Ori Gersht: Fractured beauty and photography’s failing sight
By David Chandler
In his recent essay on Gerhard Richter’s painting, September, the artist’s response to the attack on the World Trade Centre of 9th September 2001, the curator Robert Storr begins with a moving account of his own, personal experience of that day as a resident of New York. Living in Brooklyn across the East River, slightly removed from but within clear sight of the twin towers, Storr recalls how, as the traumatic events unfolded, the air in his neighborhood became filled not only with choking ash but with the scraps of paper and airborne litter he had already seen swirling ‘like white seagulls’ around the buildings as they burned. Later, pausing in the garden behind his house, he found the ground covered with these paper fragments, ‘mainly from business manuals and spreadsheets’, while another local resident, by chance not at her desk that morning in the World Trade Centre and desperately trying to reach her colleagues by phone, had found papers from her office that had blown over the river and landed on the front steps of her house. Such poignant details, so many of which now cast fine threads of understanding over the iconic visual images 9/11, also remind us of the fragile nature of our material reality. Because the entire world bore witness to the spectacle, the shocking implosion of the twin towers has given us a new and concentrated vision of the atomization of reality that has, in many ways, eclipsed those photographs of the first atomic explosions and those of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that helped so much to define and fuel the deep-seated anxiety of the nuclear age. The sight of one of the world’s largest man-made structures, along with thousands of its human occupants, turned to dust before our eyes has perhaps crystallized an era, or a contemporary condition, and given us an abiding image of profound instability. But as the smoke and dust billowed around the Manhattan skyline, and as the sinister wind-blown confetti of war settled in Brooklyn, 9/11 also generated its multiple images of unnerving beauty. The camera crews and onlookers who recorded the scenes, as well as the countless millions who watched on TV, were mesmerized by a sense of the miraculous in the horror; fear and dread came with a sense of awe at the magnitude of what had happened and uneasy excitement at the sight of history being made.
Ori Gersht’s art rests on just such a profound duality, in which what is formally beautiful, fragile and fugitive is inextricably bound up with violence, fragmentation and a sense of trauma and loss. And for Gersht these ideas trail back into history. So, while his work resonates with the conditions of contemporary conflict and threat, as an Israeli artist now based in London, it is also imbued with the experience and deep memory of the Holocaust. But perhaps even more widely Gersht’s photographs and films remind us, as Barthes suggested, that ‘the age of the Photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions…’ From the very point of its invention, photography has drawn us into a phenomenological conflict between ‘duration’ – which Barthes likened to the process of ‘ripening’ (and to which we might add, slow decay) – and a kind of ‘impatience’ with time, manifest in a fascination with the moment. Gersht’s work casts a broad arc over this history of photographic time, and following a period when the still photograph has come under intense pressure, first by theoretical challenges to its documentary authority and then by the rise of digital and multi media technologies, he has enacted his own form of interrogation, pushing the photographic process and its representational capabilities to technical extremes. Over the last fifteen years or so, Gersht has consistently explored the point at which, submitted to such extremes, the photographic image begins to break down, becomes overburdened – by light, by darkness, by too much information. At this point of the photograph’s failing sight, new aesthetic registers of dissolution and dematerialization emerge that, in Gersht’s work, becomes analogous to metaphysical space, and to the faltering state of memory beyond the particularities of time and place.
Gersht has always been interested in pre-photographic traditions of representation, and since 2007 he has produced a series of works based on the genre of still life painting that, historically, placed precise realism within a metaphorical framework of moralistic values concerning the transient nature of life and material existence: what is intensely ‘present’, and beautiful, is also ephemeral; death always lurks amidst the evidence of life. In photographic and video works such as Time After Time, Blow Up, Pomegranate and Falling Bird, Gersht draws these themes into an extended and complex meditation on the nature of time and the recording mechanisms of photography and film. The pivotal element of these works is the sudden and explosive disruption of the slow ‘durational’ time that is both evoked and stilled by the original paintings and reinforced by the motionless photographic frame that mimics them. These disruptions – by a bullet, for example, in the video Pomegranate – expose the now quaint artificiality of the still life scene and shift us abruptly into another form of precise analysis, this time one moving through slow, visceral disintegration. In this process a form of compression takes place as we quickly shift from the context of painting to photography’s ‘decisive moment’. But that moment is now extended and minutely examined by film, and as material form erupts into minute fragments we are able to see inside the illusion of the single revealing ‘exposure’. Suddenly, as one dimension of the real is quite literally ‘deconstructed’, another is revealed, and with that comes another form of aesthetic contemplation, which in Gersht’s video works, is a kind of prolonged, ecstatic reverie of seeing (with its hints of voyeurism) in which new forms and configurations of matter startle the imagination.
But the allusions here are also, inescapably, to violent conflict in the contemporary world, and to Gersht’s own cultural proximity to that conflict (the Hebrew words for ‘pomegranate’ and ‘grenade’, for example, are the same). Each disruption embodies the presence of unpredictable and imminent threat, and in this wider context the bullet, the falling bird, the exploding vase of flowers might also be read simply as the blunt intrusions of contingent life into the refined practices and higher moral purposes of art. And, if so, they might echo an urgent call for art to communicate across that apparent divide.
The paradigm of painterly beauty that formed the basis of Gersht’s still life works is again at the heart of his more recent suite of photographs, Chasing Good Fortune (2010). Made in Japan, these images focus on the short flowering season of cherry blossom that, as warm weather arrives in Spring, moves northward across the country prompting many annual public celebrations and rituals as it goes. Over centuries the cherry blossom has become closely associated with Japanese national identity, and due to its brief but powerful presence each year it has come to be understood as an enduring metaphor for transience and mortality. It is also allied with the concept of mono no aware, which suggests a particular sensitivity to impermanence in the national character, and a gentle sadness at the passing of things. But as a potent national symbol cherry blossom has also been co-opted to militaristic causes. In particular it has been used as an emblem of soldiers’ suffering and their mortality, their lives would be said to ‘bloom as flowers of death’, while each new Spring flowering would symbolize their rebirth. In World War Two, kamaikaze pilots painted the sign of the cherry blossom on their planes, or would take branches with them on their missions as a measure of the passionate beauty their deaths would represent; the sense of youthful sacrifice evoking the falling petals of the blossom.
So, in Chasing Good Fortune, Gersht again confronts a profound ambiguity, in a symbolic framework where intense, romantic beauty and an affirmation of the natural cycles of life, death and rebirth, comes laden with a much darker cultural history and memory. For these photographs Gersht worked in different light conditions, pushing and manipulating exposure times beyond the point where the camera technology could function accurately. The results are images suffused in grain and pixilation, but whose pictorial beauty is nevertheless exotic and darkly seductive, with an air of fin de siècle decadence. The cherry blossom appears as a kind of afterimage, a trace of its own representation, and in contrast to its arrival in Japan each year as a positive, almost elemental force, here in Gersht’s work it generates a strange atmosphere of foreboding. In Chasing Good Fortune it is rather the photographs themselves that appear to be alive and undergoing a bloom-like spasm, one stilled at a moment of intense pressure and imminent collapse.