Ori Gersht’s ‘uniquely powerful’ video installation arrives at British Art Center

In honor of the 25th reunion of his Yale College class, Alexander F. Cohen ’82 GRD ’85 LAW ’88 recently donated a copy of London-based Israeli artist Ori Gersht’s 2005 video installation “The Forest” to the Yale Center for British Art.

The 13-minute-long video was shot on 16 mm film in southwest Ukraine’s remote Galicia region and depicts a panoramic series of trees falling to the ground, violently disrupting the tranquil symphony of chirping birds and sonorous mosquitoes with a thunderous crash.

A still from artist Ori Gersht’s video “The Forest,” filmed in southwest Ukraine’s remote region of Galicia.
A still from artist Ori Gersht’s video “The Forest,” filmed in southwest Ukraine’s remote region of Galicia.

In the catalogue for 2005’s “The Clearing” — the photographic body of work in which “The Forest” was originally displayed — art critic Steven Bode called the film “a uniquely powerful work, unstinting and indelibly haunting, [combining] a terrible sadness with a quiet yet formidable strength.”

While the piece could provide a sharply potent and subtle commentary on deforestation, Gersht’s intentions are imbued with greater emotional weight and significance.

Personal history compelled him to film “The Forest” in Galicia, where his family sought refuge from Judenreim, or the cleansing of Jews, during World War II. The video was made in Moskolovka, the site of numerous Nazi atrocities, according to the museum’s Web site.

“The falling of these very beautiful and organic things — and the way in which they take down pieces of the other trees as they fall — is not simply about the trees themselves,” British Art Center Director Amy Meyers said. “It serves as a metaphor for the specific historical events that took place at that site and, in a larger sense, the nature of human violence.”

Included in the center’s exhibit of Gersht’s works are 2006’s “Big Bang” — a dramatic slow-motion film capturing a still-life bouquet exploding in a brilliant flash of shattered glass and floral confetti — and 2007’s “Blow Up #1” — the video’s mesmerizing, intensely detailed companion portrait that stands at a dwarfing height of seven feet.

Like “The Forest,” both pieces capture nature’s inherent beauty and inevitable perversion and decay. Also included is 2005’s “Drawing Past,” a photograph of a forest’s tree line taken when passing at night.

It stands in sharp contrast to the more vibrant, visceral pieces included in the exhibition.

“ ‘Drawing Past’ was created at roughly the same time, and in the same region of the former Soviet Union in which [Gersht] made ‘The Forest,’ ” British Art Center Curator of Paintings and Sculpture Angus Trumble said. “I think both works convey something of that curious mixture of necessarily imprecise memory — to some extent, comfort in the familiar, but [also] a suggestion of danger … even alienation and latent violence.”

Although this is the first time the center has exhibited any kind of video art, it has been warmly received by museum patrons, Myers said. Despite being an unusual feature, Trumble finds that it fits in surprisingly well with the museum’s other current exhibits.

“It is stimulating to experience the work of Ori Gersht … while we are also showing the work of Isaac Mendes Belisario, an early-19th-century Jewish artist from Jamaica who trained in London,” Trumble said.

“Works by Ori Gersht,” which includes “The Forest” and accompanying photo and video exhibits, will be on display through Dec. 30.

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