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Ori Gersht: Angel of History? Considering ‘History Repeating’ at the MFA

There is no arguing that Ori Gersht: History Repeating, currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is anything short of visually arresting. Large and lush color photographs sit between exquisitely rendered video tableaux. Since the work exists as an exploration of personal and cultural trauma — primarily the Shoah — it is also to a very large extent upsetting. Israeli artist Ori Gersht walks the razor's edge of the Sublime — that heartache that swells in the chest and sudden pit in the stomach when one is caught at the crossroads of awesome beauty and imminent catastrophe — an aesthetic philosophy popular in the 18th century, most frequently illustrated by the brooding alpine landscapes of Salvator Rosa, and upheld by many a romantic clambering through misty peaks and dodging bandits on their Grand Tour of Europe.

Can we be moved by such images now? Gersht seems to think so. But, setting the seductive beauty and exquisite technical prowess aside, I'd like to explore what I found problematic about the exhibition. My reaction stems primarily from two aspects of the show, namely, some of the curatorial decisions and a few of the works themselves.

Icebergs, 1863
Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826—1900).  Oil on canvas.  Emily L. Ainsley Fund
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Juxtaposed to Gersht in the galleries are the likes of Van Gogh, Frederic Edwin Church and Josef Sudek. This isn't the first instance when selections from a museum are incorporated into a contemporary exhibit: many institutions have made this sort of connection between their collection and the work of living artists their M.O. - the Louvre programs a series of such 'encounters' and, locally, the Peabody Essex, Gardner and Currier Museums exhibit commissions that enliven and revisit their permanent holdings. Beyond the mere fact that it is a dream of most artists to have intimate access to a collection such as the MFA's, it offers them the opportunity to situate their own practice within an established, even revered, pantheon and chronology.

In Gersht's case this placement makes sense to a certain extent: his work draws heavily on the history of painting. The curator, Al Miner, admires Gersht's "bravery that allows him to go head-to-head with some of the greatest painters of the past." But this particular case of juxtaposition causes his work to appear almost entirely reliant on a combination of art historical reference and didactic wall-text to translate his concepts from mere aesthetic effort into the meaningful poetic archive he intends to build with them. And more problematic perhaps, given the symbolism pervading his art, is the meaning imposed onto historic works that never intended to speak for holocaust, since they for the most part predate its most recent and horrific instances and in all cases deal with very different subject matter.

This selection presents as a mid-career retrospective: the works on view span about a decade and only scratch the surface of the artist's total work, or so it seems from the wall labels that place each individual work within a series. Between Places, White Noise, Black Soil, Apocalypse, Ghost, Hide and Seek, Liquidation, Changing Good Fortune: eight photographic series in total, each represented by a single, individual work, makes one ponder whether the man is superhumanly prolific or whether he finishes too easily, failing to flesh out heavy and important concepts. This may be an unfair reflection of an ambitious career and practice now falling on the artist's shoulders because of curatorial choices.

Olive 11, 2004
Ori Gersht (Israeli, born in 1967).  C-Type Print.  Eve Kurtin and Michael Steinberg
© Ori Gersht, Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The oddest aspect of all this remains that if Gersht's work had been given room to show off its depth rather than simply its range the impact might have been staggering. One can't help wondering why he would choose to address such barbaric subject matter with such hauntingly beautiful images. The visual cues in the photographs are subtle, yet instead of leading the viewer to what is visible and possibly decipherable, the wall-text oversteps its bounds time and again, lending interpretation that seems tenuous to say the least. The text beside Hiroshima Sleepless Nights, a diptych of cherry tree branches in bloom suffused with Gersht's characteristic milky light, states that "the fracture between the panels echoes the damage sustained by the city." No it doesn't. I call bullshit. The space between two frames is nothing so dramatic as a fracture. If stripped of their title and especially that contextual suggestion, the photographs themselves bear no trace of disaster.

Let's instead pause to consider the colored hazes that veil most of the photographs like a gas or a fog. To me, it speaks of concealment. Horror and the resulting trauma is a nausea that follows you everywhere, even into the most beautiful places in nature. Unspeakable deeds disappear under soil, falling leaves, snow, water and the passage of time, yet are never erased from the memory of those who witnessed them. How do you make this invisibility visible to those who haven't? How to evoke the fury one feels riding on the same railroad track as a prisoner convoy once did to a concentration camp? It's not easy, but the fact that Gersht extended the motivations behind his sickeningly pretty photographs into the surface and material comforts me a little.

When Gersht sets paintings in motion, painfully slowly, at times the effect is like a protracted, torturous tear of flesh and a tear on the cheek. Pomegranate is a strong example of this type of video work. No such luck for the narrative video diptych of Jewish-German philosopher Walter Benjamin's last hours.

Angelus Novus. Paul Klee, 1920
Creating a series of works that depict Benjamin's crossing of the Pyrenees, to Spain, we watch as he fights against wind, rain, fog and snow, clutching his weak heart, forgetting and returning for the satchel possibly containing his last, now missing, manuscript. This literal retelling of the escape, titled Evaders, comes across as a fanboy's historical re-enactment, full of nostalgia and an almost creepy insistence on unflattering details like the drool running from Benjamin's mouth. What does the telling add to the story of his escape save a Hollywood soundtrack and the audiobook version of Theses on the Philosophy of History? We can be seduced by the man, the myth and his largely unconscious legacy to Photography, but the video, which suggests that Benjamin himself is Klee's Angelus Novus, the angel of History caught in the storm of progress, gives way to trite symbolism and illustrates much that we already know.

Conversely Gersht's 2005 video, The Forest, transported me elsewhere, to histories both personal and universal. I'd happened upon it back in 2005 at the Photographer's Gallery in London, long before I visited Poland, which borders Ukraine with the Białowieża Forest. This was the piece that compelled me to go see the MFA show in the first place, such was its impact back then. Seeing it again in the context of so much slick new work, I fell for its technical imperfections, its simplicity and its individual voice in what elsewhere was a swarm of quotation. I saw the trunks falling, in slow motion, like bodies just shot. I heard the silence, the absence of bird-call, of insects, of voices. I watched the leaves floating downwards covering up the deed. History was repeating and I was its witness.



Museum of Fine Arts

"History Repeating" is on view August 25, 2012 to January 6, 2013 in the MFA's Foster Gallery.

Image credits are stated in each caption.

About Author

Stephanie Cardon is a cross-disciplinary artist from France and the United States and is the former executive editor at Big Red & Shiny. She works as a Visiting Lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art & Design and is a 2013 recipient of the Art Writing Workshop from the AICA-USA and Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

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