Omer Fast at Rymer Gallery

December 16, 2008

posted and written by Caroline Picard


Rymer Gallery

October 25 – January 3

Currently up at Rymer Gallery is a two-part exhibit by Omer Fast, featuring his video works, The Casting, and Looking Pretty for God (After GW). While I had seen The Casting at last year’s Whitney Biennial, I didn’t have the stomach to sit still in a darkness full of so many milling strangers. The whole museum was  teeming with videos and claustrophobic spaces, such that my attention had been constantly distracted by other opportunities for entertainment. For that reason, I felt fortunate to have a second viewing of Fast’s work. In stark contrast, Rymer Gallery is a small, intimate space, with two rooms where each shows a different video. There are benches on which to sit, and often no one else in either of them. It was well worth it. Fast produces formal, slick and stunning pictures. At the very least (although I’ll go on to argue that there is more) it’s captivating eye candy.

I felt more compelled by The Casting than I was by Looking Pretty for God (After GW) – even though, the latter piece was co-commissioned by SAIC, and thus holds some familiar Chicago faces. Matthew Jinks, for instance, makes an appearance as a photographer taking stills of young boys who stand, blinking under bright lights, before an electric kelley green background, as another make-up artist dabs their skin with seemingly endless layers of flesh tone. Or Lori Felker, an Art Institute professor of film, worked as the First Assistant Camera, or Chelsea Tonelli Knight who worked as the Production Manager : these are some of the many recognizable participants that worked on Looking Pretty.

That aside, the video is projected onto a single screen, cutting between young boys on a photo-shoot, to panning shots of a morgue, to various caskets that, under the camera’s scrutiny, look campy and pathetic with various token phrases that stand weak and plastic in the face of death, then to the embalming equipment and then to a man in a suit who talks about the business of funeral homes: how one becomes a funeral home manager, (a thing generally inherited, not sought out), how one embalms and then makes up a body, how one helps families through the grieving process; or, that the job affords no real time off, since special circumstances always call one away, and how  it is a thankless job, that of the undertaker, because when you re-encounter clients, they generally burst into tears and run off. The voice-over is that of the undertaker, although perhaps most alarming, is that occasionally the young boy-models lip sync the copy. It seems like the little ones, six to ten years old, are describing a late-night cadaver.

In Looking Pretty for God (After GW), Fast juxtaposes children and death, making up children just as cadavers are dressed for a funeral. The ceremony of the funeral is parallel to the ceremony of  consumer culture: something we are reminded of when the children flash before the screen in holiday outfits with fake falling snow.

The other piece, The Casting, is quite different. For one thing, there are two screens that hang, suspended, in the middle of the room. Each screen has a different projection on the front and back. There are four different videos playing at the same time. On one side, the first side you see, there are two different scenes, of actors, frozen, as they reenact a voice over. There are two simultaneous narratives, one describes a road-side tragedy in Iraq, while the other describes a troubling encounter with a young woman in Germany over the holidays. The stilted friezes function like frames in a comic book, where you can’t help but notice the quivering of a leg, the blink of a an eye or the flare of a nostril.

On the other side of the same screens, a soldier is projected on the right back side, recounting the same tale that is being reenacted in frieze; he is the source of the voice over. The second, adjacent screen shows Omer Fast himself, re-enacting the interview. He asks questions of the soldier. Originally, when he first spoke to the soldier, Fast was behind the camera, therefore in order to position himself in the visual narrative, he had to recreate the interview. It is at this moment that one becomes fully aware of his manipulative powers. The soldier’s story is a feat of editing, as his narrative is constantly cut and pasted. While the audio boasts a seamless transition, Fast makes a point of his efforts visually, as the speaker’s shirt changes patterns with the cuts. Over the course of three words, for instance, the soldier sits in the same chair, with the same background, as his shirt changes magically from plaid to red to green to plaid again. Fast has spliced together the story of a roadside tragedy in Iraq with the story of a German girl driving at night. She is, allegedly, crazy.

The question of course, is what does this mean. What is the purpose of these spliced narratives, and why is the story portrayed this way, on such fancy panels? To my mind, Fast is interpreting the function of memory. He is, albeit artificially, recreating a psychology. He shows the way one trauma, in which the soldier is a victim of a crazy girl, bears the same weight, and is even mixed up with another trauma, in which the soldier is the killer. In this way, Fast is showing the murky breadth of a human being.

In another way, he creates an active engagement with the audience, wherein the audience is an active editor, choosing when to stand on which side of the story, where to turn one’s gaze, and even what judgments to make. One cannot help but assert a linear narrative, a desire that is essentially thwarted by the non-linear edits that Fast imposed. Because we cannot construct something linear from a story told in Germany and a story told in Iraq, we separate them into two discrete temporal instances. We attribute the story to the same main character, the same soldier. And despite the obvious stage of the re-enactment, use the provided imagery to organize and illustrate the story we are being told.

Later on, I had an interesting conversation with Irina Botea–also a film professor at the Art Institute. Over the course of a class, we started talking about this exhibit, and while it wouldn’t have occured to me, the class began to question the idea of freedom in Fast’s work. While the final product is executed with the utmost professionalism, there is a way in which his actors have little to know freedom. Whether children who are instructed to stand and lip sync a dark monologue, (in which their own voices/personality/inflection are subsumed by the undertaker’s voice over,) or the undertaker who is never given a face, or in the second case: the various tableaus of reneactors who are never allowed to move, and the soldier himself who’s story is manipulated by Fast’s editing – or even the performance of Fast himself, calculated in it’s own right : in this work there seems to be no freedom for individual expression. As a result, and despite the seeming control a member of the audience might have to participate in the editing process, it is the camera, ultimately, that defines and controls a given situation. After a conversation like this, I couldn’t help thinking more generally about art, and, even, what Fast offered. While being compelled with a ravenous fascination for his work, I nevertheless walk away a little empty, cynical and sad – I find myself wanting an aura of mystery that can only exist, I feel, when one lets go the reins.


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