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photo-eye Book Reviews: Artist Book

Artist Book. By Ori Gersht.
Published by Photoworks, 2012.
Artist Book
Reviewed by David Ondrik

Artist Book
By Ori Gersht
Photoworks, 2012. Casebound. Three books of 73 pages, one 24 page book of text, 150 illustrations, 6x5-1/4".

Israeli filmmaker Ori Gersht's Artist Book is pretty much exactly that: it's not a photography book in the traditional sense, an artist's photographs reproduced in book form. It is instead a three-volume companion piece to Gersht's films, Evaders, Will You Dance for Me, and Offering. There is a much thinner fourth volume that contains Robert Rowland Smith's essential expository essay on the themes and ideas present in Artist Book. I am not familiar with Gersht's work, so had to review the book independent of its relationship to the source films.

Each of the three volumes of Artist Book contain stills from the films and images - paintings, other film stills, sketches, collages - that informed Gersht's films. The book is thoroughly Postmodern as it is a collage of original and appropriated images and it is often unclear when we're looking at one of Gersht's images or on appropriated one. There is a citation list in the back of each volume that allows us to decode the images. The book is also dense and defies casual absorption; although a degree in art history is not required, those unfamiliar with the history of art will either be frustrated or find themselves frequently Googling the various films and paintings.

Artist Book, by Ori Gersht. Published by Photoworks, 2012.
An immediate example is Evaders. Although the theme of a desperate journey through cities and the wilderness is clear, if you don't recognize the sketch of critic & philosopher Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee's Angelus Novus, or Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, you're likely to wonder why they are in the book. Actually, even if you do recognize them you're likely to wonder why they are there. For those unfamiliar with the source films, the answer is in Smith's writing: Evaders is a meditation on Benjamin's flight from Nazi persecution, which culminated in his suicide in 1940. Maybe I rely on concrete information too much, but with this cipher, the series of foggy landscapes, abandoned urban centers, men running away, and historic artworks finally coalesced into a comprehensible theme. It's important to note that Evaders doesn't appear to be a dramatization of Benjamin's end days, but a meditation on flight, modern history, and especially the sublime, as there is an "agreeable kind of horror" present in the entire volume.

Artist Book, by Ori Gersht. Published by Photoworks, 2012.
Will You Dance for Me is dedicated to Yehudit Arnon - a Deathcamp survivor who, at 18, vowed that if she survived, she would dedicate herself to dance. This volume contains photographs of an elderly Arnon juxtaposed with images by Rembrandt, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, and stills from Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, among others. It is clearly a meditation on Arnon's life and the extreme suffering that shaped it. What especially struck me about this volume is the number of stills from Gersht's film that reference contemporary German artists Gerhard Richter (blurry forests) and Anselm Kiefer (desolate, snow covered panoramas), artists that seek understanding of their cultural heritage in much the way that Gersht is exploring his.

Artist Book, by Ori Gersht. Published by Photoworks, 2012.
On its surface, Offering is about bullfighting in Spain. It begins with a passage from William Faulkner's "The Old People" and contains stills of spectators, the matador being dressed, the bull pen, and trophies. There are also paintings of Saint Sebastian, a dead toreador by Edward Manet, a dead soldier by Diego Velasquez, a princess, and a Baroque noble in gilded armor. It is easy to dismiss bullfighting as animal cruelty and barbarism, but Gersht does not appear to be taking sides either way. He shows us the torturous death of the bull, but he also asks us to consider bullfighting as a contemporary manifestation of ancient sacrificial offerings. By starting the book with Faulkner's passage about the thrills of hunting, he's certainly acknowledging the man vs. beast machismo inherent in the activity. But, the religious iconography firmly brings up issues of suffering and sacrifice, which is possibly why bullfighting has been a symbol of deeply Catholic Spain for centuries. The suffering of the bull mirrors the suffering of Christ and the martyred saints; its ultimate death a stand in for the Old Testament burnt offering.

Artist Book, by Ori Gersht. Published by Photoworks, 2012.
Like much contemporary art, Artist Book is a challenge. It does not offer easy understanding and is aimed at an audience well versed in the history of art. Physically, the four slipcased volumes are well crafted, and the small size makes interacting with it a private or intimate experience. If you like photography books with grand vistas or 12 color printing, you should look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a challenging artwork that will take you down an investigative path, pick up a copy of Artist Book.—DAVID ONDRIK

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DAVID ONDRIK has lived in Albuquerque since the late 1970s. He was introduced to photography in high school and quickly appropriated his father’s Canon A-1 so that he could pursue this exciting artistic medium. He received his BFA, with an emphasis in photography, from the University of New Mexico and has been involved in the medium ever since. Ondrik is also a National Teaching Board Certified high school art teacher.