Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

At a Safe Remove: Omer Fast at James Cohan

Omer Fast at James Cohan – Chelsea

March 25 to May 7, 2016
533 West 26 Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York City, 212 714 9500

Omer Fast, 5,000 Feet is the Best, 2011 (still). Film, 30 minutes. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery
Omer Fast, 5,000 Feet is the Best, 2011 (still). Film, 30 minutes. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery

It requires at least two hours of lurking in darkened spaces on less than comfortable seats to really appreciate 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011), Continuity (2012), and Spring (2016), the three films by Omer Fast at James Cohan. It is definitely worth the effort. But this show also raises important questions about the changing role of art galleries and viewers, and the accessibility of art when most video is just a click away. These three projections in three separate rooms are digitally produced, at obviously great expense, with professional actors and cinematography. Though the term film seems archaic, they have a richness that is closer to the cinematic experience of movie theaters, than a DIY video installation by a lone artist in a gallery.

This exhibition offers a jarring experience, both intellectually and emotionally. Intellectually, because these films are all open and circular narratives — events occur, but there is no definitive dramatic arc, more like dramatic waves. There are climaxes, but they reoccur from different points of view. Each projection can be entered at any time, and the sequence of events initiated by one’s particular time of entry will influence their emotional impact. There is no resolution in these, questions are raised and not answered. But their content is thrillingly political, psychological, sexual, racial, and resolutely contemporary. We get involved, because the ambiguities Fast creates contain intriguing mysteries that are never explained.

Omer Fast, Spring, 2016 (still). Film, 40 minutes, looped. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery
Omer Fast, Spring, 2016 (still). Film, 40 minutes, looped. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery

And emotionally. At two separate times in Spring, we see a bicyclist very suddenly plowed into by a black Porsche from two different points of view, from both distanced overview and driver perspective. And it is shocking both times, even when you know it’s going to happen. We watch a middle class white family taking a road trip, which the narration makes clear, is really taking place in an occupied foreign country in Asia. They suddenly become collateral damage from an unexpected drone missile strike, and bloodied, they get out of their vacation stuffed station wagon and walk away holding hands, though the narration states that, “their bodies are never found.” The father of a young man on leave from the military, sticks his finger in his grown son’s mouth. A mother turns an affectionate kiss with the same son into a make-out session at the dinner table. An incongruous camel ambles down the middle of the road in the German countryside, approaches a suburban couple in a car and leads them to a scene of horrifying devastation.

All of these videos contain stories within stories, a postmodern gambit with narrative roots as far back as Don Quijote. 5,000 Feet is the Best concerns an interview in a hotel room with a troubled drone operator stationed in Las Vegas and blowing up people in Afghanistan. He relates stories that then become the visual reality of the film. Apparently it is based on an interview Fast made with an actual drone pilot. In the film, Denis O’Hare, an actor from True Blood, portrays the pilot while another actor plays the interviewer. But we also get narration from a digitally blurred face — the real pilot, or just another actor whose blurred face is used to make it seem like actual documentary footage? Instead of being shown drone tapes from Afghanistan, we are shown elevated shots of American suburbs to bridge the mental distance between what we do here, and what it might feel like over there.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012 (still). Film, 40 minutes, looped. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery
Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012 (still). Film, 40 minutes, looped. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery

What kind of cultural arena does an art gallery provide, and to whom? Who are these cultural experiences for, how are they financed? These films are all produced in editions of six. We know that multimedia art, and even performance art can be owned like a painting or sculpture. But we are also used to the platform fluidity and accessibility of cinematic experiences from movie theatre to home TV screen to laptop and tablet. The profitability and accessibility of this populist medium require millions of paying customers. Going to art galleries on the other hand is a privileged social activity, which, though free, requires arranging one’s time — in this case, as noted, at least two hours. And Fast’s films need to be seen more than once. Someone will buy it and then it will disappear. It won’t be available on Netflix. This question of privilege is exactly what Fast’s work seems to investigate.

Fast is now producing a feature length film, Remainder, based on a Tom McCarthy novel. Remainder will probably be seen in theaters, for the normal price of a movie ticket. In interviews Fast has bemoaned the loss of freedom required to answer the constraints of producers of a feature length film. “Can you make this character more sympathetic?” is not his usual concern.

So this is the conundrum. Fast is an important artist whose work contributes complex thinking to a range of intellectual and cultural issues. But it is not for the fans of the Marvel franchise. Go see this at Cohan Gallery. But this work also needs to find an available outlet for the huge number of sophisticated viewers who might not have access to it, though they easily could. We have experienced this phenomenon before with Christian Marclay’s The Clock. But in that case, the spectacular nature of the appropriated content led to huge public screenings. This is art that is more modest, but more disturbing, and certainly no less compelling. The transition from elitist high culture to more accessible but still elevated culture is a pressing issue that artists of the caliber of Omer Fast must address.

This exhibition was discussed at The Review Panel, Brooklyn Public Library, April 2016