The MetroWest Daily News
By Chris Bergeron/DAILY NEWS STAFF
GateHouse News Service
Posted Sep 02, 2012 @ 01:15 PM
At the MFA: Israeli artist Ori Gersht probes the specter of conflict
Fusing photography and film, Ori Gersht creates genre-defying still and moving images that probe the specter of conflict that has haunted his life.
In a revelatory exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, beauty and destruction coexist in art of profound power that explores the Holocaust, the Israeli-Arab struggle and the corrosive passage of history.
The largest display of his work to date, “Ori Gersht: History Repeating,’’ showcases 17 photographs and eight moving picture images that smush fine art history and subversive artifice together in fascinating ways.
Organized by Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art Al Miner, this first comprehensive survey of Gersht’s career is a must-see election season show because it invites viewers to decipher subterfuge to discover deeper realities with their own eyes.
The Israeli artist imbues complex photos and films with puzzles and dilemmas that will challenge visitors to reconsider not just what they’re seeing but what it means.
His photographs are often described as “painterly’’ and don’t attempt to document reality so much as create a space for viewers to inhabit. And while his videos contain motion, they are like slow-moving Japanese Kabuki drama that the audience must interpret for its morals.
At first glance, Gersht’s videos seem to move at a glacial pace. By the end, deeply emotional chords thrum through them like volcanic magma oozing from the Earth.
A professor of photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, Kent, England, he often frames his videos to resemble Old Master European still lifes. That approach establishes a tension between old traditions and new technology that heightens our awareness of the passage of time.
Miner described Gersht’s high-definition digital films on video as “immersive cinema’’ and observed that growing up in Tel Aviv, he’d “witnessed three wars and that violence has been a part of his whole life.’’
His single most dramatic piece, the dual channel video “Will You Dance For Me’’ from 2011, features the elderly face of Yehudith Arnon against a black backdrop in seemingly tormented meditation, twisting and turning to an elegiac piano and cello score.
Viewers who come in midway might wonder if she’s anguished or ill. Beside her face, the parallel channel shows a bleak winter scene that seems to issue from her memory.
The woman then speaks in Hebrew, recalling when she was a 19-year-old prisoner of German SS guards at Auschwitz, who’d seen her perform gymnastics for other prisoners, and demanded she dance at their Christmas party. When she refused, they forced her to stand in the snow, an act that forged her determination to dance if she survived.
The former director of a dance company, Arnon’s frail dance in her rocking chair smolders with a conviction that outlived her tormenters’ cruelty and delivers an unexpected emotional punch.
Miner described such payoffs as “the climactic moment where (Gersht) wants to kick us in the gut.’’
Rather than merely document reality, Gersht’s most lovely photos, like “Floating Petals’’ from 2011, are like visual tuning forks that reverberate with multiple meanings.
On one level, it’s simply a delicate picture of cherry blossoms that Japanese consider a metaphor of the ephemeral nature of beauty.
But Miner observed, Japanese militarists during World II appropriated the cherry blossom as a patriotic icon to convince Kamikaze pilots and others to relinquish their hold on life to serve the emperor’s war aims. Additionally, cherry trees are planted around war memorials fed by nuclear contaminated soil that irradiates their delicately beautiful branches.
Gersht’s photos and films are always more than they seem and viewers generally bear the burden of unraveling the tangled layers.
Gersht’s monumental painting, “Far Off Mountains and River,’’ initially seems to simply be a forbidding rocky pass. After noticing the small dark bag in the foreground, we learn it refers to, like his first twin channel film “Evaders,’’ the final hours of one of Gersht’s inspirations, the German-Jewish scholar Walter Benjamin who likely committed suicide after his attempt to enter neutral Spain was thwarted and he was forced back to Nazi-occupied France.
Few recent exhibits have arrived so loaded with ideas about the role of high art in exploring politics and history.
In his film “Big Bang,’’ Gersht explodes a crystal vase of flowers in balletic slow motion. In “Pomegranate,’’ a sort of film of a painting, he shoots a swinging pomegranate so it spews pulp and juice over other fruit in slow motion like a violent scene from a Sam Peckinpah movie.
Some might question whether Gersht overloads his photos and film with more complex meanings than they can bear.
Yet, his single channel color video, “Neither Black Nor White,’’ provides an evolving vision of the Arab community of Iksal in Israel, shot from a hilltop in the Jewish quarter of Nazareth. In almost five minutes of silent, changing images, a viewer will alternate through phases of clarity and disorientation, probably similar to Gersht’s own feelings and intentions.
While the exhibit’s name derives from the lyrics of a blues song by Ma Rainey – “a little bit of history repeating’’ – it might be better titled by borrowing a phrase from Monty Python: “Now for something completely different.’’
Gersht’s photos and videos reinvent the rules for commonly deciphering what you see and deciding what it means. Miner said for Gersht, “a photo is not merely a documentary tool. A photo can duplicate how memory functions.’’ Powerful, profound and provocative, “History Repeating’’ is an impossible experience to forget.
“Ori Gersht: History Repeating’’
WHEN: Through Jan. 6
WHERE: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
INFO: 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org