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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston presents first survey of Ori Gersht's career
Ori Gersht (Israeli, born in 1967), Far Off Mountains and Rivers, 2009. Lightjet Print. Robert and Alicia Wykoff. Ori Gersht ©Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- Painterly photographs and evocative films that push boundaries with the latest technologies will be the focus of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibition, Ori Gersht: History Repeating, the first comprehensive survey of Ori Gersht’s career. The innovative artist (b. 1967) is known for seductive and surprising works that forge a connection between past and present—drawing upon the history of art and politics, as well as his memories of childhood in conflict-ridden Israel. More than 30 works will be featured in the exhibition, on view from August 28, 2012, through January 6, 2013 in the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery. Among the 25 works by Gersht will be 17 photographs and eight moving-image pieces made by the London-based artist since 1998, including a new film that responds to a work of art from the MFA’s classical holdings. Additionally, Gersht has selected six works from across the MFA’s encyclopedic collection to punctuate the exhibition.

“We are particularly proud to present the first survey of works by Ori Gersht—his largest exhibition to date—at this moment of tremendous growth in his career,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum. “His inspired films and photographs bring history to life and affirm that the art of our time has a prominent place in the context of our encyclopedic collection.”

The exhibition showcases all of Gersht’s distinctive art historical films presented on framed LCD screens. At first glance, they look like paintings based on European old-master still lifes, but they then subtly begin to move, revealing themselves to be animated and accompanied by sound. By wedding new technology to historic masterpieces, he establishes a tension between creation and destruction, capturing the intersection of beauty and violence while exploring the passage of time. In Big Bang (2006)—lent by longtime MFA Overseer (now Trustee-elect) Lizbeth Krupp and her husband, George Krupp, who are Distinguished Benefactors of the Museum— Gersht references 18th-century Dutch artist Jan van Huysum’s painting Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase (1702–20, National Gallery, London). Gersht’s work looks like the original until a faint mist and the strident sounds of a siren arise, revealing it to be a film in which flowers explode, sending petals dancing through the air. (To preview exhibition and see a clip of Big Bang, please visit

In Pomegranate (2006, The Jewish Museum), Gersht pays homage to both Juan Sánchez Cotán’s painting Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602, The San Diego Museum of Art)—a composition ingeniously arranged and hung in an arc within the confines of a blackened window—and Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s photograph of a bullet speeding through an apple, .30 Bullet Piercing An Apple (1964, MFA). In Gersht’s moving-image recreation, the static scene of a ruby-red pomegranate suspended on a string is disturbed by the impact of a golden bullet that splits the fruit in two, its flesh-like, bloody pulp flying in all directions. (In Hebrew, the word for “pomegranate” is the same as “grenade.”) Similarly, Gersht’s 8-by-6-foot photograph Blow Up: Untitled 5 (2007, Anonymous Collection) is reminiscent of a floral arrangement in the Henri Fantin-Latour painting The Rosy Wealth of June (1886, National Gallery, London). Frozen with liquid nitrogen, the staged flowers were photographed while being dynamited for a shattering effect. In these works, time is altered as fleeting, normally imperceptible moments of destruction are slowed down or frozen by the camera so they can be observed by the naked eye.

The perception of the passage of time is also explored in Falling Bird (2008, Collection of 21c Museum and Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson), inspired by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin’s A Mallard Duck Hanging on a Wall with a Seville Orange (1720–30). The stillness of a dead pheasant is the focal point of what initially appears to be a painting. The dark background and careful arrangement of fruit add to the illusion until the rope holding the bird by its feet is cut and the pheasant slowly descends into the mirror-like water below—meeting its reflection beak to beak, then gracefully splashing into the dark liquid.

Beauty amidst destruction and the unveiling of hidden truths are at the core of works by Gersht that look at the personal toll World War II took on humanity. These also show the artist’s progression from single channel (screen) to dual-channel (two screens) films, which will be on view in individual projection rooms in the gallery. Gersht’s first projected film, The Forest (2005, Yale Center for British Art), brings to light the horrors that took place in Kosov, Poland (present-day Kosiv in the Ukraine), where more than 2,000 Jews were murdered in 1940 and buried in a mass grave. Gersht’s father-in-law and some of his family members were able to escape; the memory of the event lingers even though the landscape today offers no sign of the tragedy that unfolded there. Using poetic imagery, Gersht filmed the tranquility of a forest interrupted by the noise of noble trees falling down for no apparent reason, reminiscent of the atrocities that occurred in the very same place 70 years prior. World War II experiences also inform his photograph Green Swamp (2008, Courtesy of Angles Gallery, CRG Gallery, Mummery + Schnelle, and Noga Gallery), which will be shown for the first time in the exhibition. The image is from his photographic series Hide and Seek, in which the artist depicts the swamps and marshes on the border of Poland and Belarus where partisans hid during the war, but which have never been delineated on maps. The series examines Gersht’s quest for truth, especially photographic truth, and explores how the significance of certain places can be lost to time.

Gersht’s first dual-channel film, Evaders (2009, Pizzuti Collection), reimagines the final hours of Walter Benjamin, the famed German-Jewish intellectual, by tracing his footsteps along the dangerous Lister Route across the Pyrenees and illustrating his desperate attempt to escape from Nazi-occupied France. To make the film, Gersht and his crew trekked along the route while filming a traveler battling against severe natural elements. Complementing Evaders is Gersht’s monumental photograph Far Off Mountains and Rivers (2009), a violet-hued landscape. It serves as a reminder of German romanticism and the cultural burden that was carried along the route by many of the refugees attempting to escape from the Nazi regime. On view adjacent to the photograph is the MFA’s painting Icebergs (1863) by Frederic Edwin Church, in which luminously colored, sharply protruding mounds of ice evoke the romantic spirit and the craggy Lister Route in Gersht’s Evaders series.

Continuing in the dual-channel format, Gersht created Will You Dance For Me in 2011 (Pizzuti Collection) to tell the story of Yehudith Arnon, a Czech-born former director of the Kibbutzim Dance Company, one of the most celebrated modern companies in Israel. As a 19-year-old in 1944, Arnon was imprisoned at Auschwitz where, after she was seen performing acrobatics for other prisoners, SS guards demanded that she dance at their Christmas party. When Arnon refused, she was forced to stand in the snow as punishment, an event that forged a commitment to dance if she could survive. Will You Dance For Me focuses on the now elderly and physically frail Arnon, dancing expressively one more time in a rocking chair, gently moving back and forth, in and out of the light, as she turns her head from side to side with artistic intent and determination, still ever the dancer. In the voiceover in Hebrew, Arnon recalls the pivotal moment when “for the first time in my life, I was able to say no.” She is seen to the left in the film, while to the right, images of falling snow on a barren field fill the screen. Accompanying this work of living history is a score for piano and cello specifically composed by Ellyott Ben Ezer for Will You Dance For Me.

Gersht’s historical journeys navigate between Europe and the Middle East, reinforcing the repetitious nature of conflict in history. In his photographs Olive II (2004) and Mark I (2005), the artist explored the relationships between trees, historic memories, and territorial claims. The olive tree, which appears in both the Quran and the Old Testament, can be found on Arab plantations in the Galilee region, where it has survived through centuries of wars. In turn, the cypresses Gersht has photographed throughout Israel symbolize endurance and are used to commemorate fallen soldiers. The theme of beauty found in dangerous places is further examined in Gersht’s video Neither Black Nor White (2001), which addresses the cultural divide in the region, as well as in the photographs White Light Red City and White Light Red City I, taken from the vantage of a mountainside in the environs of Nazareth, from which a city is seen in the distance, aglow in red and seemingly on fire from a bombing or natural disaster.

While revisiting historical events both in his homeland and by traveling farther afield, Gersht investigates the relationships between destruction and creation, such as the bombing of Hiroshima during WWII and its resonance today, the threat of nuclear confrontation still palpable. Two photographic works, Hiroshima Sleepless Nights: Never Again 2 (2011, Private Collection), taken in Hiroshima, and Imperial Memories: Floating Petals, Black Water (2011, Courtesy of Angles Gallery, CRG Gallery, Mummery + Schnelle, and Noga Gallery), shot in Tokyo, offer different takes on the military associations of the cherry blossom, which functions simultaneously as a symbol of death and rebirth in Japanese culture. (During World War II, the ephemeral nature of the cherry petals was associated with the premature death of the Kamikaze pilots.) Complementing these images is the MFA’s woodcut, Hirosaki Castle (Hirosaki jô) (Shôwa era, 1935) by Yoshida Hiroshi, one of the six works chosen by Gersht from the Museum’s wide-ranging collection. In addition to this piece and Icebergs (1863) by Frederic Edwin Church, the other MFA works in the show are Battle of the Nudes (1470–98) by Antonio Pallaiuolo, Hummingbirds with Nest (1863) by Martin Johnson Heade, Landscape with Bog Trunks (1883) by Vincent van Gogh, and Portrait of the Painter Vaclav Sivko (1955) by Josef Sudek.

For his new film specifically made for the exhibition and presented on a framed LCD screen, Gersht was given unprecedented access to the Museum’s world-class collection. He responded to an ancient Greek coin in the MFA’s collection: a tetradrachm decorated with the portrait of King Euthydemos II of Baktria (about 190–171 BC). In the resulting work Liquid Assets (2012), an object that appears to be an untamed organic shape slowly transforms into the portrait of King Euthydemos II, similar to the one found on the coin.

“This struggle between nature and culture—between the human hand that created the object and the natural mineral of which it is made—is fierce and continuous. Like the image of Christ on the shroud of Turin, the face refuses to fade away. As the liquid turns to solid metal, ripples and waves form the rhythmic patterns,” said Gersht. “I associate the transition with the medieval effort to alchemically transform base metals into noble ones such as silver and gold. But since coins have been the most universal embodiment of currency, and have hardly changed for over two and a half thousand years, I also identify this ancient coin with the beginnings of the economic system, when cash was exchanged for commodities. Today we are at the end of this era, as coins become nearly obsolete and transactions almost entire abstract.”

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