Art Paper

September, 1999

By Piers Masterson

Tire shocking power of the photographs and video tape of the war in Kosovo, coinciding with a renewed interest in war movies thanks to the success of Saving Private Ryan, proves that even at the end of the century, the devastation of conflict still provides us with our most compelling images. Ori Gersht’s exhibition of photographs of the battle-scarred housing blocks of Sarajevo (Andrew Mummery Gallery, May 19- June 26) is a timely reminder that this latest Balkan conflict is but one of a tragic series. They also bear witness that after the armies, politicians and relief workers have moved onto other stages, life for those on the ground must somehow go on. 

German post-war photography is an abiding influence on Gersht’s work, particularly the Bechers, from whom he has gained a fascination with seriality and a particular take on the rational for socially engaged photography. Informing that work was also a search for structure, a re-establishing of identity from the post-war fragments. Gersht is an Israeli, so the experience of national boundaries being in flux, of communities in conflict, is one that is familiar to him. The Sarajevo photographs hover between documentary work and fine art, but the works are intended for gallery exhibition as large-scale prints. Within the sphere of photojournalism, the space given over to these scenes of aftermath has been diminished. The news agenda has become so rapacious for reportage that the story and the reporters move on quickly, so that little space is provided within the mainstream media for images of reconstruction or survival. On another level these images are reminiscent of travelogue photographs, reminding us that Sarajevo is, after all, a central European city and until the civil war a routine part of the euro-backpacker circuit. In fact, for a time in the ‘80s my own parents spent each summer on cycling holidays in Yugoslavia. Gersht’s engagement with the terrain consciously apes the touring cyclist holiday, biking from location to location with a collapsible camera in his rucksack. 

Whilst cycling around the countryside surrounding Sarajevo, Gersht came across an extraordinary scene, an old people’s home completed just before the outbreak of the war. The complex was never occupied, and in the conflict the structure was totally devastated. The scene is so incredible that it looks as if it must be digitally manipulated, an effect enhanced by the overly bright and clashing colour scheme. The building itself is a hybrid of styles that sit uneasily together, part Bauhaus and part ‘80s postmodern elaboration. In its just completed state the building must have looked an impossible synthesis, yet now the all-over patina of the mortar damage seems to unify the fragmentary architecture. 

Underpinning the work of the work of the German photographers that so affect Gersht’s own practise is a concern with “deep” history, the extended time lines of economic and cultural forces that occasionally impinge on the present. Gersht’s images make concrete the effects of recent events that are indices for deeply rooted historical forces. The deliberate modernity of the block’s designs seems to be intended to make them devoid of context; they could be anywhere from London’s Eastend to the Chicago housing projects. The devastated old people’s home could be part of any National Health Service Trust hospital complex. All the more shocking then are the details of the shrapnel cratered walls; the buildings themselves are masks concealing who knows what horrors. In one of the photos a figure in a brightly coloured football shirt incongruously strolls through a piece of hinterland that a few years ago was the frontline between opposing militias. 

At first sight I am struck by the similarity between Gersht’s architectural studies and the work of the Bauhaus and Constructivist photographers. It is not just that Gersht’s pictures echo their highly structured compositions, or their modernist subjects. The stoicism of much German and Soviet photography of the ‘20s and ‘30s is a mask for the political grotesques of the period, immersing itself in a Utopian future in order to insulate itself from the present. Gersht’s photos make the subtext clear. Nationalism emerges at the end of the century as the triumphant ideology, its consequences made concrete in shattered homes.