Still Life, In Violent Motion

Curator's Note

Displays of destruction--from war to disasters to mass entertainment--saturate the public sphere, blurring vital distinctions between violence and its representation. The world's fragility is rehearsed in a continuous loop of exploding subjects, merging the war machine, with the creative-destruction of global capitalism, with radical ecological change in a never-ending flow of entropic images.

If the center doesn't seem to hold today, it's because the world around us is buckling under these stresses and we engage the resulting destruction as spectacle. How might we reflect on fast and slow moving violences, and “brush history against the grain” as Walter Benjamin might put it? How can we slow the flow of images long enough to consider naturalized violence in all its contemporary forms?

In the Hirshhorn Museum’s Damage Control exhibition one hears just such an invitation, even before encountering its visual form. A pulsing atonal soundtrack radiates into neighboring galleries, altering perception and raising immediate, if inchoate, questions about its source.

Ori Gersht’s Big Bang is meticulously rendered, tactically deceptive, and evisceratingly direct. It appears as a vibrant still-life of flowers, paying homage to 18th century Dutch masters, inviting modernist contemplation. The flowers, and composition, are beautiful, with soft and hard focus aspects suggesting the tableau is realistic--a depiction of natural beauty composed for maximal appreciation. Sixty seconds later, the static image explodes without warning, sending shards of color in all directions. The shock is doubled: the still image suddenly becomes video, and the bouquet is transformed into a kinetic swirl of abstracted fragments exiting the frame at an uncanny speed.

Big Bang forces viewers into a new time-space, and offers a new sensory apparatus for contemplating beauty, destruction, and spectacle. Its registers are multiple and mesmerizing: does “big bang” reference the primordial origins of the universe? Is this a visual allegory for suicide-bombings or U.S. drone strikes on civilians--a consideration of the “collateral damage” of warfare? Does it reference a biosphere being transformed by human industry--a climate change parable? Or could this be a take on the global market for tulips and orchids--historically subject to manias--and thus a vital illustration of the inevitable effect of all bubble economies?

The looping of the video installation--in its endless recursivity--mimics the traumatic effects of violence on the human psyche. Gersht engages the brutal repetition of destruction even as he reveals the fantasy of an endless, perfect recuperation.


Very interesting. Video installations have such a wide impact on viewers (given levels of attention, familiarity, personal referents, etc) that it's impossible to predict the viewers' impressions. And I put this forward: the slow motion explosion, the isolation of individual bits of the whole, are more beautiful than the still life itself, which is quite ordinary. As fragmented pieces move into center frame, the attention on them is magnified, and in motion they are microcosms of life, material -- quite the opposite of the destruction that seems to be the focus of the piece (judging by its title). In some ways, too, it is a Yeatsian "terrible beauty" born.

I'm curious about the soundtrack and its presentation in the gallery space. The post suggests that the track (and thus the explosion) is loud and resonating. Could you discuss that a bit more if you know about the actual circumstances of exhibition? The sound transferring to other spaces is very interesting, and I wonder if that destruction of a surrounding space might function to bring other viewers in to appreciate the loop? Or does it serve to dissuade others from viewing it? That last bit is getting into reception, which I don't think is what I mean to be asking about, but the physicality of resonance and how that works... Great post.

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