May 19th, 1999
Ori Gersht at Andrew Mummery Gallery

By Rebecca Geldard

This quietly evocative series of photographs depict the urban landscapes of war-torn Sarajevo. Seemingly devoid of human presence, individual buildings dominate the frame as empty shells and places of refuge. The buildings in question are apartment blocks; coloured monuments of yesterdays utopia. Formally composed, on the surface these images appropriate the visual configurations of modernist design, yet the minutiae of urban detail take us beyond the constructed facade to the personal histories contained within. The destructive forces of cultural advancement and the organic processes of life, death and decay are observed as unswerving co-habitees in the aftermath of the Bosnian war.

Upon entering the basement domain of the gallery, the effect of the formalist images on display is almost reminiscent of an underground exposé of modernist paintings. Familiar compositions of flat colour, geometric shapes and grid-like constructions hang evenly spaced from the gallery walls. Upon closer inspection, architectural constructions emerge bearing the scars of conflict and the signs of continuing life. In three such works, the pointillist marks of artillery fire strike an imagined resonance in the bomb-shelter feel of the surrounding space. Blue skies preside over the skeletal structures of empty buildings illuminating the faded colours once associated with prosperity and progression. In the foreground, weeds flourish, asserting their natural presence across this abandoned urban site. One is reminded of Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, one of his prototypes for social reform: concrete testaments of failed systems.

However, not all of the chosen sites have been vacated by their inhabitants. Towering tenement blocks display the signs of everyday existence; coloured curtain strips and crowded clothes lines interfere with the urban uniformity of windows and balconies. Satellite dishes and aerials sprout precariously from dilapidated exterior walls. The bright colours of window box flowers contrast with the prefabricated austerity Similarly, ordered piles of logs, usually synonymous with rural habitats, stand in the forecourt of one apartment block In another context these buildings could represent the urban reality of populated areas the world over.

In his exhibition statement, Gersht maintains ‘the images are an observation of life’, that they are inherently optimistic. This positivity is attributed to the natural cycles that continue to thrive in the face of adversity. In the first of these rather different images, a sun-drenched yellow wall fills the frame, from a darkened doorway an iron staircase juts and spirals, casting a sumptious shadow. It could almost be an image from a tourist publication, or even a detail of a Hopper painting. It is only the violent marks decorating the wall that distract us from the beauty of the scene. In the second, we are confronted by an almost life size bookcase, filled top to bottom with a variety of publications, from American fiction to European history. Visually distinct from the surrounding urban forms, it speaks of the cultural complexities at the root of conflict, and of the cyclical nature of human activities: histories continually re-written through the eyes of historians, anthropologists, writers and artists.

From a curious position between the documentarian and the artist, Ori Gersht has observed the halfway zones of war. Initially it seems that he has given us very little, avoiding the hand-fed pathos of the news bulletin. However we can extend the traces of evidence’ to recreate the imagined horror of past events. The lack of a distinctive human presence seems to demand the interaction of the viewer. From the affordable vantage points of Rear Window voyeur and on-site detective our imagined histories fill the vacant spaces of urban formality.

Rebecca Geldard
June 16, 1999 (date posted)