Sirens echoed through a room in the Hirshhorn Museum during an artist lecture by Ori Gersht last week. The people around me remained silent, busy focusing on the still life image of flowers being projected onto the screen in front of us. They could ignore the warning, but I knew what was coming. I bowed my head, closed my eyes and waited.
A moment later, the floral arrangement blew up and a chorus of gasps and rattling seats replaced the sirens. The image on the screen was now a disaster area, as fragments of petals and stems fluttered in slow motion toward the Earth. Gersht calls this piece, Big Bang I.
For Gersht, an Israeli-born artist who now lives and works in London, his opus is all about extremes - an exploration of how two opposite ideas can cancel each other out. For example, in Pomegranate (see video above), he takes Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, a 1602 still life painting by Spanish monk Juan Cotán, and pits it against the 1964 photograph of a bullet piercing an apple by late MIT professor Harold "Doc" Edgerton. In the end, the pomegranate loses.
"It’s all about pulling tension between the old masters and new technologies," Gersht said during his talk. "We see a simultaneous moment of destruction and togetherness coincide."
So I began to get nervous when the image of a duck, hanging lifeless by its webbed foot, appeared on the projector screen. Fortunately, in Falling Bird, the dead duck is merely dropped into water as an orange sits in the background. I watched as the duck was seemingly consumed by its reflection in the pool.
In the March issue of Smithsonian, I asked Gersht whether his work was a commentary on the violence we see in the world around us, especially given his Israeli heritage. He called the link between his identity and work inevitable, adding:
"My work is not so much a direct commentary as it is an open-ended observation of the absurdities around us," he said. "I’m thinking about scenarios where, in one place, there is a very bloody war, while in another place people are living a comfortable, decadent lifestyle. I’m intrigued by that kind of parallel existence, and how one sometimes weaves into the other."
Gersht's work will be on view at the at the Hirshhorn Museum’s Black Box Theater through April 12, 2009.