Still life, as a genre, is defined in part by its omission of the human subject. While the still life’s collection of objects may hint at the character or status of its absent owner, our attention is directed first and foremost to the things on display. As Norman Bryson writes of the genre, “It exactly breaks with narrative’s scale of human importance. It shows what it shows simply because ‘these things were there.’ Its loyalty is to objects, not to human significance.”1 How does one explain, then, the powerful human affect of Ori Gersht’s recent work that takes the still life as its point of investigation? On view this summer at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), Gersht’s trilogy of videos, Pomegranate (2006), Big Bang II (2007), and Falling Bird (2008), recreates famous still life paintings by Juan Sanchez Cotán, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Jean-Siméon Chardin, respectively. The implacable calm of these domestic scenes is suddenly broken by moments of violence that Gersht creates and then records in high-speed photographs and high-speed, high-definition video. With hidden explosive devices, Gersht blows up the meticulously posed tableaux. The still life arrangements, which have been frozen with liquid nitrogen, shatter spectacularly before Gersht’s battery of cameras.
The results provoke a curiously anthropocentric response, even when their subjects are paintings that seem resolutely focused on the life of things and unconcerned with human influence. Unlike the vanitas still life whose wilting flowers, decaying fruit, or other memento mori are calculated to remind viewers of the transience of life, the bouquets of Fantin-Latour seem unapologetically sweet and even celebratory, especially the 1886 painting The Rosy Wealth of June upon which Gersht’s large scale photographic series Blow Up (2007) is based. Whereas tables groaning under the weight of bounty may often signify human presence, the produce sparsely arranged in the larder in Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon, Cucumber (ca. 1602) seems, as Bryson argues, to indicate the absence of humanity. Gersht’s video based on this painting, Pomegranate, turns Bryson’s equation neatly on its head.
The Cotán painting (in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art) displays a cut melon and cucumber on a stone sill, at the edge of a dark larder. A quince and cabbage hang from strings; all four objects form a half parabola descending from the top left to the lower right corner of the canvas. Though they are lit with a strong, directional light, as if an unseen door was partially open in front of them, there is a sense of absolute stillness in this painting. If a human subject were present, one senses that the suspended cabbage and quince would sway gently. Instead, the lines drawn by their strings are perfectly parallel. This stillness is even more palpable in the opening minute of Gersht’s video, compounded as it is by a strong sense of anticipation. The high-definition video is played on a small digital screen (approximately fifteen by twenty-one inches) surrounded by a simple but heavy-looking dark frame. Trained as we are by moving image portraits from Andy Warhol to Bill Viola, the screen suggests the possibility of movement, no matter how slow or imperceptible. As opposed to the painting’s demand for attention to detail, video calls out for attention to time and motion. Despite the temporal elongation achieved in these videos, there is still a singular moment upon which the whole hinges. With a sudden whoosh, a bullet disrupts the scene. Gersht’s high-speed video gives us sufficient time to see the bullet, not with the absolute precision of Hollywood “bullet time,” but with enough clarity so that we know where it is headed. Gersht has replaced Cotán’s quince with a pomegranate that bleeds spectacularly as the bullet rips through its flesh. The promise of movement so clearly suggested both by the tenuously hanging fruits and the time-based medium of video is finally realized.
It is movement, that signifier of life, that returns Gersht’s still lifes to the realm of narrative possibility. The inhuman stillness of objects in paintings by Cotán, Fantin-Latour, or Chardin is inconceivable by the living subject: such stillness marks the limit of our existence, as implied by the French description of the genre, nature morte. Gersht’s dramatic destruction of these scenes actually seems to rescue the still life from the world of mere things because we can observe their transformation from organized calm to incoherence. They pass, like all living things at the end of life, from one state to another.
Gersht’s reanimation of these scenes briefly rescues them from the “universe of death” to which Bryson says the still life belongs.2 The videos invite the viewer to project subjectivity on the objects of the image even as they are killed off, whether pierced by a bullet, exploded by dynamite, or submerged in a black sea, as in Falling Bird. Momentary identification with these objects makes their ultimate demise all the more poignant.
Crucially, Gersht’s videos and photographs do not simply present two ways of looking at the same event. The still and moving images result in a radically different affect. Unlike the comparison between a “video still” and a photographic reproduction in the pages of a magazine or book, the experience of seeing both media in the SBMA exhibition brings into sharp detail the tension between these seemingly similar works. Apropos of the 1949 film The Bullfight, André Bazin concluded: “A photograph does not have the power of film; it can only represent someone dying or a corpse, not the elusive passage from one state to the other.”3 This hints at the cause of the difference in affect that I experienced in front of the works at SBMA. Even though the high-speed photographs promise to reveal much more than can be observed with the naked eye, there is still a sense that the photographs are missing something. In Bazin’s analysis it is because still photographs cannot picture the crucial moments of transition from life to death. Gersht’s photographed still lifes, too, can represent only one stage of this fundamental transformation.
While the videos return the still life to a narrative realm in which human subjectivity is again central, the photographs seem curiously anaesthetized. One can study the shattered glass vase or the lone branch of berries with greater remove in the small (sixteen-by-twelve- inch) photographs from the series Time After Time (2007). Frozen in stillness and thus untouched by time, they belong decisively to the world of things. When we watch the progress of similar events in the videos Pomegranate or Big Bang II, we are implicated in the dissolution of the objects on view. Powerlessly watching the transition from life to death invites an intensity of identification in a way that is closed off by the photographic images.
I do not mean to imply that all photographs reject identification; certainly, Roland Barthes’s example of Alexander Gardner’s 1865 photograph of Lewis Paine, taken before the young man’s execution for his role in the Lincoln conspiracy, is powerfully affecting.4 As Barthes writes of this image, “He is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.”5 This photograph needs no reanimation to make the twenty-year-old Paine seem alive and as such his impending death is keenly felt. Gersht’s still life videos are remarkable in that they are capable of inspiring a similar identification with a pomegranate or a vase of cut flowers through the addition of time and movement. There, shivering with digital presence on the screen, we anticipate the still life’s demise. The addition of sound, screaming sirens in Big Bang II and an eerie vacuum of noise before the bullet is fired in Pomegranate, heightens this experience. The photographs, on the other hand, seem to emphasize the otherness of the objects on display. Belonging to a time scale distinctly other than our own, they remain separate from the viewer, abstracted by stillness and outside of time.
Nonetheless, Gersht’s destruction of the still life, in both media, often mobilizes critics to talk about violence in terms of its very human victims and perpetrators. I found the terrifying impact of a seemingly isolated act of violence in Pomegranate most resonant in this regard. Though the bullet seeks out only one of the items on display, the pomegranate’s bloody seeds rain over the entire scene. As the film progresses, gruesome pulp strikes and slides off the skin of the cucumber. This is a familiar trope of photojournalism: newspapers reluctant to picture the dead focus instead on the visual markers of close contact with a deadly event. For instance, a blood-splattered shirt worn by a survivor is used to indicate the widespread impact of a bomb. In this way, we see quite literally that violence touches more than just those who die, as Pomegranate also suggests.
The degree to which Gersht’s works articulate a relationship between these acts of violence and a specifically human subject varies throughout this body of work. While the bullet in Pomegranate certainly facilitates this identification, as does the bloody pulp of the destroyed fruit, such identification is less evident in other videos. Blowing up a bouquet of flowers unmistakably suggests senseless destruction as well as the destruction of a thing of beauty, but it does not immediately call to mind the human victims of such violence. Still, critical writing on Gersht’s Blow Up consistently refers to the suggestive potential of the red white and blue flowers in Gersht’s take on Fantin-Latour’s Rosy Wealth of June. Distinctly nationalist narratives are read into the shared symbolism of these colors—either the red, white, and blue of the American flag or of the French tricolour introduced after the Revolution—and the violence that has attended the history of these flags.6 While Fantin-Latour’s choice of still life subject matter may have symbolically blown up the old academic hierarchy of genres, the artist himself showed markedly less interest in potentially political readings of his art. Perhaps owing to his friendship with Manet, Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) exhibited in the Salon des Refusés in 1863, but was also a regular feature at the official Salon for almost thirty years. Though he lived through the bloody siege of Paris and the Paris Commune of 1871, he turned to literary themes during this period.
Similarly, Gersht has refused the suggestion that his works make “direct commentary” on specific world events, maintaining instead that he is interested in “an open-ended observation of the absurdities around us.”7 Indeed, the specific, nationalistically driven interpretations of his work seem to be heavily weighted by the artist’s biography (Israeli-born, London-based), which is often featured prominently at the head of exhibition labels, reviews, and essays. Whether or not such specifically historical and political readings are warranted by the work itself, what I find most striking about these images is the degree to which Gersht’s imagery is open to such broad, and even conflicting, interpretations. There is a certain malleability of signification in these pieces that is deeply disturbing. Are they beautiful, as when shattered petals in Blow Up: Untitled 4 fall like confetti or when the violent shaking creates a painterly effect in Blow Up: Untitled 9 and Untitled 10? Or, are they terrifying, as when the slick, black surface in Falling Bird turns to liquid and the game bird featured in Gersht’s take on a hunt painting is swallowed by a roiling sea as thick and dark as tar? What are the ethical implications of identifying beauty in acts of violence?
This theme is especially relevant in Gersht’s latest series, called Chasing Good Fortune (2010), a series of cherry blossom photographs made in Japan last spring. Though Gersht conceptualized and photographed the project before the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of 2011, a change in signification attends these images now. In a way, these photographs were already about this malleability; Gersht’s interest in the cherry blossom as an icon symbolic of the passage from life to death was piqued by its varied uses throughout Japanese history. While traditionally the cherry blossom had been associated with life and good fortune, during World War II the flowers, which fall almost as soon as they bloom, took on a new significance: they became symbolic of the sacrifice of Japan’s kamikaze pilots who fell from the sky at the peak of their youth. Gersht emphasizes the cherry blossoms’ ephemeral beauty in Chasing Good Fortune: Imperial Memories, Floating Petals, Tokyo, Japan (2010). In this approximately fifty-by-eighty-inch photograph, the frame is filled with fallen petals in various states of decay floating on water. Though they are dead from the second they leave the branch, their life cycle is mapped out by the tides, which show their transition from light pink to translucent white until they finally turn brown with rot.
Despite their difference in media and aesthetics, Chasing Good Fortune and the works in the still life series are all evidence of Gersht’s continued interest in the transition from life to death and its various associations with beauty and violence. The selection of works at SBMA also highlights the distinct challenges that accompany attempts to represent this transition, and the implication of medium-specific critiques in the interpretation of moving and still images. While the still photographs allow us a greater conceptual distance from which to survey their exploded remains, the association of video with liveness and immediacy reinvigorates these images and involves their viewers in the process of destruction.
Kim Beil is a PhD candidate in the Visual Studies program at the University of California, Irvine.
- Norman Bryson, “Chardin and the Text of Still Life,” Critical Inquiry 15 (Winter 1989): 228.↵
- Ibid., 234.↵
- André Bazin, “Death Every Afternoon,” trans. Mark A. Cohen, in Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, ed. Ivone Margulies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 30.↵
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Alexander Gardner: Lewis Paine (2005.100.97),” last modified June 29, 2011, http://www. metmuseum.org/toah/ works-of-art/2005.100.97/. note that Barthes refers to Gardner’s subject as “Payne,” not “Paine.”↵
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 96.↵
- See, for example: Julie Joyce, “Space-Time Continuum,” and Carol Armstrong, “Art and Violence,” in Ori Gersht: Lost in Time (Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2011), 18 and 25, Respectively.↵
- Joseph Caputo, “Still Life Explosions,” Smithsonian Magazine, (March 2009), http://www.smithsonian-mag.com/arts-culture/Qa-ori-gersht.html/.↵