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Ori Gersht explored

Image of a still from Ori Gersht's film Evaders.
Ori Gersht, Still from Evaders, HD Film, Dual Channel Projection, 2009 © Ori Gersht, courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle

For a large part of the last year I worked on the exhibition Ori Gersht: This Storm is What We Call Progress  which has now been on display at IWM London for three months. One of the most interesting things about the process of putting the exhibition together was how my own understanding of the work developed throughout our logistical, and significantly less poetic, planning discussions. Before working on this show I knew many of Ori’s works well: the cityscapes from Sarajevo which are part of IWM’s collections; his intriguing 2005 film, The Forest, where trees fall without explanation in a Ukrainian forest, and his best-known work, Big Bang, in which a Dutch still life shatters in spectacular slow-motion across the screen. I had also seen some of his Evaders photographs at his gallery show in 2009. This is the work that explores the fated flight of writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin from Vichy France, following a path through the Pyrenees. I hadn’t seen the film of the same name until a much later studio visit, but this was one of the works that became part of the show.

Ori works in a curious way, often employing both film and photographs to explore an idea, a subject or place. The two elements complement each other, but are not to be considered part of the same work. Most importantly, the photographs are very specifically not film stills. They are images produced and crafted in their own right. The Evaders photographs are very empty; the beautiful but harsh landscape of the Pyrenees becomes a dominant protagonist in the images. Intriguingly many of these places don’t actually exist, but are composite images of several sites. The landscape here becomes a construct, an artificial memory. Benjamin’s physical presence is barely registered. It is only through his abandoned suitcase, shown left amongst some jagged rocks, which indicates his absence.  In reality, Benjamin’s suitcase was noted as being found at the scene of his suicide, but later mysteriously disappeared. It was said to contain his final piece of writing and has since become a potent symbol of loss and the mythology surrounding his death.

In the photographs, the landscape has swallowed the man, the rocks encase him. In the film, the Messianic figure of Benjamin, struggling against a storm of so-called progress, looms large. His interminable psychological and physical struggle with this harsh world moulds and dominates the form of the film. This difference in approach between the film and the photographs is accounted for by the fact that neither aims simply to tell Benjamin’s story. Ori explained that he wanted the work to explore a broader struggle, a questioning of both physical and psychological borders and limitations.

When we talked about the work, the ideas and significance of various elements emerged gradually. A sequence in the film shows Benjamin walking towards a white light, a sequence I had assumed was purely symbolic; but shortly before the exhibition opened, Ori told me that this showed the tunnel-like memorial to Benjamin at Port Bou, where he committed suicide. Passing references to intriguing details build up to enrich Ori’s already layered and complex work.

The exhibition Ori Gersht: This Storm is What We Call Progress at IWM London closes this Sunday 29 April 2012.

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