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Exhibition Review on Ori Gersht, Don’t Look Back at the Towner Gallery

Don’t Look Back by Ori Gersht features three bodies of work: Evaders, Liquidation and White Noise. Gersht’s family originated from Krakow and personal trauma is evident, yet the work can be read as the universal trauma from World War II. Gersht’s combines photography, moving image, and sound to explore how a landscape can represent a memory and history from the atrocities that occurred during WW II. His visually seductive images often juxtaposes the horrors of the past they had once witnessed.

The exhibition opens with Evaders, which traces the journey of German-Jewish critic, writer, and philosopher Walter Benjamin as he attempts to escape the Nazi regime through the Pyrenees along the Lister route, in 1940.

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Image: Ori Gerhst, Evaders, On Edge, (2009)

Benjamin was refused entry from the Spanish borders and consequently told to return to France, where his fate would have been uncertain. Wrestling with his advancing heart condition, Benjamin resorted to escaping through the Pyrenees, where he committed suicide on 26th September 1940. The Lister Route is a passage along the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain: the route has had a long history of smuggling and a symbolic place for witnessing political, economically-motivated migration and even persecution.

Gersht’s panoramic landscapes are reminiscent of Romantic depictions of the sublime found in German romantic paintings; they reveal the bitter and brutal isolation of his journey. In Evaders, Far Off Mountains and Rivers, shards of rock protrude the foreground whilst the distance becomes obscured by dusty pink mist. This sense of the unknown draws upon the nineteenth century romantic thought of nature inspiring awe as well as terror. The accompanying video reveals the final days of Walter Benjamin’s journey, revealing his struggle against the elements before disappearing into the distance.

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Image: Ori Gerhst, Evaders, Far Off Mountains and Rivers, (2009)

White Noise traces the journey used to transport Jewish people to concentration camps, from Krakow to Auschwitz. Photographing on a slow shutter speed through the window of the train, Gersht’s landscapes are blurred and the trees, houses, and sky appear to melt into each other. By obscuring the photography’s objective surface, Gersht interrogates the documentary status of photography in relation to history and a memory of a place. The photograph’s struggle to record detail is perhaps revealing of a personal process of forgetting, whilst also alluding to the emotional terror of prisoners who once travelled the same route.

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Image: Ori Gerhst,White Noise, No.8, (1999-2000)

In 2005, Gersht visits the Ukrainian towns of Kolomyia and Kosov, where Gersht’s father and brother found refuge from Nazi persecution. His images visually oscillate between picturesque beauty of the landscape and the human horrors taken place in between 1941 and 1942.  Accompanying Gersht’s landscape is a video piece called The Forest, another place that bore witness to the atrocities of WWII. Gersht revisits the sublime through his video work The Forest. The Forest was filmed on 16mm film and documents  trees falling down, tracking the cloud of dust, leaves that follow their fall. The crashing sound that breaks idyllic silence of the forest is strangely hypnotic. The contemplative space Gersht created hints a contemporary re-working of the historical depiction of German Romantic painting which often feature a lonely figure pondering nature in awe. At times, the tree’s fall is silent and witnessing the brutal sight of tree crashing to the ground juxtapose with silence create a moving display of sound, photography and moving image.

-Kayung Lai

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Images: Ori Gerhst, The Forest film stills, (2005)

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Image: Ori Gerhst, LiquidationTrace 3, (2005)

 More information on the exhibition