New Haven Register

November 24th, 2007
A family diary and the Holocaust inspire haunting Gersht work at Yale CBA


NEW HAVEN — I’m going to recommend an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art that is only on view during limited hours. That means you have to make an effort to see it. It’s well worth the effort.

“The Forest,” a 13-minute video presentation by Ori Gersht, a London-based Israeli artist, is part of a body of photographic work made by Gersht during a series of trips to modern-day Ukraine in 2005 in an attempt to retrace his severed family connections. His destination was the village of Kosov, the birthplace of his father-in-law, Gideon Engler, who hid there for two-and-a-half years during the Holocaust.

Many of Engler’s friends and relatives were caught and sent to death camps or taken to the nearby woods and shot. Prompted by these stories and a family diary, Gersht made his way to the Moskolovka Forest, a site of horrific Nazi atrocities and persecutions, where he did his filming.

With the help of local lumberjacks who worked in the region already scheduled for harvest, Gersht carefully conceives a series of processional photographic pans across bands of trees at paced intervals within the center and the edges of the frames. When the camera has reached its end point, it changes position and begins again. A soundtrack is used to amplify each crash. In between, there are moments of silence as the forest calm is briefly restored until the trees begin to fall again. Brief moments of sunlight and trilling birds interrupt the narrative.

The film is at once chilling and powerful, touching and haunting. It has no beginning and no end, Gersht reaching for a visual metaphor big enough to confront the narrative without being literal.

One picks up the tone immediately. From the instant one sees the first tree fall and hears the first blast, so reminiscent of a gunshot echo, one can’t help but sense the emotional substance that permeates the narrative, despite the camera’s unemotional scan. Aspects of impermanence and uncertainty, evidence and erasure, destruction and disappearance, as well as the seeming endurance of nature, despite interruption by human interference, are all experienced, the spectator succumbing to the presence of something larger than oneself, a visceral acknowledgement that aches with pain, a witness, as it were, to the tragic narrative.

And, while the forest gives no hint of human figures, one can’t help but envision them, not only as the trees fall to their demise, but also in the way they appear to aid and buffer each other, not letting go until they must, a tribute, it seems, to those moments of goodness that somehow can still be found.

Gersht makes a successful case for the expressive power of photography’s ability to find an expressive resonant pulse. Although the imagery is filmed in the present, it draws one into the past, Gersht staging the scenes to perfection by converting the technical process in order to overcome the medium’s sense of concreteness, the stops and starts, pans and stills, connecting the ideas behind the visual, and turning the abruptness of a photographic moment into a time frame that speaks of longer duration.

A concurrent video installation and two large photographs are displayed on the second floor, the video installation, “Big Bang,” showing a flower arrangement exploding in slow motion after the sound of a wailing siren has faded.

Judy Birke of New Haven is a freelance writer and art consultant.