All art is trickery. Ori Gersht likes making it explicit. His “Pomegranate,” for example, is a high-definition film lasting slightly under four minutes. Initially, it doesn’t look like a film at all. That deceptiveness is just one of the qualities it shares with many of the 24 other works that make up “Ori Gersht: History Repeating.” Seventeen are photographs, the rest are moving images. The show runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 6.
Against a lustrous black background, a melon and cucumber rest on a flat surface, and a cabbage and a pomegranate each hang from a string. All are motionless. It looks like an Old Master still life. In fact, Gersht, an Israeli-born photographer in his mid-40s who now works in London, exactingly modeled it on an early-17th-century Spanish painting.
There’s a slight difference in subject, though. The painting shows a quince instead of the title fruit. Why the switch? It’s a clue for what’s about to happen — or at least it is for those who speak Hebrew. In that language, the word for pomegranate is the same as that for grenade. Also recall that in Greek mythology the goddess Persephone’s eating pomegranate seeds is what means that she must live half the year in the underworld — and the world is infertile for those six months, autumn and winter.
In slow motion, a bullet passes through the pomegranate. Like a grenade, it explodes. The sight of the fruit’s destruction is shocking and brutal — and also stunningly beautiful. The seeds scatter and juice drips, also in slow motion, and the sight is no less beautiful for the seeds and juice inevitably recalling body parts and blood. The economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction” for how capitalism advances. So much of Gersht’s art evinces what one might call “destructive creation.”
Still in slow motion, the remains of the pomegranate swing back and forth, like some kind of now-defiled pendulum. Gersht exploits motion — or, rather, the abrupt juxtaposition of stasis and motion — to very powerful effect. There’s the rather brilliant conceptual pun on nature morte, the French term for still life, now made truly morte: dead. Nor should one overlook the associations the sight of a bullet piercing flesh, even if it’s the flesh of a fruit, has with human violence.
“Pomegranate” is representative of Gersht’s work. It’s beautiful, unsettling, dense with large meanings, and equally grounded in the art of the past (“The Old Masters hold the key to everything,” Gersht has said) and a sense of history. Not all of his works in the show are as successful. A couple of the longer moving-image pieces seem a bit obvious, tedious, or both. But most of the show is unusually compelling.
Where “Pomegranate” pivots on a sudden, startling instant, the film “Liquid Assets” is all gradual change. Out of a gray metallic circle the image of an ancient coin finally emerges. But before that emergence we see its surface shift and alter as if it were atop a cauldron. The metal appears molten — or like a cell undergoing meiosis. There’s also a suggestion of alchemy, and viewers can make whatever inferences they like about the global financial meltdown and the insubstantiality of money. How solid are liquid assets?
In “Boatman,” a rower is only vaguely discernible in the misty distance. The image, extremely handsome in and of itself, conveys a haunting, even death-struck quality. It’s part of Gersht’s series “Hide and Seek.” Might the man be a means of escape — or of termination? The most famous boatman of all is Charon. The man could as likely be means of execution as salvation. Dualities fascinate Gersht, who honors their power by refusing to favor one or the other.
The dualities can be political. “I have lived all my life as part of an ethnic conflict,” Gersht has said. The photographs “Mark 1,” showing cypresses, which he associates with Israelis, and “Olive 11,” showing an olive tree, which he associates with Arabs, acknowledge two ancient peoples enduring on the same land. The time-lapse film “Neither Black Nor White” shows an Arab community in Israel as dusk gives way to night then dawn. The lights of the town against the surrounding dark look like stars, a reminder of how the cosmos dwarfs conflict -- but then the bright light of dawn recalls the intense illumination of a detonation, a reminder of how conflict can obliterate our view of the cosmos. Even as we see time constantly change, there is the implicit suggestion that borders (and opinions?) do not.
Sometimes Gersht’s artistic allusions are explicit. The strange and arresting film “Falling Bird” takes its cue from a Chardin still life. The photograph “Dead Dog” shows a lushly verdant landscape that has a canine corpse in the foreground. The scenery is so attractive one might overlook the presence of death, but the title insures otherwise. It’s Gersht’s version of the recurring theme in Western art of the memento mori, a reminder of death even in the most arcadian settings: “Et in Arcadia ego.”
It’s not just Old Masters who’ve influenced Gersht. A few pictures here look like photographic kin to Gerhard Richter’s “blur” paintings. “Imperial Memories: Floating Petals, Black Water,” a color photograph, is like a becomingly subdued Jackson Pollock canvas.
Throughout the show there is a sense of affinity with Anselm Kiefer — an altogether different artist in so many ways, but similar in brooding immanence, attraction to scale, great ambition, and great determination to engage with great historical events and issues. How great? Gersht calls one of his films “Big Bang.” Beginning in blackness, it suggests the creation of the universe. Blowing up a vase of flowers, it then suggests the destruction of nature — and the destructiveness of man, as keening sirens recall aerial bombardment. (Several of the films have accompanying soundtracks. Some are very effective, as with “Big Bang.” Others seem superfluous or instances of overkill.)
Like Kiefer, Gersht can overreach. The composite photograph “Far Off Mountains and Rivers” shows the trail the great critic Walter Benjamin hoped would take him from France to Spain, in 1940, as he fled the Nazis. Unable to cross the border, he committed suicide. (Benjamin’s attempted escape also inspires a film in the show, “Evaders.”) Gersht places in the foreground a small valise (even more easily overlooked than the body in “Dead Dog”), an homage to the bag Benjamin is said to have carried with his manuscripts. The effect, however well intended, is vulgar, even cheap. That the image looks so much like a Caspar David Friedrich painting — with the attendant weight of German Romanticism — conveys so much more both intellectually and emotionally than that nicely placed prop.
Retiring and modest Gersht’s art is not. Yet he displays a becoming personal modesty. He shares his show with several works that he’s selected by artists he admires or who have influenced him. They include Van Gogh, Frederic Edwin Church, Martin Johnson Heade, and Josef Sudek. No creative personality is without a considerable ego. That would be like a weight lifter minus muscles. Gersht is the rare artist who visibly puts his ego at the service of themes and concerns larger than his own art.