Image © Ori Gersht.
Often drawing on wider themes of history, conflict, time and landscape, Ori Gersht explained the nature of his process in saying, "Scars created by wars on our collective and personal memories are at the essence of my practice. In my work I often explore the dialectics of destruction and creation, and the relationships between violence and esthetics."
The show opens with a beautiful print of ‘Against the Tide: Isolated', from a new series of photographs entitled Chasing Good Fortune. The project is an exploration of the shifting symbolism of the Japanese Cherry Blossom. With its early links to Buddhist concepts of renewal, Gersht translated this idea into the field of conflict and photographed clusters of Cherry Blossom at sites in Hiroshima where trees grew in contaminated soil. Cherry Blossom also came to be linked with Kamikaze soldiers during the Second World War, and Gersht spent time photographing its presence at memorial sites too.
Many of the images were taken digitally at night in poor lighting conditions, and as a result have a strangely disjointed and textural quality. They are like fragments of rich tapestries; woven with layer upon layer of history and meaning. The fragmented quality of the images also raises questions about the reliability of the medium as a tool for truth, which conversely is another theme interweaved through Gersht's work.
Whilst these stills are seductive and pictorially beautiful, the real stars of the show are undeniably each of the dual-channel film pieces, artfully recounting the lives of two people shaped by their (very different) experiences of the Second World War.
Image © Ori Gersht.
Evaders is the first of the two-screen video pieces. The film begins with a haunting recital from a section of an essay Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940, from which the show takes its name. Benjamin sets out to describe the plight of the ‘angel of history' that he sees in Paul Klee's 1920 painting ‘Angelus Novus'. Benjamin wrote of the painting, ‘the angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress'.
Benjamin's tragic (but unfortunately not uncommon) personal story reveals that he struggled across the mountainous path of the Pyrenees Lister Route in an attempt to escape Nazi-Occupied France. Upon finding the border closed when he reached Spain, Benjamin took his own life instead of returning to France.
Taking inspiration from this physical struggle through such a dramatic environment alongside the ideas Benjamin posited within his texts, Gersht touches on an array of cultural, physical and psychological borders, ultimately exploring ways of representing transition. In the film, we see a man struggling against the cold, pressing ever onwards with his journey, as the snow falls ever earthwards. The repetition of this struggle, and the sense that there is no real progress - just a cycle repeating itself - as he fades and flickers into blackness every so often is compelling, though difficult to watch. The beauty of the landscape juxtaposed against his pain is exquisite.
The second film piece Will You Dance For Me? Introduces us to glimpses of 85-year-old Israeli, Yehudit Arnon as she dips in and out of the light whilst rocking back and forth on her chair. Arnon recounts the experience of being a young woman in Auschwitz and the consequences of refusing to dance at an SS Officer's Christmas party. As punishment, she spent the whole night standing barefoot in the snow. The very same night, Arnon vowed that if she were ever to leave Auschwitz alive, she would dedicate her life to dance.
Image © Ori Gersht.
We watch mesmerised as, bathed in light, Arnon is slowly transported back to her time on the stage, a vague smile creeping across her face as her body moves in tiny, almost non-existent contortions - some semblance of a last dance forming as she remembers her days dancing in the spotlight. She looks frail and small, flicking in and out of the immersive darkness, just as the snow repetitively continues to fall each time the video loops beside her. There is the innate feeling of a woman whose experiences whose strength is fading, but whose spirit defies. In each of the two film pieces the snow is a kind of melancholic beauty that masks the brutality that we know is behind it.
To have the show in an environment such as the Imperial War Museum, instead of a gallery space, is inspired. Gersht has spoken before about his constant struggle with ‘the difficulty of representing violent history', and as a result of the nature of his practice, the risk of being seen to aestheticise or poeticise war is high. However in this sense, the work is placed within a wider context, housed in the same place as artifacts and figures and the grittier realism of war and can be appreciated as an alternative way of representing and remembering conflict. Gersht seems to approach his subject with all of the sensitivity and sincerity expected of a photojournalist when documenting war zones.
The only major gripe to have with the show is that the sound from each film piece bleeds into the other at certain points. It would have been more enjoyable to see each piece contained, completely exclusive of each other. Aside from this, the show is a stunning overview of Gersht's recent work and goes a long way to firmly establishing his name in the UK.
Ori Gersht: This Storm Is What We Call Progress is on show until 29 April at the Imperial War Museum in London. For more details, visit www.iwm.org.uk.
Image © Ori Gersht.
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