Gerry Judah is an artist, and a self-confessed alchemist.
"It's always been about turning lead into gold," says the 61-year-old, London-based painter, sculptor and installation artist whose ancestors came from Baghdad, and who grew up in Calcutta's mid-century Jewish community.
In essence, Judah's work is often about turning the ruins of war into moving odes to communities recovering from violence. From Auschwitz to Jenin, from Beirut to Baghdad, his dystopian maquettes read like lunar landscapes of loss. Playing with the tension between absence and presence, he creates architecturally inspired work that is evocative and provocative, challenging viewers to awaken from their casual, televisual voyeurism and delve into the very soul of ravaged places.
While inspired by contemporary photographs and news clips, there is something oddly 19th-century about his work. While it seems easier than ever to distance oneself from the realities of war in our digital age, when multimedia overexposure to atrocities often dilutes their impact, Judah's paintings - stylized maquettes cantilevering off the canvas that he creates and destroys himself - engage the viewer in no uncertain terms. They are like Victorian dioramas for the 21st century, yet unequivocally paintings, turgid landscapes inspired as much by Turner's passionate skies as by modern warfare.
Judah categorically refuses the label of "war artist" - "that's not what my work is about," he says. His work offers stylized elements of war-torn landscapes rather than literal recreations, and the actual process of making them combines various aspects of his background as a model-maker and theatrical, television and cinematic set designer.
"I once had to recreate an entire Italian city out of biscuits for a television commercial," he recalls, noting that "working in miniature can be epic - can express something enormous. It has great power."
Working from photographs and videos in his London studio, he creates maquettes that emerge from the canvas, systematically destroys them, and then paints over their remains with acrylic gesso (a thick, white primer). He prefers a predominantly white palette. "White can reveal the intensity of a place as much as black," says the artist, whose affable character, bear-like demeanor and sense of humor belie the gravitas of his subject matter. "In a way, white is 'darker' than black.
"They're also my own, private war zones - they are about me as much as they are about the places," he reveals.
'You can never escape yourself'
Indeed, while the young Judah turned to art as a way to transcend his lower-middle class immigrant reality in grim post-war England, his work is mainly about places he has an ancestral or actual 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 trajectory as an artist, when as a young student at Goldsmiths College, at the University of London (where Damien Hirst later studied ), with a great interest in Jung and the collective unconscious, he found himself 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 and saw images of Mesopotamian structures that resembled his own creation, and felt he had tapped into "a genetic visual memory of my forefathers." Indeed, one of Judah's strongest visual memories from his trilingual (Hindi, English and Hebrew ) upbringing in Calcutta - where his father worked in the jute mills and he attended a Jewish school that, with a nod to its Indian surroundings, also taught students about Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism - was of the annual sukkah created by the elders in his community for the autumn festival: "They made these incredible tabernacles, decorated with hanging fruits and illuminated by fairy lights, in the middle of a field."
This was quite a contrast to the sukkot he encountered when the family moved to England in 1961 - "a little booth at the back of your living room - where you went outside until it started raining again." By contrast, in India, "there were these beautiful, long autumnal nights where you would eat and drink and meet your friends and neighbors. In many ways this was my first introduction to theater and to installation art."
Another strong visual memory from his Indian childhood is of riding the school bus through the slums and seeing dead bodies on the ground. Just 10 years after the partition of British India, there was still regular violence and arson 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, Calcutta was a low-level war zone.
While in many ways Judah's work can be seen as part of a Jewish Diaspora tradition, it also transcends that tradition to embrace universal values. His 1993 work for Amnesty International, an expression of hope for the future of human rights, featured a series of arched alcoves containing lit candles, evocative of the Jewish memorial candles used to commemorate the dead, but also suggesting votive candles in the Buddhist or Catholic traditions. Judah's art reads like a visual tikkun olam - a healing of the world, through an exploration of its broken-ness.
His 2000 work on Auschwitz, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum - he created a model of the death camp's selection ramp - was much more schematic than literal and based in part on an album of photographs of camp life discovered in a bunk by a survivor. It reads like a storyboard in some great cinematic epic, an all-white, three-dimensional painting depicting a single day in June 1944. "When I went to Auschwitz to do the research." Judah explains, "I felt numbed by it - it was just a processing plant. It was of course horrendous, macabre, evil ... but I was more moved when I visited an old synagogue in Krakow, whose original community had been destroyed. It reminded me of going to synagogue in Golders Green as a boy, hanging out with my mates and talking about parties on Saturday night. It made me feel the reality of people that didn't exist anymore. I was not so much moved by the ruins of Auschwitz as I was by the killing of what had been an alive community."
The Israeli siege of Jenin, during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, inspired a more explicitly architectural series of work based on war-zone landscapes transmitted by television, devoid of people. "Instead of aerial bombardment," explains Judah, "the Israel Defense Forces was using bulldozers to rip open buildings and expose them - so that what was left was a largely white carpet of destruction, like a textured painting."
What was exposed, in essence, was the detritus of the everyday fragments of wallpaper, dishes - bits of people's lives that Judah transformed into aestheticized urban archaeology.
When IDF forces bombarded Beirut in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Judah was inspired to begin another series, which became part of his "Angels" exhibit (shown at the Royal Institute of British Architects ), featuring aerial views of wrecked buildings shown in surprisingly delicate relief. But in contrast to the one- and two-story structures of Jenin, he was now in the realm of high-rises, working on a much more monumental scale with deeper edifices. Instead of extending a few centimeters off the canvas, they were almost a full meter high. "There were thousands of aerials and spikes poking out," relates Judah, "as if even approaching the works as a viewer was a dangerous act." In this series (partly inspired by the scene in Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" in which arrows fly like missiles into Macbeth ) casual voyeurism was compromised by merely engaging with the work physically.
While Jenin was about peeling away facades, Beirut, says Judah, was about bombs from far away destroying buildings - a scale 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.
'Like Tel Aviv'
The scale of Judah's Baghdad series (2007's "Motherlands" and 2009's "Babylon" ) offered a different perspective. Apart from a few Tower of Babel references, the series was evocative of Baghdad's status as a horizontal city of low-rises - "like Tel Aviv," notes Judah - "very Bauhaus, very modern." In contrast to earlier works, this series became looser, more painterly and textured - less maquette-like.
While Judah admits to being emotionally overwhelmed by media images of war zones, he says that "being an artist is like being a surgeon. You have to be detached from your work in order to do it properly."
When he works in his studio, he explains, it's not just a question of recreating a destroyed building, but transforming it into the realm of art, and transcending the literal. While his intention in creating the works is driven by aesthetics rather than any political agenda - apart from a broad, pacifist stance - the end result is necessarily about geopolitics. The act of documenting destruction becomes an engaged one and offers a visceral way of relating to war, starting a process within the viewer.
Judah is acutely aware of the ironic juxtaposition of his attitude from his days as a young student - that art was a way to escape himself and his reality - and his current oeuvre.
"I used to think art was a kind of alchemic escape, but my most profound work is about me and where I come from."
Without being aware of his Indian upbringing, the charity Christian Aid commissioned Judah to go to Calcutta and West Bengal this October, to produce work on sustainability and climate change. Two-hundred million Indians don't have electricity, and this summer's black-outs have challenged one of [the world's fastest-growing economies.
"As a young artist," relates Judah, "I thought art was about breaking away from my community, and where I was, that art was about reaching for somewhere else. But the 'gold' is in where I come from. It's in those war zones, in the collective history of my people, and in going back to where I grew up."
Hadani Ditmars is the author of "Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq" (Haus Publishing ). Her website is hadaniditmars.com.