July 8th, 2011
Ori Gersht, CRG May 6 – 24, 2011
Gillian Wearing, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, May 5 – June 24, 2011
By Bill Clarke
Ori Gersht: Will You Dance For Me (2011): Dual channel HD video projection with sound, 13 min 45 sec. Courtesy CRG, New York.
In these two moving shows, U.K.-based artists Ori Gersht and Gillian Wearing examine how people manage to survive and move on with their lives despite adversity. The work in Gersht’s exhibition, Falling Petals, references the sweeping tragedies of the Holocaust and the Second World War, while Wearing’s exhibition,People, draws on individuals’ deeply personal experiences.Entering Gersht’s exhibition, viewers first see a suite of photographs of cherry blossom trees photographed at night, produced by the artist while visiting Japan in 2010. Traditionally, cherry blossoms are associated with the impermanence and renewal of life; several of the trees Gersht photographed are planted around war memorials in Hiroshima and Tokyo. The photographs are lovely, but it is not as if such images haven’t already been made many times over. The photographs do not really begin to resonate until viewers have watched the video, “Will You Dance For Me” (2011), in the back gallery.
The two-channel projection begins with text briefly relating a chilling moment in the life of Yehudit Arnon, an Auschwitz survivor. Viewers learn that when Arnon was 19-years-old, she and other women in the camp were ordered to dance with SS officers at a Christmas party. Arnon refused even though she believed her refusal would result in her being shot; rather, she was forced to stand out all night in the cold and snow. That evening, she decided that if she survived the camp, she would dedicate herself to dance, which she did by founding the Kibbutzim Dance Company in 1962 and becoming an internationally renowned choreographer. Arnon’s imposing 85-year-old-face then appears on the screen, slipping in and out of the darkness that surrounds her as she rocks in a chair. Despite the physical limitations brought on by age, she slowly moves her head, arms and hands in a series of graceful gestures. She is still dancing. On the other screen, snow slowly starts to swirl down from a night sky, echoing the dancer’s movements. Remaining untouched by this poetic illustration of the human spirit seems impossible. Wearing’s exhibition, People, is a survey of recent work created since her last major solo show in New York in 2003. The exhibition illustrates that Wearing continues to push at the boundaries of what constitutes portraiture and here, as in the Gersht exhibition, it is near-impossible not to be affected by the work, especially the videos.
In a suite of four photographs, Wearing uses costumes and prosthetics to create portraits of herself as Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. At first amusing, viewers are reminded by the fourth photograph – a black and white, elegiac image of a vase of flowers – that these artists died too soon. In the series of videos titled “Secrets and Lies” (2009), individuals who responded to Wearing’s ad to “confess all on video” are filmed in tight close-up wearing masks and, sometimes, wigs. The videos are presented in a booth that is only slightly larger than a confessional box, which enhances the intimacy to the work. Each person relates lengthy, brutally honest stories of lives filled with abuse, alcoholism, drug-addiction, brushes with the law and violence, but most also explain how they’ve managed to continue with their lives despite such obstacles. As the work’s title implies, most of these people have rebuilt their lives by keeping secrets and telling lies, donning ‘masks’ to hide their pasts. As one man wearing a red hoodie says, people think he is a “jolly little creature”, but he sees himself as “a horrible little monster…everything I’ve got is built on lies.” Wearing’s most recent video, “Bully” (2010) documents an exercise in which a young man who has been bullied re-creates the experience with a group of participants. One takes on the young man’s role while the others play the bullies or individuals who stood by, watching it happen instead of intervening. After the re-enactment, the young man, who has been directing the other people, is given the opportunity to say to each of the participants what he would have like to have said to the people who bullied him. Cathartic tears ensue. Wearing’s exhibition, like Gersht’s, reminds us of how our past experiences mark us for life, providing an experience that is not only a release for the subjects, but for viewers as well.