Gersht’s ‘History’ of Violence in MFA Show

Israeli artist Ori Gersht captures tragedy in photographs and on film

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This lightjet print of Israeli photographer Ori Gersht’s “Far Off Mountains and Rivers” is one of the pieces displayed in the MFA’s exhibit entitled “Ori Gersht: History Repeating.”

The bouquet was frozen with liquid nitrogen and interlaced with explosives. It was filmed sitting motionless on a table, and the video could be mistaken for a painting—until the vase detonates, shattered into petals and glass that fall in slow motion against a backdrop of sirens. Israeli artist Ori Gersht’s 2006 “Big Bang” is far from your typical still life. Instead, Gersht uses an unassuming floral arrangement as a launching point, capturing its subsequent explosion with the clarity of high-speed digital video equipment.

“Big Bang” is emblematic of Gersht’s work—the artist strives to expose the violence that pervades the human experience, says Al Miner, who curated the new Museum of Fine Arts exhibit “Ori Gersht: History Repeating.” The exhibit, which runs through January 6, is the first comprehensive survey of Gersht’s work, placing pieces that span almost 15 years of his career together for the first time. It features 25 Gersht pieces—17 photographs and eight short films—alongside six pieces relevant to Gersht’s work, selected by the artist from the MFA’s permanent collection.

The photographs and short films featured in the exhibit were shot in varying locations, including Israel, Japan, and England, and many develop common themes of violence, memory, and diaspora. Gersht himself was born and raised in Israel and completed mandatory service in the Israeli army as a medic, where his experiences, he says, inspired him to pursue photography as a career. Since then, the London-based artist has been enticed by places with histories of suffering—he has travelled as far as Hiroshima and the passes of the Pyreneees, which provided a treacherous way to safety in Holocaust-era Europe.

Gersht depicts these sites in still photography and videography, and he sometimes alludes to their tragic histories with startling images and juxtapositions. “[They are] tangible physical places, but they [become] almost imaginary places,” Gersht said. In “Evaders,” a 2009 dual-channel film, two screens lie side by side in a blackened room: on the right side, a storm advances over a pastoral Pyrenees landscape, while on the left, a haggard man staggers toward the viewer. A placard identifies the man as Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish intellectual who took his own life while fleeing the Nazis.

Despite the overt reference to Benjamin, Gersht denies any partiality to the hardships suffered by his own religious group at the hands of Nazi Germany. “I don’t find my work related directly to the Holocaust, but as more of a universal experience. Every work tries to immerse itself in the past.”

Gersht’s photographs fall into two categories: images he took while filming his short pieces and standalone works whose rich colors and soft lines seem painted. “Far Off Mountains and Rivers” is a 2009 example of the former, a still photograph of the “Evaders” landscape. “The piece is at once beautiful but also foreboding,” Miner said.

The standalone photographs touch upon large-scale tragedies through indirect imagery. Gersht’s 2003 “Dead Dog” at first glance seems to be a simple landscape, bucolic in its lush green mountains and blue horizon. However, Gersht shot “Dead Dog” in Galicia, a region in Spain known as the “coast of death” after it was stricken by a disastrous oil spill in 2002. Gersht steers away from obvious indications of the tragedy; the vivid colors are unmarred by sludgy browns, and the water itself is only a faint sliver at the photograph’s center. A small, rotted dog skeleton at the forefront is the only evidence that the tableau is more sinister than it seems.

Much of Gersht’s work is closely linked to the Holocaust and the tragedies that modern Israel is now facing—“Evaders,” for example—but “History Repeating” also includes a piece that makes direct allusion to Palestinian suffering. His 2001 single-channel film “Neither Black Nor White” looks out from above onto the unlit village of Iksal, an Arab community within Israel. Over the course of the short film, the nighttime of the original scene gradually whitens, suggesting the sunrise. But when day appears to have arrived, blinding brightness continues to fill the frame, as if a bomb has just gone off. “Neither Black Nor White” points to Gersht’s desire to expose equally the suffering of the world’s people, not confining the subjects of his work to a single experience or culture.

“I want these images to resonate in an open and almost meta-lingual way,” he said. The pieces in “History Repeating” show Gersht to be consistent in this approach, be they of oil spills or Middle Eastern warfare.

—Staff writer Sophie E. Heller can be reached at