Israeli Artist Ori Gersht Will Get in Your Face – and Make You Ecstatic

In his exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Gersht blends ecstasy and vulgarity in a way that is almost daring.

Galia Yahav
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Ori Gersht exhibit.
Ori Gersht exhibit.
Galia Yahav

Impossible though the mission seemed, Ori Gersht has managed to break a personal record of spectacular kitsch. In his exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art he presents a video in which reproductions of three 17th-century still life paintings of vases and flowers, by Jan Breughel the Elder, are shattered. The exhibition space is accessed via a dark hall. The vases and their riot of blooming flowers are projected on three large screens, elevator music plays, and suddenly the whole picture shatters into fragments, which tumble about like malformed snowflakes in a glass ball.

Breughel painted vases with flowers from different places and different seasons, so that, as the curator, Doron Lurie, notes, despite their realism they portray an imaginary, impossible reality, a utopian moment of seemingly infinite flowering. Gersht shatters this efflorescence with the use of artificial flowers made of plastic and silk, resembling those of Breughel, and by surrounding them with mirror-walls, which he then proceeds to break.

The use of special lenses creates a kaleidoscopic effect of glass shards hurtling and cascading in slow motion. And if this Kristallnacht effect is not enough, there is also a grating, ear-splitting sound of glass breaking. In short, if Al-Qaida took down twins, Gersht blows up triplets.

The video trilogy is accompanied by earlier video works by Gersht (“Falling Bird” and “Pomegranate”) as well as, and mainly, by stills of selected moments of shattering that resemble stained glass (“On Reflection,” 2014).

Double message

Ecstasy is at the core of Gersht’s work. Every aspect of his art is subjugated to an effort to play on the viewer’s astonishment gland and thrust him into the position of a child (a provincial child) who is visiting a palace of wonders. One is first astonished by the meticulous preparatory work, by the marvelous imitation of the paintings, which induces also a foolish comparison between natural and artificial flowers. More astonishment follows simply at the pompous violence that is hurled at the viewers. Another form of ecstasy involves doubling and multiplying. Gersht raises to the nth power, to the point of suffocation, the duality of death and life, beauty and destruction, which is in any event embedded in the objects that are prevalent in still life paintings. This is further heightened by the double message of ostentatiousness and ephemerality, the pleasures of the senses and the implicit moral warning that accompanies them.

There’s also the ecstasy of excessive seeing. If the post-human art of the millennium concerned itself with smashing, dislocating, disassembling and truncating the human gaze in favor of hyper-reality from a critical or keening posture, Gersht celebrates all of that. The element of isolating the gesture and heightening the effect is enlisted in the service of the technological prism, through which he looks not as the means but as the end. The use of rich, almost futuristic technological power is not meant as a statement about its use tooppress fringe groups, or about those who seek to undermine it, but is intended wholly to affirm its capabilities.

The polished professionalism, the technician’s virtuosity, have become a perfect substitute for the self, which is not only ground down under the system but has been completely obliterated by it. There is no self in Gersht’s work, only trickery.

Is this a mega-fantasy about iconoclasm? About the artist as a destroyer of culture? Far from it – the opposite, in fact. Though the tone is hysterical, the works are pervaded by an overtone of prettification, of playing at as-if. Culture is as if fragile, the contemporary artist is as if occupied with restoring the ruins. Precisely the recourse to Breughel, ostensibly in consultation with the past but in practice to transform it into raw material, into usable readymade, generates the ahistorical aestheticism.

The passion is for splendor in itself, for bombastic exaltation achieved solely by means of effect. The past is not reexamined. The whole act of smashing it is insubstantial; what emerges is a reconstruction of the picture of the past as impervious to destruction or change.

The ecstasy of the past is completed by the curator, who juxtaposes Gersht’s photographs with paintings by masters from the Renaissance and afterward, as earlier examples of the occupation with bountiful still life and abundant floral wreaths. It’s precisely this vulgar act, of placing past works as references, as elitist cachets, that saves Gersht’s project from its intolerable, even frightening, grandiosity.

It’s seemingly a superfluous move, or just plain dumb: Do we need to be persuaded that Gersht draws his sources from the glories of the past? That he is a perfect imitator of marvelous paintings of decadence, representatives of a pathological bourgeoisie that turned material tangibles into things of the spirit? So coarse is this curatorial act that it comes across as daring.

The self-evident references go some way toward saving the work from the enthrallment of irrationality and imbue it with a historic and human quality. Precisely the virtuosity, the almost perverse gloom of all these innocent-seeming flowers, the violence that surges within us at the sight of the immobile abundance, always there, prone to the gaze, almost begging for contradiction, for interdiction, make manifest what Gersht has wrought in regard to the paintings, driven by an obscure cruelty of infantile desire.

Gersht’s art draws on the values of humanism as it has taken shape since the Renaissance and represented in large measure by the still life genre as a product, even a brand. As in a Van Gogh exhibition in three-dimensional animation, in Gersht, too, the humanism brand undergoes a deification that is actually a diminishment. The broad cultural meaning of his work is the transformation of the world into a showcase picture, one which can be absorbed instantaneously, easily and with pampering shock, and then forgotten.

As such, observing Gersht’s works entails a harrowing, ecstatic, totally apolitical moment. Or, in the curator’s words, “We believe everything he shows us, and with good reason.”