Photomonitor – Exhibition Reviews, Reviews

Ori Gersht: This Storm Is What We Call Progress 

by Camilla Brown

Ori Gersht
This Storm Is What We Call Progress
25.01.12 – 29.04.12
Imperial War Museum / London / England

In Ori Gersht’s photographic series, Chasing Good Fortune, taken in Japan,
his subject is the iconic symbol of the cherry blossom. With their alluring
beauty and brief lifespan, in the Second World War cherry blossoms became
associated with young Kamikaze pilots, who were to paint the blossom on
their planes. But, as our journey through Gersht’s exhibition, This Storm Is
What We Call Progress, unravels, we come to see this flower has much wider
symbolic significance.
The notion of a journey, and connection to war, is continued in the first film
The Evaders. Shot on location it takes us on the Lister route – a path through
the Pyrenees – used by many to escape Nazi occupied France. The journey is
played out on two screens with large, impressive vistas of the mountains
shown alongside close cropped shots of the main character’s arduous journey
across them. The project re-enacts Walter Benjamin’s final journey, which
became a struggle with inner turmoil and nightmares, and would end with him
taking his own life, just at the point he was going to escape. This film
continues Gersht’s fascination, seen in The Clearing (2005), with the sublime
beauty of landscapes that have born witness to appalling human atrocities.
For the first time in this work Gersht has worked with an actor, Clive Russell.
In contrast, the second film, Will you dance for me, is a first hand account by
Yehudit Arnon. Captions at the start of the film tell us that when she was 19,
and a prisoner at Auschwitz, she was asked to dance for her SS guard captors.
Surrounded by soldiers with machine guns, she said ‘no’. As punishment she
was made to stand barefoot in the bleak and snowy landscape. Surviving that
experience, she resolved to dedicate her life to dance. The film keeps us in this
early and definitive moment, whilst filming her as an 85year old woman.
Sitting in a dark room, with a light shining down on her, she rocks to and fro.
Moving to music, and at times seeming enraptured in the moment, she
appears alongside the snow covered landscape.
Both works are dual channel films which combine close up portrait shots with
views of landscape. One is about a survivor reflecting back on her early
experiences, the other concerns a hugely influential writer who was to sadly
succumb to despair. Gersht has long wanted to make a work with one of the
holocaust survivors, who remain a living connection between the present and
a dark past. However this connection to the past will soon be lost as the
survivors are reaching their final years. What does it mean when the first
hand witnesses are gone? Will their suffering seem more remote, more like
fiction than fact? It seems the combination of these two films wrestles with
this quandary, which makes its context at the Imperial War Museum seen
even more fitting.
In between these films we see a new series of smaller photographs of cherry
blossoms; some taken at the Tokyo Imperial Memorial Gardens, others in
Hiroshima. The cherry blossom seems to symbolise how beauty can thrive on
the site of trauma. Shot at night with a digital camera and long exposure
times, the images fragment and almost dissolve in front of us. They uncannily
look like 19 Century autochrome prints, yet we know they are contemporary
works. With these photographs there is a startling conversation between the
photographic past and present.
In this show Gersht demonstrates how he is able to tackle dark episodes of
history and yet produce a poetic, moving and beautiful series of works that
give us pause to reflect.