Ori Gersht: This Storm Is What We Call Progress / Reviewed by Camilla Brown / 15.03.12
In Ori Gersht’s photographic series, Chasing Good Fortune, taken in Japan, his subject is the iconic symbol of the cherry blossom. With their alluring beauty and brief lifespan, in the Second World War cherry blossoms became associated with young Kamikaze pilots, who were to paint the blossom on their planes. But, as our journey through Gersht’s exhibition, This Storm Is What We Call Progress, unravels, we come to see this flower has much wider symbolic significance.
The notion of a journey, and connection to war, is continued in the first film The Evaders. Shot on location it takes us on the Lister route – a path through the Pyrenees – used by many to escape Nazi occupied France. The journey is played out on two screens with large, impressive vistas of the mountains shown alongside close cropped shots of the main character’s arduous journey across them. The project re-enacts Walter Benjamin’s final journey, which became a struggle with inner turmoil and nightmares, and would end with him taking his own life, just at the point he was going to escape. This film continues Gersht’s fascination, seen in The Clearing (2005), with the sublime beauty of landscapes that have born witness to appalling human atrocities. For the first time in this work Gersht has worked with an actor, Clive Russell.
In contrast, the second film, Will you dance for me, is a first hand account by Yehudit Arnon. Captions at the start of the film tell us that when she was 19, and a prisoner at Auschwitz, she was asked to dance for her SS guard captors. Surrounded by soldiers with machine guns, she said ‘no’. As punishment she was made to stand barefoot in the bleak and snowy landscape. Surviving that experience, she resolved to dedicate her life to dance. The film keeps us in this early and definitive moment, whilst filming her as an 85year old woman. Sitting in a dark room, with a light shining down on her, she rocks to and fro. Moving to music, and at times seeming enraptured in the moment, she appears alongside the snow covered landscape.
Both works are dual channel films which combine close up portrait shots with views of landscape. One is about a survivor reflecting back on her early experiences, the other concerns a hugely influential writer who was to sadly succumb to despair. Gersht has long wanted to make a work with one of the holocaust survivors, who remain a living connection between the present and a dark past. However this connection to the past will soon be lost as the survivors are reaching their final years. What does it mean when the first hand witnesses are gone? Will their suffering seem more remote, more like fiction than fact? It seems the combination of these two films wrestles with this quandary, which makes its context at the Imperial War Museum seen even more fitting.
In between these films we see a new series of smaller photographs of cherry blossoms; some taken at the Tokyo Imperial Memorial Gardens, others in Hiroshima. The cherry blossom seems to symbolise how beauty can thrive on the site of trauma. Shot at night with a digital camera and long exposure times, the images fragment and almost dissolve in front of us. They uncannily look like 19th Century autochrome prints, yet we know they are contemporary works. With these photographs there is a startling conversation between the photographic past and present.
In this show Gersht demonstrates how he is able to tackle dark episodes of history and yet produce a poetic, moving and beautiful series of works that give us pause to reflect.
London SE1 6HZ