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Art review: Ori Gersht at Angles Gallery

June 16, 2011 |  7:20 pm

NightFly02
Known for his photographs of exploding floral still lifes, Tel Aviv-born, London-based Ori Gersht now takes a quieter, but no less probing tack. A survey of the artist’s work from the last five years is currently on view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, but his latest exhibition at Angles Gallery brings together two very recent bodies of work that both circle around the specter of World War II.

Last year, Gersht traveled to Japan to photograph the iconic, yet short-lived cherry blossoms. Signaling the arrival of spring, the blossoming of these trees is celebrated with picnics and festivals. Bursting into paroxysms of pink and white flowers for only a couple of weeks, they are national symbols of evanescence and rebirth. Gersht worked mostly at night, using a digital camera especially sensitive to low light. The resulting images are eerie, often ghostly, and in some cases, breathtakingly beautiful.

While lovely images of cherry blossoms are hardly surprising, the artist approached the subject from two directions. He created large, dramatic photographs that summon the graphic clarity of Japanese woodblock prints enhanced with an unnatural, almost mystical glow. Despite their eerie stillness, these images seem to confirm the resilience of the cherry blossom as all-purpose national symbol. Its transience was used to justify sacrifice in World War II; its annual flowering symbolized renewal in the aftermath.

Gersht also printed more intimate images, in particular, close-ups of the blossoms, which are much grainier. They evoke pointillism, but also, more aptly, low-resolution digital files in which solid colors effloresce into their constituent reds, greens and blues. This texture reads like video static, suggesting that while the wide shot may project an uncommon beauty, up close the view is unearthly in a different way. This visual pollution serves as an analogue for the nuclear contamination that the cherry blossom’s beauty conceals. Although Gersht was referring to the lasting effect of post-World War II fallout — his project was completed in 2010 — the work takes on additional bittersweet resonance in the wake of recent events.

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The second body of work explores a different kind of persistence. It’s a two-channel video featuring internationally renowned dancer and choreographer Yehudit Arnon. A survivor of Auschwitz, Arnon recalls being ordered to dance at an SS officer’s Christmas party. When she refused, she was made to stand outdoors in the snow all night. She vowed that if she survived, she would dedicate her life to dance. Now 85 years old, with limited mobility, Arnon performs in Gersht’s video from a rocking chair, her face drifting like a moon in and out of blackness. This footage is juxtaposed with shots of a snowy landscape, suggestive of what Arnon might have seen on that formative night, but also a reference, perhaps, to the “winter” of her life. Still, it’s immediately clear that the dancer is still a commanding performer — simply raising her hand to her forehead is a moment of high drama. By isolating Arnon’s face — her most expressive feature — Gersht gives us an incredibly moving portrait of what is left when the body fails. As it turns out, it’s what she had at the beginning — nothing but a defiant, resilient will.

-- Sharon Mizota

Angles Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 396-5019, through July 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.anglesgallery.com

Photos, from top: "Imperial Memories: Night Fly 2," 2010.

"Will You Dance For Me" (film still), 2011. Credit:  Angles Gallery

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