The New York Times

Beauty, Tender and Fleeting, Amid History’s Ire


August 23, 2012


THE sumptuous vase full of flowers against a dark background, composed by Ori Gersht, could momentarily be mistaken for an old master painting. He modeled his arrangement, displayed on a video monitor deceptively framed as a painting, after an 18th-century still life by Jan van Huysum. Keep watching, though, and smoke slowly starts to billow from the flowers as a siren sound builds to an operatic crescendo. An explosion then blows glass and petals and smoke across the picture plane in all directions. Jewel-like shards fall in a silent slow-motion cascade, protracted and meditative, before the piece, titled “Big Bang,” loops back to the beginning in an endless cycle.

It is one of 25 films, videos and photographs that draw simultaneously on the histories of art and politics in “Ori Gersht: History Repeating,” this Israeli artist’s first museum survey show, which opens Tuesday at the Museum of Fine Arts here. “Big Bang,” completed in 2006, was also part of “Times Square Moment: A Digital Gallery” in April, playing once a night that month on a dozen huge advertising screens, including several stacked vertically on a single building.

“When the explosion happened, you had the sense that that entire building was collapsing,” Mr. Gersht said in an interview at the museum, adding that he found associations with Sept. 11 unavoidable in this context. “But someone can look at it and be mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the event,” he said. “I’m interested those oppositions of attraction and repulsion, and how the moment of destruction in the exploding flowers becomes for me the moment of creation.”

For Mr. Gersht, born in Tel Aviv three months before the Six-Day War in 1967, the sound of sirens was formative in his youth. He remembers his mother waking him to run downstairs to shelter as the sound wailed nightly during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which his father fought. Mr. Gersht directly experienced two more wars, including the first Lebanon war in 1982 and the first intifada, which began in 1987 as he was finishing his stint as a medic during his mandatory military service. He moved to London in 1988 and lives there today with his wife, a painter, and their two children.

“Ori grew up amidst fear and violence in a land of stunning physical beauty and great history,” said Al Miner, who organized the exhibition for the museum, where he’s an assistant curator of contemporary art. “At the heart of Ori’s work is this intersection of beauty and violence. It’s an almost subversive approach to using aesthetics to lure a viewer into dealing with subject matter that’s very difficult.”

Since completing his master’s in photography at the Royal College of Art in London in 1995 Mr. Gersht has experimented with how the camera and contemporary technology can redefine the way we perceive the world. Using high-speed digital equipment he was able to capture, in crisp resolution, every detail of the exploding flowers. In another piece he shows the path of a bullet shot through a pomegranate in a still life setup quoting a 17th-century work by Juan Sanchez Cotán — along with the resulting spray of crimson juice. At the other end of the spectrum he has used extremely long exposures with an analog camera to produce delicate, melancholic landscapes that almost dissolve under the gaze.

“I’m constantly working on these edges of photography, either to employ so much information or reduce information to the point of collapse,” said Mr. Gersht, who spent much of his youth in the projection room of the art cinema his father ran in Tel Aviv, which showed everything from Truffaut films to the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Mr. Gersht is also interested in the notion of landscape as a witness to history. He first made prolonged exposures in 2003, photographing ancient olive trees in Palestinian villages in Israel. The intense midday light seared the film, and from his blackened negatives Mr. Gersht coaxed haunting, otherworldly prints of the gnarled trees.

“The trees were there before the Ottoman occupation and British Mandate and before the current conflict and somehow retain within them this memory,” he said. He compared the accumulation of light over time on the film, which continually eroded the clarity of the images, to the idea of forgetting.

Mr. Gersht, who is both soft-spoken and emphatic as he discusses his work, has traveled to many sites of historical trauma over the course of his career. He drove to Sarajevo shortly after the war there and took pictures from the window of a train moving between Krakow and Auschwitz. He has gone to Hiroshima to photograph cherry blossoms that bloom in the irradiated soil, and to swamps on the border of Poland and Belarus that were used for hiding during the Nazi era.

His most personal journey, he said, was to the Ukrainian countryside in 2005 with his wife, Nogah Engler. Her father had hidden there for two years, under floorboards in the house of a sympathetic family, after the Nazis had shot more than 2,000 Jewish villagers at the top of a nearby mountain on the edge of a forest. “Everything looked very pastoral,” he said. At night they read her father’s matter-of-fact accounts of what happened at these locations. “We walked back in the landscape in the daytime and the experience changed so much.” The same shift happens for the viewer looking at Mr. Gersht’s ethereal images after reading the caption information.

He also made his first projected film, “The Forest,” on that trip. In it the camera pans through the dense woods outside his father-in-law’s village, the location both a safe haven for those in hiding and a site of atrocities. Trees start to fall, one by one and from no apparent cause, crashing thunderously before an ominous tranquillity is temporarily restored.

“I wanted to create the illusion that the trees are falling in a paranormal manner,” said Mr. Gersht, who worked with the British Consulate and the Ukrainian government to accelerate the chopping down of diseased trees marked for removal. In the Boston show the piece is one of three immersive cinematic experiences presented in individual projection rooms.

For the museum, which opened its new contemporary wing last September, the exhibition has been its biggest foray into film and video, Mr. Miner said.

He commissioned Mr. Gersht to do a new video for the show based on a piece from the Museum of Fine Arts collection. In “Liquid Assets,” a molten, pewter-colored disc seems to ripple and strain against invisible forces. A face barely starts to emerge, then disappears, then slowly reappears in the mercurial circle, which finally comes to rest as a coin imprinted with the profile of a king.

Mr. Gersht used an ancient Greek coin from the museum’s collection as his starting point and spent 18 months figuring out how to achieve this alchemy. He prefers to keep the specifics of his process mysterious but emphasized that the shifting image was exactly what the camera recorded, without digital manipulation (though it is shown backward and at a much slower speed). He was thinking about the meltdown of the economy, the span of Western civilization and that coins may soon be obsolete, he said. But first and foremost he wanted to offer the viewer a sensual visual experience. “The longer I manage to suspend the tension of not being able to resolve what you’re looking at,” he said, “the more successful the work will be.”

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