Reflection and Revolution

“Nature is a constant,” says Curator Alexander Moore, Creative Producer at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. “There’s a reason that artists through the centuries have always returned to it.” He is speaking about the gallery’s new exhibition, Unearthed, which charts the story of photography — from the 1840s to today — through a variety of approaches to botanical still life. Amongst the collection is a contemporary installation from renowned video artist Ori Gersht (b. 1967), who is perhaps best known for his slow-motion images of exploding fruit and flowers — many of which reference classical paintings. Titled On Reflection, this piece reimagines a floral still life by Jan Brueghel the elder (1568-1625), and has never before been on show in the UK. The artist speaks to Aesthetica about how art history, science and technology collide in the work.

A: On Reflection is based on the 17th century still life painting paintings of Jan Brueghel the elder. Why did you choose to respond to his works in particular?
These paintings were some of the first of their kind, and they also marked a transition where painters stopped including wildflowers in their work. All the flowers were cultivated — they could not exist without human intervention, and they never existed in the same place together. I tend to look at three revolutions in my work: the scientific, the industrial and the digital. Crossroads that really define photography. Each one of them was a leap that changed our understanding of the world. The 1700s is a moment where the world becomes smaller. And it’s the beginning of imperialism. So, flowers from all around the world start to arrive to Europe. When you look at them, you get a sense that Brueghel was sitting in front of a bouquet of flowers and painting what was in front of his eyes. He painted each flower individually to create this composition.

A: How did you bring the work into our world – the digital revolution?
OG: I recreated Brueghel’s bouquets from synthetic materials – plastic, paper and silk – replicating as close as possible to the original painting. I removed them even further from the “real.” Then, instead of looking at them directly, I put mirrors in front of them. So, what we’re actually looking at is a reflection in the mirror. Which is another step of removal from the thing itself. I use two cameras, standing beside each other. Each camera has a different focal point. One was focusing on the virtual space, inside the mirror, which is the reflection, and the other on the surface of the mirror, which is the glass itself. When I shattered them, I captured reality (the material of the glass) and the virtual (the reflection of the image in the mirror), simultaneously. Brueghel is already asking all sorts of questions about the natural world. I’m exploring similar issues, but in the digital age. I was also thinking about glass-breaking as an act of breaking or violating culture. It took close to 18 months to see the process through.

A: Why are you interested in these three time periods?
I’m interested in the scientific revolution because, during this time, lenses were invented which allowed magnification. Around the time that Brueghel was painting, Galileo started to look at the celestial skies – he was able to produce drawings of the moon that really challenged perceptions. People believed that the moon was a perfect spherical body; Galileo’s observations enabled us to see the craters. Around the same time, we were able to look through the microscope and see organisms that were so small they were unavailable to the naked eye. In a way, the lens at that moment becomes some sort of an extension to the human eye – allowing us access to the large and the small. I think about this moment as one where space is compressed.

In the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution, photographic chemistry is invented. It’s a period where steam engines and factories start to move at speeds exceeding our biological pace. Then, photography came along – with the possibility of challenging our notion of linear time and kind of freezing a moment. Now, we are in the digital revolution. I see it as almost as a complete collapse of time and space – we’re talking on zoom now. So, the image is no longer representing the world, the image is becoming the thing itself.

A: Time and speed is often explored in your work; your past projects have captured bullets hitting fruit at 1,600 frames per second. Where does your interest in time come from?
Probably my mortality and the mystical quality of photography. The presence of things that are no longer there is very puzzling – this ability to freeze a moment. I’m trying to reach events that are almost happening in the folds of time.

A: One of Brueghel’s still lifes will be included in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. How does it feel to have them exhibited near each other?
OG: In the past, I’ve had my work exhibited beside Zurbarán or Cotán – the people that I reference – and it’s fantastic, because I don’t feel that what I do is derivative of their work. Instead, it’s in some sort of conversation with it. I hope this allows viewers to think about these relationships. I’m very excited about this this back-and-forth dialogue.

A: Why do you choose to work with plants and flowers? Why do you think they are so popular as a means of artistic expression?
OG: We all have an immediate connection with them. We connect them to Valentine’s Day, but we also connect them to memorials and graves – they relate to such a broad range of our emotional experiences. From the very early days until now, flowers have always played a significant part in our artistic visual presentation. There are so many ideas that can be played out in a very subtle way through flowers: historical, political and ideological questions. They can all be hidden behind the formal beauty of these delicate creatures.

For example, the Blow Up photographs are based on paintings of the period featuring the three colours of the French flag: red, white and blue. A kind of nationalistic discourse was invested in these paintings – which seem, on first glance, to be quite bourgeoisie and very comfortable. So, I took this palette – the red, white and blue – into those explosions, with the political implications. Recently, I’ve done the Fragile Land series, based on flowers which are on the verge of extinction from Israel. They’re playing a part in the tension and political conflicts. You’re supposed to protect the flowers in order to protect the land; it’s a place everyone respects. This is a moment where the flowers are connected to the land in a way beyond the desire for nationalistic ownership.

A: What are you working on now?
I’m making a new body of work exploring ideas around the nature of museums; the disorder of lifting objects from their original context and then, from there, to postcards which appear in the museum shop. I take all the postcards from major museums – the first one is the Metropolitan. I print them all on glass, creating a wall of 300, then shatter them. In the process, they reorder themselves again, dropping on top of each other. They’re huge; it takes about two months to make each one. Again, it’s connecting the glass to a cultural violation; this idea of order and disorder.

Unearthed opens 19 May. Find out more here.

Image Credits:
1. Ori Gersht, On Reflection, 2014. © the Artist

2. Ori Gersht, On Reflection, Fusion B05, 2014. © Ori Gersht. Published in Aesthetica Issue 71
3. Ori Gersht, On Reflection, Material E22, 2014. © Ori Gersht, Courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Arts. Published in Aesthetica Issue 71
4. Installation view of Ori Gersht’s On Reflection, courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery
5. Becoming- Rijksmuseum 02, 2021, Ori Gersht. 80 x 60 x 0.00 cm
6. Becoming- Rijksmuseum 01, 2021, Ori Gersht. 80 x 60 x 0.00 cm