Gallery Review | History repeats itself in provocative MFA exhibit
‘Ori Gersht: History Repeating’ sends clear message
Published: Friday, October 26, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 26, 2012 01:10
Modern art can sometimes seem disconnected from its rich history, but this is not the case with the exhibit “Ori Gersht: History Repeating” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). In Ori Gersht’s first museum survey show, Gersht seeks to remember violence and blend past and present in pieces that are at once alluring and horrifying. The exhibit’s form is also complete with the works that inspired Gersht: they are displayed alongside his own pieces, both complementing and mirroring the painterly quality of his high−definition videos.
Gersht’s art depicts his life growing up in Israel, what it was like for him to live through four wars and how these experiences have shaped his identity. While many of the exhibit’s 25 photographs and films explore the Holocaust and Israeli wars, Gersht also examines brutality more broadly in other violent acts throughout history.
Gersht’s film “Will You Dance With Me?” (2011) uses two screens to tell the story of Yehudith Arnon, a dancer and former Auschwitz prisoner. The blinding white of the barren winter field that Arnon was forced to stand in after refusing to dance for Auschwitz guards is juxtaposed against her frail and wrinkled face; she drowns in the film’s black background. Her movements are slight but powerfully artistic and her face is a living artifact of both her art and her pain.
The piece is difficult to watch, but it is also fascinating in its daring humanity and extraordinary visual detail. A classical piano and cello piece weaves effortlessly around a voiceover before fading into a wintery silence in the background. These effects subtly heighten the emotional impact of the film.
Gersht’s work focuses on the impact of great tragedy on humans, but his artistry shines when he highlights nature as a reflection of that human trauma. In several works, such as the 2006 high−definition film “Big Bang,” Gersht experiments with creating violence and capturing it vividly. The piece plays upon the creation of the universe, but also introduces destruction to the story.
The film starts out black, but a vase full of flowers that looks remarkably like an old still life gradually becomes visible. Slowly, fog begins to swirl out of the vase and everything is quiet. All at once, sirens sound and the vase explodes in slow motion to reflect the human response to disaster. Sharp petals assault the dark edges of the screen as the sirens crescendo. Slowly, the film’s chaos fades and the debris begins to settle. As the remaining petals float to the ground, a single white flower on a feeble stem remains. It stands still through the fog, showing hope even in catastrophe.
Slow motion is the most effective tool employed by Gersht in “Big Bang,” as it allows the viewer to see destruction in a level of detail usually rendered impossible by time. The soundtrack, which utilizes the different types of sirens Gersht heard in his childhood, is theoretically powerful, but it is difficult to hear due to the piece’s other sound effects.
Recalling a more specific historical violence, the 2011 inkjet print “Hiroshima Sleepless Nights: Never Again 01” connects the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to Gersht’s visual discussion of the Holocaust to emphasize the continuity of violence.
The print, which features a frail cherry tree in front of a white sky, is split into two frames. The branches from one picture do not line up with the branches of the other, imitating the fracturing of a society damaged by great violence.
Like most of the pieces in Gersht’s collection, the photo explores the connections between violence and beauty, destruction and renewal. The light colors and predominance of light send a message of hope and peace to the viewer. The print’s label, however, likens it to bright light from a bomb.
This instance of subtlety — along with many others similar instances throughout the exhibit — will undoubtedly go over the heads of most viewers. Although Gersht’s images have a universal appeal in their ability to make brutal images and violent historical references beautiful, they can communicate much more to a person who has experienced the kind of trauma that he has. Much of Gersht’s audience won’t connect to the foreboding violence of his pieces, but the power of his juxtaposition of seduction and cruelty is reason enough to visit the exhibit.
“Ori Gersht: History Repeating” will run through Jan. 6, 2013.