Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.... Ori Gersht at MFA Boston

SC263926.crop_ Ori Gersht: History Repeating is a big show, both in terms of the amount of works presented, the space occupies, and the themes it addresses.  It's always really exciting when a museum decides to give over a lot of space to a living artist.  You have the opportunity at these times to see what they have done, knowing that they aren't finished making work.  I say to my students that they are fortunate to live in these times, mostly because they can go to museums and see contemporary art.  In the past, it was the job of galleries to show contemporary work.  "Museums are for dead people," David Smith said.

Gersht's work is full of death, from the Vanitas quotations to the "falling tree film" (The Forest) and everything between.  He uses the camera to frame death, decay, destruction, and loss actually or metaphorically. The actual suffers in this show.  The photos of the "masculine" cedars next to the "feminine" olive tree is cloying and reads as essentialist and reductive.  Seeing things blow up in slow motion to reveal their transcendence is right out of the Futurist Manifesto. Unlike Bill Viola's (somewhat overwrought) project of slowing things down to see particular details, Gersht manipulations simply reiterate the sense of loss that is inherent in the still life vanitas paintings he quotes.  (It's kind of tough to get interested in a video of exploding flowers when there is an actual Martin Johnson Heade painting on the wall.) The photographs in their dimensions take on the scale of history painting and Gersht's digital manipulations mimic those of Church and other painters who re-presented the sublime landscape a lot more sublime than it actually was.  Like Jeff Wall, Gersht is not shy about his connection to painting.

What makes his work compelling is the sites he chooses to represent (or re-present).  In the White Noise series, the blurred view out of a train window becomes an act of reconstruction and remembrance;  particularly since the train's journey is from Krakow to Auschwitz.  Gersht makes a photo that could not be made. The text and titling become a major part of the work.  Language is key in connection the images to their meaning.

Where the exhibition reaches a level of exhilaration is in the films.  There are two brilliant and overwhelmingly beautiful films (Evaders and Will You Dance For Me) that moved me deeply while boggling my mind with their visual and technical achievements. From animated snow to the recreation of the 19th century landscape Gersht shows that he is adept at reconstructing art as historical investigation.  While the stories of each of the films is vitally important to they way one views them, I often found myself forgetting about the wall text "explanations."  Gersht's framing and presentation of the body in Dance  makes you feel complete jubilation in every movement, a feeling exacerbated by the knowledge that every movement is an act of survival and defiance.  Evaders is a perfect metaphor for the artist, journeying alone, against all odds, armed only with one's work and a death defying determination to reach the light.

The smaller films never reach this level of transformative power (and nor should they) but Neither Black Nor White comes close. The single channel film of the an Arab village in Israel goes from impossible darkness to obliterating light.  The wall text references the blast of an explosion which I think is the easiest metaphor.  Gersht's film mimics the elimination of information from the screen pixel by pixel, the active lights of the village disappear, consumed in an insatiable whiteness.  It is a powerful and chilling film.  While the exhibition makes no mention of the reasons for antipathy between Arabs and Israelis in Gersht's homeland, this film spells out the situation in a clear and compelling manner.