Enter the “Launch Sites LA: Ezra Orion Revisited” exhibition at American Jewish University (AJU) and you’ll see a virtual reality headset next to a computer screen. Put on the headset and headphones, and suddenly you are transported to a terrain of cracked earth and rust-colored mountains in the southern Israel desert landscape.
Ambient music fills your ears, and in the distance you see five large abstract sculptures, the work of the late Israeli artist Ezra Orion. Focus on any one of them for a couple seconds and you are whisked inside to stare in wonder at curving, concrete, cave-like formations. Short of hiking out to the Negev, this may be the best way to experience the massive sculptural works of Orion.
Orion’s sculptures are located in Israel as well as in far-flung sites such as the mountains of Nepal. He also created other kinds of works, including laser beams that were shot into space. Drawings of the project are on display at AJU. The exhibition also includes examples of Orion’s sketches, diagrams, a video interview with the artist, archival documents and photographic documentation of his work.
At AJU’s Brandeis-Bardin campus, artist Dan Levenson’s installation in response to Orion’s visual legacy also is on display.
A retrospective of Orion’s work was shown last year at the Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon. The co-curator, Udi Edelman, worked with AJU’s chief curator, Rotem Rozental, to bring the current show to Los Angeles.
Orion was in many ways the prototypical sabra. Born in pre-state Palestine in 1934, he was a tall, charismatic kibbutznik and military commander who also led groups of volunteers to remote locations to realize his artistic visions. Like others of his generation, Orion felt a strong connection to the land of Israel in what he called his “geo-identity.”
“It’s a central theme in the way his life and career were shaped,” Rozental said, adding that Orion’s generation “was considered to be the strongest, the healthiest, the epitome of the new Jewish body, the Zionist conquerors.”
At AJU, his chutzpah is on full display in his 1992 concept drawing, “Intergalactic Sculpture,” in which Orion substituted matter with energy. As part of the project, he coordinated with stations in Austria, Germany, Egypt, Russia, Spain and Israel to shoot parallel laser beams at the speed of light through the Milky Way. Orion described the beams as a “super cathedral” that stretches into the universe infinitely.
“Though he was an atheist, he was a very spiritual person,” his son, Alon Orion, said in a telephone interview from his home in Jerusalem. “He said that in order to have a meaningful artistic experience, one should … be surrounded by [the art], more like the experience that you have when you enter a cathedral.”
Orion described the laser beams he shot through the Milky Way as a “super cathedral.”
The artist moved back to Israel in 1967, served in the Israel Defense Forces during the Six-Day War and settled in Sde Boker, a small Negev town where he had the open space to create large sculptures out of iron and concrete.
He became fascinated with the physical forces that control sub-atomic particles and distant universes, as well as the geologic forces of plate tectonics that form mountains. In Nepal, he created a staircase sculpture in the valley of the Himalayas to “form a launch pad for the creative observer’s consciousness … to peer into infinity,” he explains in a 1996 video included in the exhibition.
While Orion had a fairly successful career, with exhibitions in Israel and abroad, eschewing galleries limited his reach. Alon Orion said his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia during the last dozen years of his life also prevented him from reaching a wider audience. The artist died in 2015.
“I feel very strongly about the validity of his message and his philosophy, and it would be a waste if nothing remains of it,” he said.
The “Launch Sites LA: Ezra Orion Revisited” exhibition is on display through Feb. 5 at the Platt and Borstein Galleries at AJU’s Familian Campus,15600 Mulholland Dr., Bel Air. A curatorial talk and tour will be held on Jan. 14 at 3 p.m. Cost is $10.