Caught in the Act

Ori Gersht: Seductive Art with a Statement

By Jared Bowen

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Watch Jared's interview with Gersht on Greater Boston.


In the Museum of Fine Arts' newest contemporary art show, beauty is taken from the eye of the beholder.  In this case it’s the artist Ori Gersht who determines the very definite bounds of beauty.
 
At first blush, the works of Israeli artist Ori Gersht are pieces of painstaking beauty—an elegant cherry tree branch, a verdant Spanish landscape and a traditional still-life. MFA curator Al Miner describes how Gersht’s work has a siren’s call.
 
“Beauty is what pulls us all into this work. It’s seductive. We can’t help ourselves. But it’s also like a little lullaby. It sort of lures you in, but then when you least expect it, he does bring in comments about violence,” he said.
 
 

The Cherry Tree branch is actually a photograph of a tree growing in Hiroshima’s irradiated soil.  Look more closely at the landscape and you’ll find the carcass of a dead dog.  Notice the still life of the flower arrangement and you’ll soon see it is lifeless. It is all painstaking work imbued with pain, said Miner.
 
“There have been four world wars in Israel since Ori was born. His whole life has been in the middle of an ethnic conflict. He’s been a witness to so many moments in that nation’s situation. It’s hard for us to think as Americans to understand what it would be like where so much history is embedded in everything and violence really is around every corner. It makes Ori and others more sensitive. They notice things. He sees violence in places where we might not even recognize it right off the bat,” Miner said.
 
The Museum of Fine Arts’ newest contemporary art show, Ori Gersht: History Repeating is a vastly intriguing and revelatory perspective.  It’s the first comprehensive museum survey for Gersht, featuring 17 photographs and eight films dating to 1998.
 
“What I’m interested in is a kind of tension that exists between attraction and repulsion,” Gersht explained.
 
In his photographs, it’s a more quiet tension, a sadness brought on by sudden understanding. Much like the cherry blossom, his landscapes, while gorgeous, are pointed.  The serene lake in “Boatman” was actually a hiding place for Jews during World War II. The same for a spot in the Pyrenees. It’s something you can only learn by reading the wall text.
 
“I’m interested in these moment where the viewer become aware what it’s actually looking at and the affect it has on them. From the moment the words are coming into the equation, the experience can never return to its pure, almost innocent initial relationship between the eye and the image,” Gersht said.
 
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Ori Gersht, Far Off Mountains and Rivers, 2009. Courtesy Angles Gallery, CRG Gallery, Mummery + Schell, and Noga Gallery. © Ori Gersht.

Gersht’s moving images force a more direct response. In this play on an 18th century French painting, the bird suddenly drops into an abyss.  A coin and its history harshly melt away. And in Hebrew the word for pomegranate is the same as grenade.  We see that disturbing definition unfold.
 
“Our bodies are constantly dying and new cells are emerging. And so sometimes we will experience, will have personal experiences, which will have great affect on us. And the shift between feeling untouchable and very vulnerable and hopeless is so fine,” Gersht said.
 
In all of Gersht’s work, in the obvious and in the more ambiguous, he harkens back to the old Masters. Their DNA is part of his own, he believes.
 
“It’s a questioning of the past in terms of what were these artists doing? What were these moments in history? Why were they important? Why did they create ripples of time that they did,” said Miner. “But it’s also an admiration.”
 
The Masters rendered life. Now, Gersht adds a modern voice.

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About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 

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