Master Blaster

At Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, an Explosive Ori Gersht Exhibition (Photos)

Still life is not all that it seems, as this surprising Israeli artist shows in Boston. By Blake Gopnik.

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Ori Gersht Explodes Onto the Art Scene

A still from the 2006 video "Big Bang" (click on the title to watch a clip from the piece)

The Israeli artst Ori Gersht has had an explosive impact in the art world—literally. He's best known for videos that start out looking like restagings of Old Master still lifes, then as you wait for nothing to happen, a great deal does: a vase of flowers, based on a canvas by the Dutch master Jan van Huysum, gets blown up in balletic slow motion; a pomegranate derived from the Spanish painter Juan Sánchez Cotán is ripped apart by a bullet, causing a supersonic passage through the fruit that takes seconds to unfold. Those videos will be the star attractions of Ori Gersht: History Repeating, the artist's first full-scale survey, open as of Aug. 28 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For those who think his signature works are built around a simple shtick (artist-blows-up-old-still-lifes), Gersht has explained that his ambition is to have viewers start out seduced by the beauty of a scene, and then confront "this moment of realization, of recognition, of all of a sudden discovering that what we are actually looking at is a brutal, sometimes a grotesque, sometimes an extremely violent moment"—with maybe the implication that beauty is always at risk of destruction, and might get its force from that risk. It is worth pointing out that Gersht's other works in Boston include footage of an elderly Israeli dancer who once refused to perform for her Nazi jailers, and photos of the landscapes where partisans resisted the Germans in Poland.

– Blake Gopnik

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Still Life Moves

A still from the 2006 video "Pomegranate" (click on the title to watch a clip from the piece)

Ori Gersht riffs on a still life painted in 1602 by the Spanish artist Juan Sánchez Cotán. Cotán's fruits suspended from strings always imply the possibility of motion. By shooting a bullet through his pomegranate, Gersht takes that possibility to its limit.

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

An Artist Blends Beauty and Horror

A portrait of Ori Gersht, by Tsugumi Maki

Gersht describes his exploding still lifes as "a celebration of color and beauty that pushes the violence into the background.... There is this paradox that comes into the equation, and the viewer all of the sudden needs to weigh those relationships and move into an area of discomfort."

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Dead Bird Dives

A still from "Falling Bird," a video completed in 2008 (click on the title to watch a clip from the piece)

This Gersht work was inspired by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin’s A Mallard Duck Hanging on a Wall With a Seville Orange, painted in the 1720s. But his dead bird is set in motion.

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Dancer Refuses to Dance

A still from the 2011 video "Will You Dance for Me"

Gersht's work tells the story of Yehudith Arnon, a Czech-born Israeli dancer who refused to perform at a Christmas party hosted by her SS guards in Auschwitz. “For the first time in my life, I was able to say no,” she says in the video.

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Land Lies Divided

A still from the 2001 video "Neither Black Nor White"

This first video by Gersht portrays the Israeli-Arab town of Iksal in Israel, shot from a hilltop in the Jewish part of Nazareth. It explores "the theme of beauty found in dangerous places," says a press release, and the cultural divide in the region.

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Angles Gallery, CRG Gallery, Mummery + Schnelle, and Noga Gallery / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Coin Comes to Life

Stills from a new video, "Liquid Assets"

Gersht made this piece for his Boston show, responding to a 2,200-year-old Bactrian coin in the Museum of Fine Arts collection. A press release tells us that "an object that appears to be an untamed organic shape slowly transforms into the portrait of King Euthydemos II, similar to the one found on the coin."

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Landscape Offers Hope

A 2009 photo "Far Off Mountains and Rivers"

This monumental image commemorates the mountainous route across the Pyrenees that people used to flee from France into Spain during World War II. It "serves as a reminder of German romanticism and the cultural burden that was carried along the route by many of the refugees," according to a press release.

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Scholar Passes

A still from "Evaders," a video completed in 2009

The piece shows a traveler battling the elements along the perilous Lister Route through the Pyrenees, and so revisits the final days of the great German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin, who fled the Nazis on that route and met his death soon after the crossing.

© Ori Gersht / Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Dog Dies

A 2003 photo "Dead Dog"

This photo was shot on the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain, and is meant to evoke the dangers of that shoreline.