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  • Christian Hain

Don’t Talk, Just Watch. A Day at the Movies with Omer Fast

(Berlin.) Omer Fast’s video show Talking isn’t always the solution has opened about a month ago, but we did not write this review really ... well: fast.

This pitiable pun should, in a way, prepare you for the artist, and we were actually tempted to write the whole article in a more popular style. Like you do to get read, on- or offline: “SHOCK artist Omer Fast does VIDEO art!” “Watch 7 ASTONISHING art films; you’ll NEVER guess what happens in no. 5!” And why? Because Martin-Gropius-Bau gives away FREE catalogues in celebrity magazine/yellow press style, designed and edited by the artist himself. So coloured! And quite smart below the surface. But will it work, will people read it, and more willingly read it for the dumb packing, and how will they react, being routinely used to dumb content in dumb packing?

The texts in that catalogue are regular art writing, by the artist and others, to describe the works, mostly even without falling into the other, equally annoying, extreme of narcissistic argot. It is absolutely advised to read this, to understand what you are about to see - or what you have just seen. And be prepared, Omer Fast is a filmmaker, not a plastic artist. The whole event is a film retrospective camouflaged as an art exhibition.

It may well be the biggest issue here: Be the packing what it may, who takes the time and watches seven films, between 18 and 56 minutes each, in an exhibition context, not to talk about the time needed for reading that guidebook? To really “get it”, you’d need to watch them more than once; and always wait for the start before entering a screening room. Otherwise you are left with only superficial impressions. Like us. We admit to have written this article after only a cursory walk through the show, and leafing through that catalogue. On the upside, there is something for everyone, from serial killer psycho couple to CNN and pornography.

On the opening press conference, Omer Fast insisted on favouring non-linear narratives in order to attain full immersion in his films. You could argue whether the chosen form of presentation serves the same cause. Fast took much care of the settings for his film projections, and usually this is done to distract from the mediocrity of an art film. The complex installations comprise diverse waiting room scenarios from a “Foreigner Registration Office’s” (the Israeli artist lives in Berlin) to a medical practice’ to an airport’s. He thus recreates situations where the modern you and I habitually stares at public screens or portable devices, constantly and willingly attacked by moving images. Many details wait for discovery, at the FROO (“Ausländerbehörde”), the drinks machine is out of order, in the airport waiting hall an empty McD paper bag litters the floor, and at the doctor’s you may find a sculpture of a different (truly existent?) artist, called The Liar. All sad and done though, Fast sticks to the conventional side, none of his films is shown on smartphones or tablets, none is streamed onto the visitor’s own device. And the in theory most immersive experience, with 3D glasses to take away (and return later), turns out rather unimpressive, the technique is only a makeshift solution on the way to VR.

The fears, however, are unfounded: It may be a premiere, but the films are not the less brilliant for their extravagant presentation.

You suspect, there’s something wrong, when you see a stereotypical young German soldier - allegedly having just come home from a trip to Afghanistan - engaged in a dinner table conversation with a middle aged bourgeois couple, and talking about the local, Afghan, population, just how you would expect him to. The couple, very obviously belongs to another, academic and well-off, class than the soldier, the sociolect is different, registers don’t match, and in any case these are the last people you’d expect to have a soldier son who is not a high-ranking officer. This is not a simple miscast, or a lack of insight into European societies. According to that catalogue, they are not his parents, but a psychotic couple who engages male prostitutes to (badly) play a role and be disposed of later. There is a second film further elaborating on the backstory of this Greek-y tragedy.

The conformist serial killers find their equivalent in another film Fast’s, with a more prestigious professional hitman day-to-day killing from behind a computer screen by directing drones to their target (no propaganda here, but in absence of either due process or a formal declaration of war, the US drone programme is by simple fact first-degree murder. Even and particularly if we accept the usefulness and necessity of drone strikes, we should stop telling lies, like the one of international law being impartial, independent and objective). This soldier’s portrait is mixed with a American Hustle style crime story and other narratives from Las Vegas, near the army base he’s operating from. Despite his location thousands of miles from his victims in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the drone operator still feels shell-shocked. He suffers from his deeds, despite his employers’ effort to make his seem like a decent job, a game, including dressing up in a pilot’s uniform before taking seat at the deadly joystick. It’s funny: somehow our brain knows what is real and what a simulation. That’s where those combatting the alleged evils of video games underestimate the human mind.

More Fast films feature a collage of CNN cuts, the dressing of corpses in a morgue for their last date, and an adult movie director telling openly of his childhood abuse. But is he sincere, or does he tell what he expects the interviewer to hear? (If it’s not indeed all scripted; never trust an artist.) For the most unintelligible film, you absolutely need that catalogue to comprehend the basic fact that it’s not set in an Amish community but has something to do with legendary photographer August Sander. The multilingual play on words - "August" is the month and the name - returns in another title: “Spring” might mean the season, or the German imperative “Jump!”

The fascination with this and all films of Fast springs from their compelling story and their perfect production alike (Omer Fast’s gallery does not lack funds). It’s all about packing and content, about body and clothes, complex stories clad in film, and interpretations – truth - disguised as banality. A celebrity magazine turns out to be an art catalogue under the sheets, and an art show is a film festival, the MGB a multiplex.

Remember that title: Talking isn’t always the solution. Well, if it’s not – or not in all cases -, what is? It would be unfair to expect a serious discussion of speech act theory from Omer Fast. In his films, most characters do talk, and a lot. They talk about who they are, about what they are or have been doing, they talk while acting their role in fiction or documentary style. They are telling stories, perhaps lies, they justify what they do in talk. Maybe some of it cannot be justified in words. Dressing up the dead might help to get along with the fact by a meaningless effort to employ the mind. Talking does not help, yet deeds are no less futile, no more useful. Does it mean in the end, art is, and is not, the answer, in a ‘Magritt-y’: “This is not a solution”? Not to stoop that low and say, “art doesn’t want to be talked about and understood, it needs to be experienced.”

Anyway, this talking of art won’t do either. And it’s definitely not the kind of show where we’d like to punch the artist/curator/museum staff without wasting any more words.

No, it’s a great show, but maybe you should wait for the DVD box set. And by the way, we don’t do paid content, never will. But we’d have loved to use some allusion to that Dutch beer brand and it’s slogan “Na Denken komt doen” (“On thought follows deed”). Beer is always a solution.

Omer Fast, Talking isn’t always the solution, 18 November 2016-12 March 2017, Martin-Gropius-Bau

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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