OMER FASTby Shane McAdams
Whitney Museum of American Art
December 10, 2009 – February 14, 2010
De Grote Boodschap
Take a Deep Breath
January 9 – February 13, 2010
I once viewed a video at an underground film festival that consisted of a montage of appropriated clips from pizza commercials. The work’s presumed objective was to subvert the conventional modes of television advertising, but all I could think after watching it was how hungry I was for pizza.
Such backfires are part of the reason why deconstructing the moving image can be such a daunting task: when artists try to take its mechanics of manipulation head-on, the results often underscore how good the pros in Studio City and Madison Avenue are at what they do, and leave the high-art challengers looking amateurish and naïve.
When this hazard is avoided by exploring the grittier, non-narrative, abstract, or obscure content that conventional media avoids, it often turns into something that only the most dedicated, monkish viewers can suffer through. It produces its effect by occasioning experience, to borrow from Peter Schjeldahl, rather than communicating it.
Pointing this out is not to undercut the value of art made with moving images, but by recognizing such obstacles and the amount of ingenuity it takes to overcome them, coupled with the media’s magnetic hold on the viewer, it shouldn’t be surprising that film and video, when in the hands of its best practitioners, stands out in a visceral way that traditional painting or sculpture can’t. In two current exhibitions, Omer Fast shows us that he’s one of the rare artists working in video who is capable of technical magic even as he strips the medium bare, exposing its power to conflate truth and fiction.
His show Nostalgia at the Whitney Museum of Art is part of the 2008 Bucksbaum Award, which was given (along with $100,000) to the most promising artist in that year’s Whitney Biennial. From the looks of this show, the investment in Fast paid off. The three-part video, like most of the artist’s work, is premised on a “real” interview. In this case, Fast spoke with several African asylum seekers in London at length (we know this from supporting literature); however, he chose to build off a four-minute interview in which one individual briefly describes his life as a child soldier, his relationship to the bush and—most significantly for the structure of the other two parts of the work—his description of how to hunt animals by building a snare trap out of sticks and twine.
Though the narration is straightforward enough, Fast’s selective editing sends objective truth fugitive right from the outset. In “Nostalgia 1,” the metaphor of a “trap” replaces its function within a daily routine. “Nostalgia 2” ups the ante, taking the narration, scripting it, and having two actors—one playing the asylum seeker and the other playing Fast himself—read it.
The interview progresses smoothly, and it’s not immediately evident that it is scripted; what is clear, however, is that the story’s DNA is mutating and the facts, whatever they may be, are now fluid. In this second iteration of the story, the interviewee/subject at times becomes defensive, as if being interrogated by a civil authority. At one point, the asylum seeker matter-of-factly mentions that he has used the snare trap to catch monkeys as well as birds. Sensing the interviewer’s smug disgust at the notion of eating bush meat, the interviewee changes his story, claiming to have used the monkeys only to parade for tourists. He then turns the tables on the incredulous interviewer by pressing him about whether he’d ever even been to Africa. He leverages the interviewer’s own guilt against him, and in doing so, destabilizes the traditional power structure as much as the reliability of the facts.
These carefully obscured strands of fact and fiction are braided back together in “Nostalgia 3,” a hauntingly gorgeous and far more cinematic narrative. Now, it is clearly fiction, though the pool of dubious truth from which it arose still ripples in our minds. The National Geographic-objectivity examining the trap in part one has resurfaced as a leitmotif serving each character differently: as a reflection of an Englishman’s barbarism in the eyes of a self-satisfied asylum agent; then as a magical, witch-catching device for a wide-eyed schoolgirl. In this futuristic world, outfitted with appliances from the 1970s, an unnamed African state is overrun by an influx of unwanted English aliens. A captured Englishman is offered a plea deal by a female immigration agent to disclose the location of the tunnels they use to avoid capture, but before he can answer, the scene shifts to a crew of immigration bounty hunters beating an immigrant, who inexplicably vomits a cornucopia of tropical fruits and flowers.
Did the Englishman squeal? We don’t know for sure, but it’s a deeply strange and tragically beautiful image that burns into the mind. In Nostalgia, Fast takes us from solid ground to liquid uncertainty so seamlessly that we simultaneously indulge in and reject the obvious fantasy of the event.
Downtown in Chelsea, Fast has two equally enthralling videos at Postmasters Gallery. “Take a Deep Breath” plays on two screens in the main gallery. The film begins with a grizzly scene of an exploding storefront and an uninjured man trying to save a single, mangled survivor inside. Though we should suspect fiction (Fast after all isn’t a war journalist) the power of the imagery seduces us supremely, and the high-definition gruesomeness of the scene paralyzes our better judgment. Just as we’re getting wrapped up in the drama we hear, “CUT!” A film crew appears and we discover that the whole scene was staged for a television program. From there the story delves further and further into a haze of meta and absurdity. What keeps “Take a Deep Breath” from being simply a post-postmodernist Charlie Kaufman knockoff, though, beyond the fact that Fast is a virtuoso at layering reality into fiction, is that we’re always unsure of the veracity of the initial event. Like the interviews undergirding his past work, “Take a Deep Breath” takes a possibly real event (a suicide bombing in a falafel shop)—a seemingly reliable kernel of objectivity—and traces its journey through the truth-to-drama manufacturing plant (also known as the INVICTUS machine) until the two are emulsified into a homogenous paste.
“De Grote Boodschap,” the second video at Postmasters, follows the meandering and semi-connected lives of six characters who exhibit, by turns, moments of great depth and shallowness. Some of their stories, like the account of a drug-addled elderly woman who was found with pebbles and buttons in her stomach after she died, are so resolved and well-pitched that one can’t imagine them being fiction, whereas other exchanges and events, such as the one involving some eavesdropping, bigoted neighbors, come across as formulaic.
Though I’d seen a number of Fast’s works prior to these two shows, the relationship of his work to Todd Solondz’s film Storytelling only hit me this time around. Fast, like Solondz, demonstrates the stickiness of presenting a true story. For both artists, but Fast in particular, fact and fiction are indeed indivisible; a story is a kind of truth and a document is a type of mistruth. It seems the very notion of “Truth” for him is an ungraspable platonic ideal that turns to shadow the moment it is visited by a social or civil being. When we finally emerge from the grip of Omer Fast’s work we are left not simply confused about what is true and what is false, but we are certain that those absolute poles are constructs as artificial and plastic as video itself. And that is how you get viewers to reevaluate the nature of what they are fed every day by the omnipresent media peddlers—not by handing them a slice of exactly the same thing and calling it something else.