History Repeating Photographs by Ori Gersht. Text by Al Miner, Yoav Rinon. Interview by Ronni Baer Published by MFA Publications, 2012.
History Repeating is a thorough and conceptually exhaustive book that handsomely exhibits the major movements of Gersht's work. Gersht works in both moving and in still images, and the book represents both elegantly. The plates lead us through major steps in his body of work, and on either side are found lengthy interpretive essays.
Broadly and reductively speaking, there seem to be two major movements of Gershts work represented here: the first, his landscape photography, the second, "still-life" (which is mostly slow motion video).
In his landscapes, Gersht's work revolves around sites of historical atrocities related to the Second World War. The historical significance of the events he is concerned with is only tentatively remembered in the places where he photographs. Technical innovations and experiments lend his work an expressive power that evokes a personal perspective on the historical events in question. He is representing the subjective experience of historical trauma through the locations he photographs. For example, He photographs the forest that served as a sanctuary for his ancestors trying to flee concentration camps, the trees growing from irradiated soil at ground zero in Hiroshima, and the fictionalized final moments of Walter Benjamin's life in Port Bou. The calamities referenced in his images are mostly absent, but hinted at through his technical and expressive departure from objective description.
Gersht's work suggests that in the space between what is remembered and what is discarded, there is a quality found which is not quite fact nor fiction, and perhaps, this space is the intersection of communal history with an individual life. Similar to the late writer W. G. Sebald, Gersht seems troubled and fascinated with this rich set of questions. His images articulate how facts and stories that are in danger of being forgotten take on a haunting and paradoxically enduring fictional quality. His images are like watching facts and fragments of stories die under the weigh of being forgotten and the pressure of being remembered.
The plates conclude with Gersht's more recent video work. In these pieces Gersht recreates still-life paintings, which through slow-motion video he destroys. We watch as these historical references come falling down, either by means of an explosion or through letting them fall apart. For example, he has a collection of images and videos of floral arrangements that are then destroyed with dynamite. First Gersht uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and crystallize the flowers. Then using slow motion high definition video he captures the explosion, which due to the nitrogen, allows the flowers to be transformed into shrapnel. Where his other work starts from the perspective of what is absent in the realm of history, this work starts from the obliterating and shattering moment of trauma directly. In this body of work Gersht has created an abstract field through which to recreate the psychological experience of trauma or violence. The tendencies of traumatic events to unexpectedly intrude into the narratives we tell, breaking and fissuring them along the way, is well captured by these works.
Another important element of trauma is how we fixate on it, re-playing and repeating it endlessly, trying to cope with and find a way out of it. Gersht, using traditional aesthetic compositions, and the seductive (and more contemporary) effect of super crisp slow motion video, recreates the fixation and fascination we have with violence.
The book impressively succeeds in showing the development and maturation of Gersht's thematic concerns, and on this account alone it is highly recommended. The book impressively articulates the transition from particular sites of historical trauma to Gersht's constructed use of art history to explore the same historical darkness. The images require patience on the part of the reader to understand them as holding a continuous unity, but the book rewards such attempts. The interpretive essays are somewhat helpful, although meandering and at moments unproductively laden with symbolic attempts to parse the work. The book design is very well executed, and handsomely crafted. Most importantly it provides a clear view of the conceptual development and progression of this artist's body of work; we see him striving to articulate a similar constellation of ideas in a variety of ways. We see him wrestle with trying to find a vocabulary through which to express his philosophical concerns in photographic terms, and the book leads us through the process well.