Prescient Landscapes and Fragile Architectures

As someone who writes about both visual culture and current affairs, the week of my interview with artist Gerry Judah in September 2015 was a whirlwind. The Syrian refugee crisis had reached a peak and a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach sparked both global awareness of an ongoing tragedy and debate about the power of the image as catalyst.

Much had transpired since 2012 when I had last talked with the London-based, Kolkata-born artist – whose grandparents came from Baghdad and were part of its once vibrant Jewish community – both in the world and in Judah’s ongoing artistic journey. The trajectory of Gerry Judah’s art has encompassed major social themes ranging from war in the Middle East to climate change in South Asia as well as more general allusions to displacement, loss, erosion and rebirth. His work spans, with equal élan and intensity, larger than life sculptures and paintings that are stylised maquettes cantilevering off canvases — models of fragile architecture and ravaged cities that he creates and then destroys.

Since we last met in 2012, some fifty million souls were now refugees – the worst humanitarian crisis of its kind since World War Two – while environmental disasters have become an undeniable reality. Transnational migrations and climate issues have made fortress mentalities seem even more absurd and Judah’s work, channelling Middle Eastern war zones and drought-ravaged Indian villages, even more resonant.

As I sought points of aesthetic and social reference, I arrived at a mild epiphany; while photojournalism (like the terrible, powerful, exploited image of the drowned boy) is arguably suited to social media, there is something akin to deep journalism inherent in Judah’s striking architectural canvases and sculptures. (It’s not surprising that many war zone journalists like Bob Fisk are great fans and collectors.) His work discourages casual voyeurism and demands an engagement from the viewer, a commitment to considering situational nuance. Judah’s powerful tableaus suggesting war-ravaged cities like Baghdad and Beirut and his recent work on climate change in South Asia mirror the connections being made by, for example, Canadian author Naomi Klein and Guardian writer Craig Bennett between war, displacement and environmental disasters — such as the correlation of a long-running drought in Syria to the origins of its current civil war.

The more I reflected on Judah’s work, the more I appreciated not only its relevance but its prescience: from dystopian maquettes painted in the stark relief of white gesso, his ode to the European Sykes–Picot Agreement (in Judah’s view one of the origins of today’s Middle Eastern conflicts) which hangs like sacred performance art in St Paul’s cathedral and his cruciform Crusader series. Long before mainstream media made the link between war and climate change, displacement and disaster capitalism, Judah was, perhaps even unconsciously, channelling this connection through his art. His work bears an uncanny kinship with the dystopian films of the 1970s, whose ‘sci-fi’ predictions of mass homelessness, food shortages and environmental ruin (Soylent Green [1973] spring to mind or the stark all-white totalitarian high-tech landscapes of George Lucas’s THX 1138 [1971]) have come terribly true. It’s almost as if Judah had a series of premonitory visions of what life would be like in 2015 and called them into aesthetic being.

With his background as a designer for stage and film as well as his training as a draughtsman, there is something both cinematic and architectural about Judah’s work. He creates mini-sets, microcosms of imagined yet all too real worlds that are riveting psychic landscapes, foreign yet familiar. In many ways they are reminiscent of Victorian miniatures or dynamic dioramas which have been re-imagined for a modern world. In that world where horrific images of dead refugee children, beheadings and destruction of ancient sites compete for our overwhelmed attention in what Judah terms ‘media wars’, he chooses to work with all white gesso, as a unifying and calming coat of equanimity.

When he worked on his Auschwitz commission for the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 2000, Judah employed all white gesso ‘so as not to stain it in any way or give it shadowing’. Rather than ‘give it detail’, his aim was for an overall ‘shimmer’ to the piece, offering a brief moment of transcendence and vision even in the midst of horror. A few years later, when Judah saw photos of the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, he notes ‘the eeriest thing was that everything was covered in white dust, almost like a textured painting’. Similarly, after the 2006 Israeli bombing of Beirut, he saw the images of the ruins as a ‘unified landscape of white dust’ and made the connection between ‘the Jewish experience of being a victim and the Israeli reality of being a perpetrator of destruction’. From this was born his Angels series featuring aerial views of wrecked buildings shown in surprisingly delicate relief: ‘White can reveal the intensity of a place in a way that black cannot,’ notes the artist.

While his 2005 Jenin inspired series Frontiers was about peeling away facades to reveal the detritus of daily life, his Beirut-based work was about bombs from far away destroying buildings — a perspective with a certain verticality he also referenced in his 2010 work ‘Crusader’ (commissioned by the Imperial War Museum), which evoked the damage caused by predator drones and other forms of aerial bombardment.

The scale of Judah’s Baghdad inspired series – Motherlands (2007) and Babylon (2009) – offers a different perspective. Apart from a few Tower of Babel references, the series is evocative of Baghdad’s status as a horizontal city of low-rises. It was ‘like Tel Aviv,’ notes Judah, ‘very Bauhaus, very modern.’ In contrast to earlier works, this series is looser, more painterly and textured, less maquette-like.

Despite the influence of war zones on his work, Judah firmly rejects any association with the tradition of ‘war art’ and has no pretence of using his work instrumentally to make political statements. Rather, he sees himself as someone who is observing and reacting ‘using what’s going on in the world to develop myself as an artist.’

‘You become a bit of a magpie,’ muses Judah, ‘Like Warhol when he did prints of car crashes, destroyed places and electric chairs. He was using that to advance his language as an artist — not to save the world. As an artist you’re naturally exploitative — using situations for the sake of your art, I have to be honest with myself and not too precious. I mean, even as I was making an installation of Auschwitz in my studio and feeling all that that entailed, I was sipping espresso and listening to reggae music — that’s how the creative process works.’

Judah is no dilettante and possesses a consistently strong visual language that combines the power of Goya with the assemblage of Rauschenberg. In many ways Judah’s works are artistic battle sites in their own right. His methods include brutalising the canvasses, literally blowing up his maquettes in the studio and otherwise roughing them up. ‘Look, even Turner,’ says Judah, ‘would spit on his canvasses and throw fat onto them — all to get that “shimmer”.’

Transcendent Turnerian light aside, there is also a resonance with the work of exiled Iraqi artist Hannah Mallalah who slashes and burns her canvasses that speak to the psychic and actual ruin of her homeland. But beyond this clear engagement with geopolitical themes, Judah says his goal is fundamentally to ‘further the language of painting.’ His canvasses also become, ‘my own, private war zones — they are about me as much as they are about the places.’

Indeed, while the young Judah turned to art as a way to transcend his lower-middle-class immigrant experiences in grim post-war England, his work is mainly about places he has an ancestral or personal connection to. ‘You can never really escape yourself as an artist,’ he laughs, ‘no matter how hard you try.’ He recalls a pivotal moment in his creative development when he was a young student at Goldsmiths College, University of London (where Damien Hirst later studied) and had a great interest in Jung and the collective unconscious. One day in the studio he found himself obsessively engaged in making something in an almost automatic fashion. ‘I built a cone on wheels and called it a sukkah,’ he relates. Later on he went to the reading room at the British Museum where he saw images of Mesopotamian structures that resembled his own creation and felt he had tapped into ‘a genetic visual memory of my forefathers.’

As the wars in what was once Mesopotamia continue to spiral out of control, Judah’s most recent work combines urgency and elegance, transcendence and gravitas. Commissioned to commemorate the centenary of World War One in 2014, twin cruciform sculptures angle like alien angels towards the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Moreover, at a moment when red poppies covering the Tower of London spoke to traditionalism and nostalgia, Judah chose a more explicitly geopolitical stance. ‘World War One was a time when the Ottoman Empire was carved up by the European powers … and I wanted to show the connection between that history and what’s going on in the Middle East today.’

Judah sees the ‘Arab spring’ and its aftermath as a series of ‘power struggles — trying to tear down the old powers created by the Sykes-Picot agreement’ (the post-World War One division of the Middle East by the French and the British). And so Judah succinctly transformed Flanders Fields’ crosses into eloquent requiems for Iraq and Syria, with wrecked architecture inspired by Aleppo and Baghdad piled up on top of cruciform structures. He contemporised the legacy of 1918, reminding us that the war is not over and has, in fact, been going on for some time.

While the St Paul’s works are cousins to the Crusader series he created for the Imperial War Museum in 2010, Judah chose not to name them as such for fear of being too prescriptive. ‘I didn’t want to tell people what to think about them,’ he explains, ‘but rather have them interpret the work in a very personal way.’ Nevertheless, he admits to having been inspired by George Bush’s comments about a ‘crusade’ against ‘terrorism’ and wanted to show, by virtue of a site-specific work in England’s most important cathedral, that ‘the holy war is still alive.’ At the foot of the works, crater-like windows reveal cathedral walls, imbuing each piece with a powerful sense of place.

In these cruciform pieces Judah chose to use models of ruined tower blocks to suggest a universal symbol of conflict. ‘I wanted to make the architecture global,’ he relates, and therefore studiously avoided visual references to mosques, for example. The tower block, he maintains, is also a symbol of the crisis of modernity and could evoke the buildings destroyed in 9/11. ‘I wanted to show that everything is vulnerable, breakable, temporary.’ For some viewers, he suggests, the destroyed infrastructure might represent an economically depressed, abandoned town in the Midlands. It could even be read as a representation of the ‘great war on the environment,’ with cities destroyed by climate change or earthquakes such as in Haiti and Nepal or tsunami-struck Japan.

His latest series of works, commissioned by Christian Aid and Arts Council England, are influenced by a visit to Bengal, India in 2012. They continue to foreground the fragility of the human condition but also literally speak to the balancing act of contemporary existence. Rickety rusted rickshaws impossibly bear upside down mango trees – uprooted by drought – ancient temples and even power stations. In a way we are all perched precariously on these rickshaws, juggling tradition and modernity, faith and technology as we peddle ever faster for survival, trying hard to stay human.

The themes of displacement and the temporal nature of things which Judah has addressed in previous works continue to be explored in this series. For him, the climate change inspired work also combined a return to his childhood home — he was born in Kolkata before post-Independence political turmoil forced his family (originally from Baghdad) to migrate to England when he was ten years old. Growing up in a thriving Jewish community, Judah did not fail to be influenced by Kolkata’s rich mosaic of culture — at his Jewish school his curriculum included the study of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. He also remembers the colourful sukkahs – temporary huts with roofs of leaves or vegetation – created for the Jewish autumnal Feast of Tabernacles: ‘They made these incredible tabernacles, decorated with hanging fruits and illuminated by fairy lights, in the middle of a field,’ he recalls, ‘there were these beautiful, long autumnal nights where you would eat and drink and meet your friends and neighbours. In many ways this was my first introduction to theatre and to installation art.’ This was quite a contrast to the sukkah he encountered when the family moved to England in 1961 — ‘a little booth behind your living room where you went outside until it started raining again.’

Another strong visual memory from his Indian childhood is of travelling on the school bus through the slums of Kolkata and seeing dead bodies on the ground. Ten years after the partition of British India, violence still erupted between Hindus and Muslims – ‘the local cinema was burned to the ground a dozen times,’ remembers Judah – and, in spite of his more idyllic memories, Kolkata was a low-level war zone.

By happenstance, it was autumn when Judah travelled to Bengal in 2012 and Kolkata was in the midst of the Durga Puja festival and the temporary shrines known as pandals resonated strongly with the artist. ‘They were just like the sukkahs I remember from my childhood,’ he relates. While Jewish ritual in synagogues doesn’t depend on visual stimulus and is quite the opposite of the Hindu aesthetic, there is an intriguing connection between the two harvest festivals. Playing with the idea of temporary structures and transient architecture, Judah produced a series of wooden sculptures painted to look like rusted iron that are actually maquettes for large-scale pieces he hopes to create for public spaces so that they can become ‘part of the fabric of villages and towns.’ One of his proposals is for a large-scale Orissian temple to be made of ash or, as he calls it, ‘burnt, polluted earth.’ He sees his sculptures as ‘pieces of theatre’ that best inhabit the public realm rather than the living room wall. He adds ‘I want my work to inhabit public spaces, not just private collections, so people can read into them what they choose. I don’t want to be too prescriptive or dogmatic.’ Rather, he wants the viewer to ‘connect emotionally’ with his work. He refuses simple documentarianism in favour of a nuanced approach that also references his personal journey back to a lost homeland rather than a literalist presentation on climate change in India.

In a new incarnation of his 1993 work for Amnesty International that featured dozens of tiny ancient shrines with votive candles, he produced a Bengal inspired piece featuring hundreds of candles on outstretched wing-like archetypal structures. ‘The candle is a universal symbol,’ he notes, ‘it’s in my Jewish tradition but also in Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist cultures.’

Judah’s return to Kolkata was an odd sort of time travel for the artist. In spite of a fifty year lag since his last visit, on one level he says, ‘it felt like nothing had changed. There was the same light, same heat, same ambience, smells and intensity.’ He remembered, from his childhood, even the same sweet shops and chai houses. ‘It was as if my old neighbourhood was at a standstill and yet the whole world had changed.’ Now devoid of the once thriving Jewish community, the two neighbourhood synagogues have become state museums cared for by Muslims and, in spite of the arrival of the internet and mobile phones, people still use old technologies and heating methods. But the ever-present gulf between rich and poor has become a chasm thanks to climate change issues like rampant pollution and drought. New images were presented now — mangroves with roots curling up into the air, pieces of land eroding away, flooded villages. After touring ravaged landscapes in Bengal where the charity Christian Aid works with rural communities, Judah was moved to produce his upside-down mangrove tree artwork. Using copper for the roots, a material that suggests water pipes, there’s also a sense of flames of fire in this work that speaks to global warming.

What really struck Judah on his return, however, was not only the cheek by jowl existence of wealth and poverty that recalled Victorian England, but the relatively peaceful coexistence of multiple social and technological layers. On the roads he encountered a whole pantheon of human, animal and vehicular movement – ‘rickshaws, cars, cyclists, cows’ – that seemed to coalesce in uncanny synchrony. ‘There was this feeling everywhere I went in Bengal,’ says Judah, ‘of things just being hastily strung together — but somehow it all worked.’ Perhaps this is why – although his new Bengal work is still devoid of human representation – there is a much more palpable sense of presence here rather than the tangible absence of his war zone series.

A coal-fired, smoke-belching power station where workers still used cow dung as fuel became the inspiration for a sculpture in which an entire power station is perched on a rickshaw, its chimneys in their own way like travelling tabernacles. Or are they industrial cross-cultural sukkahs or even mini theme park pandals celebrating Durga Puja? The lines blur and the maquettes often take on a playful sensibility perhaps inspired by Judah’s childhood memories.

One work from the Bengal series – and a rare one in his oeuvre – features a suggestion of the human figure. A Hindu temple – designed with a certain universality to also suggest a Sephardic synagogue or mosque even – perched on a rickshaw contains the profile of the artist’s face. It seems to speak to the collective memory in his very DNA. Like the sukkah Judah recalls in his childhood synagogue in Kolkata, it suggests a world in flux yet tied to history, at once transient and eternal.

As Judah tells me of his family’s migration from Iraq to India to England, I relate that when my Syrian Christian great-grandparents arrived after an arduous journey fleeing Ottoman-era oppression to a First Nations Canadian Pacific fishing village in a far flung corner of the British Empire, their travel documents were stamped Asiatic. As borders and hyphenated nationalities blur, as continents get redefined by shifting empires and human migration reaches a peak, I ask Judah if he still on some level feels displaced. He replies, ‘One thing you learn in life — wherever you make your home is not permanent. Someone else will come and you will move on. You have to make wherever you are work for you and never take it for granted.’

Yet Judah’s sense of the temporal still honours the traditional. But, for the artist, that tradition is one of movement, not stasis. ‘When I was a child in synagogue,’ he recalls, ‘I remember watching my father pray with his peers. They were so good at prayer, they knew all the words and all the songs. I never was as good as them. I thought I’d never make a great Jew because I didn’t know all the prayers.’ But there’s more to being a man, says Judah, than ‘just religion — there are other ways of expressing your sense of God. Making art allows me freedom to express how I feel about God and life and myself and that’s more pertinent to me than texts from generations past. As an artist I can make my own rules and create my own sense of the sacred.’

Judah’s art is clearly a refuge as much as a journey. And, in his eloquent exploration of conflict and impermanence, temporal beauty and cross-cultural connections, his work becomes a monument to both the DNA of the past and the architecture of the future.