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Time Out – London

Photography
January 25th, 2006
Photographers Gallery

By SARAH KENT

The camera pans slowly across dense woodland. Its an idyllic scene; insects hover in the sunlight filtering through leaves and the only sound is the chirping of birds. This is the only remaining fragment of the great forest that once covered much of continental Europe and which Caspar David Friedrich eulogized in his paintings. Something moves just out of frame; then slowly, elegantly, a tree falls with a horrible tearing sound and crashes noisily to the ground, sometimes taking another one with it. The surrounding trees shudder, branches break, leaves fall, the dust flies – and settles, and an eerie stillness descends. The birds begin to sing once more, the camera starts another slow pan and the cycle is repeated. This is not wholesale clearance, but a cull of selected individuals; yet the effect is cumulative. As each tree tears through the canopy and each crash reverberates, ones feels a mounting sense of fatalistic melancholy – as though destruction were inevitable. 

Ori Gersht is not interested in environmental issues, though; his dual theme is the case with which history is erased and the indifference of landscape to the human dramas enacted within it. ‘Our sense of time as human beings’, says Gersht, ‘is limited to 70 or 80 years but all these landscapes spread over a cosmic or geological perception of time. Some of the trees are hundreds and hundreds of years old; they bear with them the memory of all events previous events and at the same time keep a certain silence and are impenetrable.

These woods in western Ukraine have witnessed disgusting crimes. During 1942, the Nazis murdered thousands of Jews here from the town of Kosov. Gersht’s father-in-law survived the war only by hiding for months in a hole beneath the trees with his brother and father before finding an attic in a ‘safe’ house; other members of the family disappeared either to mass graved or the concentration camps. A series of stills taken through a train window show fields and houses blurred to a haze or whited-out with over exposure. The association (of enforced train journeys to unknown destinations) and the metaphor (of memories fading or history being willfully erased) are, by now familiar and somewhat corny. And the images are too beautiful and too disengaged to have much emotional impact. 

The film, on the other hand, employs metaphor but doesn’t rely on it; its seductive beauty draws you in and, just as you are feeling calm, your trust is shattered and violated. The visceral impact is overwhelming.