Art Monthly

July, 2002
Ori Gersht

By Jean Wainwright

Tate Britain London May 25 to August 26 

Andrew Mummery Gallery London May 22 to June 22 

History and metaphor, journeys and geographical place intertwined with metaphysical space – these are Ori Gersht’s concerns. His works glow against the dark indigo walls of the Art Now space in Tate Britain, a silent and contemplative arena where seen for the first time his videos Dew and Neither Black nor White, both 2001, flow in the manner of still photographs kept running in time. Avoiding narrative, Gersht wanted the viewer to be faced with all the sensibilities that he applies to his work as a photographer. A visual dialogue between the still and moving image emerges as we shift from one room to the next. Dew is a simple idea but one that enchants, facilitated by Gersht’s perception of the limitations and accidents of the camera. As he filmed from the top of a jeep looking down on a Bedouin camp droplets of condensation gathered on his lens which, when changed to auto focus, recorded the moisture. As this dried the obscured view springs into sharp focus revealing life on the edge of the Negev desert, a way of life little changed over the centuries. Reduced to four minutes, the viewer’s awareness of the barrier of the lens is both subtle and thought-provoking. 

The limitations of the camera have long been a compelling issue for Gersht epitomised by his White Noise’ series, 1999-2000, photographed on his journey from Krakow to Auschwitz. ‘Photographs always struggle in places like that … I was interested in the challenge of what can happen in a place the camera can never deal with.’ White Mountain with Black Mountain and Being there Untitled space (1), all of 2001, exemplify this statement – the desert photographs are linked by their unemotional qualities – the tension between geological time and historical claim. Gersht travelled to archaeological sites in the Judaea desert which has been an area of conflict for the last 3000 years. The contrasts between the Black and the White Mountain are enigmatic – the former an undisputed reservation, the latter a site of troubled complex histories. What remains are scratches and traces of human life in images redolent of absence and anonymity that references the sublime. 

Similarly Gersht’s video Neither Black nor White, installed in a room of its own, moves from an abstract cosmological image of winking lights in the darkness to a bleached-out white screen. Filmed from the Jewish quarter of Nazareth looking down on the Arabic village of Iksal the camera recorded half a second of footage every 30 seconds so that eight hours is reduced to four minutes. This distanced view, Gersht hoped, would reduce the area of conflict to tranquil silence through some kind of alchemical journey. Filmed with a static camera, its aperture on a night setting, the town magically appears only to flood and bleach the screen with light as the sun rises. 

In contrast Gersht’s show Mass Culture’ at the Andrew Mummery Gallery is dominated by images of football stadia. Initially this appears to be a radical departure, yet there are strong links with his Afterwars’ (Sarajevo 1998) and Knowledge Factories’ (1999-2000) series. All three bodies of work combine an interest in buildings as living organisms – the concrete is not dead but retaining many of the experiences it has witnessed’. Highbury, 2002, White Hart Lane and the German stadia of Munich, Cologne, and Hamburg, were all photographed in 2001 with a rotating camera moving through 540 degrees – a section of the image being repeated – resulting in a disruption of time and space and preoccupations with the flattened modernist surface. These are images where the camera is privileged, recording a viewpoint not available to the spectator. Gersht wants to challenge the obsessive desire of photographers to record as many details as possible instantaneously – how many details can the photograph really hold and at what point does the image collapse’. The empty spaces almost look typological; the focus is sharp and impassively analytical. Yet as in his other works there are traces of human presence in these huge images of iconic monuments to national and local identity. 

Downstairs Encounters fills the space. A video of a spot-lit rock, which is on the edge of Israel and Lebanon, appears and vanishes as waves break over it. Filmed at night the red waves are transposed to an image of volcanic velocity, the initial gap between image and understanding being a trope that he enjoys. 

Gersht’s need to travel in nature and have a physical reaction to it, to create possibilities of exchange’ is evident in these exhibitions. The compelling images are both enduring and meditative tinged with a subtle Romanticism.

Jean Wainwright is an art historian and critic living in London.