Photographer and film maker Ori Gersht was born in Tel-Aviv, Israel in 1967, relocating to London in the early 1990s. His practice often addresses World War II and post war conflicts by documenting landscapes that have witnessed trauma.
Don’t Look Back revisits three bodies of work that capture landscapes that have been the scene of past atrocities, Evaders, Liquidation and White Noise. The beauty and serenity of these landscapes sit in juxtaposition to the horrors they witnessed.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, Evaders (2009) (purchased for the Towner Collection in 2011) is a two channel film work traces the journey of the German-Jewish critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin in his final days as he fled Nazi occupied France through the Pyrenees in order to reach neutral Portugal. When he arrived at the Spanish border, he was prevented from crossing and committed suicide on the 26 September 1940, aged 47. A series of still photographs from Evaders capture the starch beauty of the winter landscapes of the Pyrenees and the brutal isolation of man battling these elements.
In these photographs Gersht depicts landscapes that are at once beautiful, but have been scarred by the memories of unspeakable horrors. He attempts to explore the dialectic between metaphysical and real places. Photography can only depict the reality that is physically present in front of the lens yet Gersht was interested in creating photographic composites that do not, or did not, exist on any map and may therefore be referred to as ‘non-places’ or voids.
In White Noise (1999-2000) Gersht photographed his train journey from Krakow to Auschwitz. Liquidation (2005) captures the landscapes around the Ukrainian towns of Kolomyia and Kosov where some of Gersht’s family relatives found harsh haven from Nazi persecution, shown alongside the film, The Forest (2005).
The photographs of White Noise and Liquidation appear almost painterly, yet the work is very much about the photographic process – the exposure of film to light through a lens and the chemical reaction of light with the silver- coated film. While subjecting the film to extreme exposures, Gersht interrogates the documentary status of the photograph in relation to history, assuming a heightened, and more obviously personal form of expression.
The over-saturation of light challenges the photographs function as a mirror to reality and prevents the images having a fixed appearance, instead producing a fluid, almost liquid like surface. This process affects the film to the point where the landscape depicted becomes almost invisible and practically dissolves. The effect is an image, which appears to be on the border of abstraction and becomes hard to decipher.
Sanna Moore, Head of Contemporary Programmes, says: "It's been a pleasure working with Ori Gersht on this retrospective of his work. Ori's been developing such a thought-provoking body of work over the years, using the natural landscape to explore political and personal narratives, pushing new boundaries. We were grateful to Art Fund International for helping us to purchase Evaders for our permanent Collection, giving more people a chance to learn about his work."