Ori Gersht: History Repeating / Museum of Fine Arts

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 3, 2012

Ori Gersht
Ori Gersht  

The moment at Auschwitz when Yehudit Arnon said "No," she then was at the brink of deciding for herself who she truly was and who she wanted to be.

The teenager had never before been able to say "No," she now recalls as an 85-year-old woman. She ruminates silently as she gently rocks back and forth in a chair while the Israeli born, long time London resident Ori Gersht films her. Sinewy and Roman-nosed, she has an eagle's grandeur.

"Will You Dance For Me" is emblematic of Gersht's art photography that forges connections between the past and the present and mingles trauma with beauty. Seventeen are photographs, the rest are moving images made since 1998. The show runs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through Jan. 8, 2013.

A still from "Will You Dance For Me"
A still from "Will You Dance For Me"  

Set standards

The dual channel film of Arnon also sets a standard for portraiture circa 2012.

It is as memorable in its way, and probably lastingly so, as John Singer Sargent's compelling oil on canvas "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" (1882), a work always on display at the MFA, Boston, in which four little girls of a wealthy family invite our interest in knowing about their lives and their futures.

On Youtube there is a documentary film about the Auschwitz years in the life of Arnon, a dancer and dance company founder who in 1997 received the Distinguished Artist Award of the International Society for the Performing Arts "in recognition of her extraordinary contributions of creative talent and inspiration in the world of dance."

In an approach that departs from being a documentary, Gersht's portrait probes deep like the Sargent work, and is ruminative and fanciful.

To see "Will You Dance For Me," a visitor to the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery enters a darkened room, pitch black really, situated off the main exhibition space. You sit on a couch directly in front of a pair of screens. The dual channel format is on a constant loop so you settle in at any point of the portrait in which there are no spoken words but a score for piano and cello composed for the piece by Ellyot Ben Ezer ("Pizza A Auschwitz").

Yehudit Arnon
Yehudit Arnon  

A horrific past

Before you, Arnon sits rocking in a chair upholstered in black, she is wearing black and has black hair, while to the right on the twin screen, snow falls steadily on a large field bordered by a corpse of trees. Sometimes the camera pans across the field and the trees. It shoots Arnon from many angles as she rocks. Once it draws back so far that her head is as tiny as one of the flakes filling up the otherwise barren field.

At one point in the film, a storyline is seen in print: Just before Christmas Eve of 1944 Amon was observed doing acrobatics to entertain her fellow inmates. The SS wanted her to dance at their Christmas party in Auschwitz. When she refused, she was forced as punishment to stand barefoot in the snow. As she stood, she decided that if she survived, she would dedicate herself to dance.

Gersht's "Will You Dance For Me," done in 2011, of course references the horrific past that is specifically the Holocaust but it more universally embraces the life of any person who skates on thin ice because of the society in which he is living.

Screenshots from "Pomegranate"
Screenshots from "Pomegranate"  

Comprehensive survey

This exhibit, the first comprehensive survey of Ori Gersht's career, was curated by Al Miner, assistant curator of contemporary art at the MFA.

Openly gay, Miner says he relates to the works he's selected to show first of all as an appreciator of Gersht's art, but then he adds that these works at once beautiful but fraught with potential danger also speak to him as a gay man who "in the back of my brain, in the way, way back of my brain, there's a constant awareness of my place in a world that doesn't totally accept me."

Other works in the exhibit continue Gersht's exploration of dualities.

One photograph, for instance, is the painterly "The Boatman," a Lambda print (used specifically for its high quality and high resolution for large format printing from digital art work). On a foggy day, a fisherman sits huddled in his dory on a lake that extends for miles it seems. This photograph is part of Gersht's 2009 series "Hide and Seek" shot on the border of Poland and Belarus where some Jews escaped Nazi tormentors by hiding in the woods.

At first glance, the HD film in color and sound "The Big Bang" (2006) looks like homage to 18th century Dutch artist Jan van Huysum's painting "Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase" owned by the National Gallery in London. Then the arrangement detonates, suddenly and violently flowers and stems are blasted into the air. Gersht had frozen the flowers with liquid nitrogen and wired them, so that when the wires were pulled, they whirled apart.

Gersht, who attended the preview of the exhibit, told EDGE that he was particular to have tulips in the floral display as he was thinking of false economies as a message of this work. (The novel by Alexandre Dumas, pere "The Black Tulip" tells how The Dutch once went so wild bidding up the price of tulips that it nearly brought the nation down).

There is splendor and tragedy at once and in equal parts in "Ori Gersht: History Repeating."