dense artistic system. Artist Nancy Holt, who married Smithson in 1963 (who sadly died ten years later at the age of thirty five), and was known for her large-scale land art projects, made photography a significant element in her artistic practice.[12] In fact, in 2012 photographs she created during a preparatory trip with Smithson were revealed to the British public for the first time as part of an exhibition shown in Parafin Gallery in London.[13] Following that, it seems Orion’s preparatory photographs can also been viewed as an inherent part of the conceptual impetus that led him from Sde Boker to Pasadena, on a path that was supposed to lead his observing eye directly to Mars.

It is actually a photograph that does not appear on the website, but which was kept in his private archive, that reveals an additional photographic stage that merits attention. On verso, which is divided into two and speaks to us in the typological language of the Lander’s photographs of Mars, i.e., abstraction of an unknown landscape in black and white, Orion wrote in a meticulously clear hand: “The image on the left is a photograph of a mound of dust poured over the stone slope. In the one on the right, after …, the dust has been diminished by winds.” It seems that the balance  of these two sentences lies in “after…” – in the unknown sense of time, in the knowledge that it has been and is now gone, that the change has occurred, but we shall never be able to pinpoint it. Following Roland Barthes, it would be a cliché to write about frozen time in the photograph. And indeed, this is not my intention. I suspect that the photographs Orion kept actually distill the fluidity of time, the slow passage of space time, and with it all the contexts emerging from the photograph. Orion’s photographic images preserve a momentum of work, a momentum of movement, intended to be captured in a substantially different temporal gesture than to the one we understand and live, to the one that defines our inevitable progress towards becoming a photographic portrait that will attest, more than anything else, to our absence. It seems that Orion was aware of the disparity between performing his artistic act on Mars and the changes of physical time. “Since the erosion process on Mars is as slow as astronomical time,” he wrote on his website, “these geometric stone outlines will not be erased for billions of years.”[14]

In 1988 Orion met with Geoffrey Bridges, director of the Solar System Exploration Program at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. Orion’s plan to navigate a space vehicle and by means of radio commands to position a line of rocks from Mars on the edge of the planet – like the experiment he conducted on the edge of the Zin rock face in Israel – was supposed to materialize within a decade[15]. A year earlier, a laser beam was launched from Tel-Hai Academy to the Milky Way. A second launch was carried out in 1989, this time from Mitzpe Bar Giora. In 1992 a vertical cathedral of light was launched from there to the Milky Way, about a year after his wife Ruti Orion died.[16] “This is a development of the launch pads for consciousness hundreds of millions of kilometers from here,” he wrote on his website, “to the astro-chasms.” How tempting it would be to dive after him into these planet-turning chasms, where there are no doubt egg-like rocks, inexhaustible galactic noises, and deafening silence, revealed only in the shifting of mounds of dust over billions of years. It is difficult not to place the evidence of this monumental project in contrast with the breakdown of the physical body typifying life on Earth. “I think he wanted to quietly exit the stage and leave behind silence. A thin silence that echoes very powerfully,” said his partner Dafna Horev in 2012 to Galeria[17]. And perhaps it is this contrasting silence that led him tempestuously to the heavens in the first place, where he hoped to leave a mark on the most silent and echoing expanse we have ever known and probably never will.



[1]     Ezra Orion, “Sculpture in the Solar System”: http://www.boker.org.il/info/negev/orion/solar/solar.htm. Accessed 12 July 2016.

[2]     “First close-up image of Mars, from the Mariner 4 spacecraft”: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/imgcat/html/object_page/m04_01d.html, last updated, 28 September 2015. Accessed 6 August 2016.

[3]     Paula Amad, “From God’s-Eye to Camera-Eye: Aerial Photography’s Post-Humanist and Neo-Humanist Visions of the World”, History of Photography 36, No. 1 (2012): 66-86.

[4]     Michel Foucault, “Panopticism”, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995).

[5]     Amad, “From God’s-Eye to Camera-Eye”, 67.

[6]     For more on photographs as conceptual framing: Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image”, in Image-Music-Text, S. Heath [ed.] (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977), pp. 32-51; John Tagg, “The Pencil of History”, in Patrice Petro [ed.], Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 285-303.

[7]     Rising and hovering in the context of contemporary photographic technology is the work of Trevor Paglen who used sensitive telescopes to capture images of classified military bases and instillations. We do not have access to these sites, even though they define our way of life here, and therein lies the secret of their power, but also of the appeal they hold for the photographer. See more on his website: http://www.paglen.com/?l=work&s=limit

[8]     For more information on the Space Program and its funding by Congress, see: https://www.spacefoundation.org/programs/public-policy-and-government-affairs/introduction-space/us-government-space-program

[10]   Robert Smithson, “Fragments of a Conversation”, edited by William C. Lipke, http://www.robertsmithson.com/essays/fragments.htm. Accessed July 2016.

[11]   Ibid.

[12]   For more about Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, see the Tate website: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/nancy-holt-and-robert-smithson-england-1969

[14]   Ezra Orion, “Sculpture in the Solar System”, ibid.

[15]   Ibid.

[16]   Ellie Armon Azoulay, “Israel’s Best Forgotten Artist”, Galleria supplement, 20.10.2012, Ha’aretz website: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/israel-s-best-forgotten-artist.premium-1.479889

[17]   Ibid.

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