The Times

May 29th, 2002
A voice from the desert
The Judaean wilderness has a message for us all
By Joanna Pitman

As a boy growing up in Tel Aviv in the 1960s, Ori Gersht used to spend much of his time perched on a tall stool in the projectionist’s room of a small commercial cinema owned by his parents. The Paris Cinema used to show the classics of film history, and with virtually unconditional viewing of this enchanted world Gersht became well acquainted with the masterpieces of the cinema. 

Glamorous transitory figures appeared and disappeared and soundtracks filled his ears with rhythms that he well understood but words that he did not; and gradually he became a connoisseur of the work of great directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. 

Sitting in the dark watching the flickering screen Gersht began to weave an alternative world to his routine everyday life, distancing himself in his imagination from his own city and searching for other landscapes, places where he might hide or simply vanish. 

It seems entirely natural then that Gersht, now 35, has become a photographer of landscapes that look, when seen through his lens, like places of the imagination, terrains that might have come out of films by Wim Wenders. A small – far too small — selection of his desert images is currently on display at Tate Britain, along with two of his videos. The land he has photographed is part of the Judaea desert on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a dividing area between Israel and the West Bank. 

As you enter the gallery, which has been painted a deep blue, you are confronted by a vast burning image in multifarious beiges and greys called Being There – Untitled Space 1. It is a barren, stony desert, registered in sharp focus in the foreground, which fades in diffused light into an empty nothingness. It looks like a lunar landscape and, as it is hung low to the floor, viewers have the impression that they are actually standing on the edge of this infinite plain, looking down from a high vantage point across thousands of miles towards the hazy outline of what could be a mountain range in the distance. 

This is a land that has been disputed for 3,000 years. It is the desert into which the biblical figure of King David escaped and it is the territory for which individuals are today willing to sacrifice their lives. It is laden with myth, history and conflicting claims and yet it could be anywhere, a seemingly anonymous stretch of cruelly inhospitable emptiness where time stands still. But as you inspect the ground in the photograph more closely, you can just make out tiny traces of humanity, faint tyre tracks here and there, the only subtle marks of the passage of time. 

Although he was born in Israel, Gersht has spent the past 14 years in Britain and regards himself as an outsider in both cultures. “I’m not an exile, he says. “I came to Britain by choice, but my perspective on both places is that of an outsider. I find that because I’m living away from Israel, I can engage with its culture in ways which I wouldn’t have been able to had I still been living there. 

“For a long time I’ve thought about this in relation to photography. Since its invention, photography has been obsessed with the exotic and the other. You look at the work of Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand, who are children of immigration, and their fascination with America is about this notion of not belonging and coming to see a new culture. 

Gersht’s work too requires the psychological distance of half-belonging, and some of his most critically acclaimed photographs are of the area around Auschwitz, where several of his relations perished. 

One of his videos, entitled Neither Black Nor White, begins with what looks like a constellation of stars against the black night. Gersht has set up his camera to record half a second of footage every 30 seconds, thereby compressing real time into a more intense experience. As the darkness fades into the cold blue light of dawn, we can gradually make out that the stars are actually the lights of a small Arab settlement. Day begins to break and the silent tranquil village comes alive with the noise and vulgar colour of another day. We see the minaret and dome of the mosque, and once we know that this is the village of Iksal being filmed from the vantage point of the Jewish quarter of Nazareth, the town and its depiction become part a complex political statement. 

The show is both small and minimalist (just three large unframed photographs and two silent videos) but despite this Gersht’s work still manages to speak loudly. 

Ori Gersht is at Tate Britain until August 26.