Art in America

May, 2006
Ori Gersht at CRG

To make a film about trees falling in a forest is to risk both the sophomoric and the maudlin. Ori Gersht’s The Forest (2005), a 13- minute work shown as a looped, large-screen video projection, is neither. As the camera slowly pans a dense wood, it focuses levelly on the middle distance. There are no external points of reference-neither ground nor horizon and almost no sky; no houses, no people. Every minute or so, at irregular intervals, a tree is felled. The motion is slightly slowed; the other clearly manipulated variable is sound. Sometimes the trees fall with a thundering roar that is anticipated by a storm-like rumble and concludes with a reverberant decrescendo. At others, the falls start out silent and only gel noisy abruptly at the end. We never see the woodsmen responsible for the cutting (which was part of a routine harvest), and to the layperson it is hard to predict which trees will go. Some fall directly away from or toward the camera, which makes the movement difficult to see initially. One spirals down in a perfect balletic swoon, though most simply crash head first. One or two fall into the frame from just beyond, so we hear them before we see them; a few such passages are mute and in these cases, attention is particularly drawn to small, portentous details that precede the fall: nearby trees sway, leaves float down, or, even more evocatively, drift upward. ln general there is much settling among surviving neighbors. Apart from the trees, the only sounds of activity are the intermittent buzz of insects and, once, distant yells, presumably of the lumber- men. Though The Forest was not shot in a single take, the editing is inconspicuous, and the arboreal panorama is, anyway, dizzyingly repetitive. To watch for more than a few minutes is to feel increasingly like a child lost in a tale by the brothers Grimm. 

Majestic, humbling and inescapably anthropomorphic, trees may be universally symbolic of dignity and endurance. Evidence of their artistic utility on display while The Forest ran ranged from Anya Gallaccio’s transplanted tree, towering inside the massive industrial space of the Sculpture Genter, to Eadweard Muybridge’s photograph of himself scowling and tiny in front of an absurdly giant redwood, in a show of artists’ portraits at Luhring Augustine. But The Forest has a particular set of references. It was filmed in a region of Galicia, in the Ukraine, where Gersht’s family took refuge from the Nazis during World War Il, and it is of central importance to the artist that many of these trees were, in a sense, witnesses bath to the atrocities and the heroism of that time. Knowing that (the press release says so; Gersht also visited this landscape in the remarkable still photographs shown last fall at CRG) is no particular help-or hindrance. A more primal scene, or older drama, is hard to imagine. It is Gersht’s discreet, skillful formal interventions that sharpen, and amplify, its meaning.