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Taking a slow look at Omer Fast

Every once in a while we are confronted with a work of art that is arrestingly beautiful but are unable to comprehend how it creates its appeal.

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Omer Fast at the Betty Rymer Gallery

Every once in a while we are confronted with a work of art that is arrestingly beautiful but are unable to comprehend how it creates its appeal. This was my experience when I first visited the Omer Fast exhibition at the Betty Rymer Gallery. In what appears to be a big budget exhibition, the gallery has installed two video works: The Casting, 2007—which was featured at the 2008 Whitney Biennial—and Looking Pretty for God (After GW), 2008—a work commissioned by SAIC.

The Casting is a four channel video installation in which the artist interviews a US soldier about his experiences in the military. Fast splits two narratives taken from this interview over four screens. If it sounds like this might make the work confusing, that is because it does—but in a good way.

During the interview Fast claims that he is interested in the way that memory is turned into stories, and then mediated by recording and broadcasting techniques. Admittedly this sounds a bit dry, but in actuality Fast opens the door on an incredibly rich visual experience that leaves the viewer overwhelmed but highly engaged. I won’t ruin the surprise, but there is an “aha” moment when you grasp how the four screens function together as a narrative. However, that momentary erlebnis is followed by a return to bewilderment when, upon further contemplation, the other discrepancies in the way the stories are presented reveal themselves. It is in this editorial friction between clarity and ambiguity that the work really comes alive; as if a story is being told about the way stories are told, which throws everything we know about storytelling upside down and into a new light.

Fast is up to similar tricks in Looking Pretty for God (After GW). The work combines voice-overs of morticians talking about their grisly duties, with moving images of children and interior shots of funeral homes. Again the captivating aspect of the work is Fast’s editing technique, used this time to draw seemingly impossible parallels between two disparate subjects.

Formally, the piece operates in a subversive fashion. Everything is self-conscious artifice, right down to the subject matter: children modeling and the preparation of corpses to look life-like. The video masquerades as artless documentation, however, upon consideration, it becomes clear that each decision is carefully calculated for effect. In fact, the narratives are so compelling at times that it almost seems like Joe Pesci (or some other character from central casting) was booked to create the precise mood and texture. What is amazing about the work is that it quietly operates as a triple mirror: showing us all at once the fragility of life, the spiritual in death, and the artist at work, in a way that forces us out of our hurried experience of daily life.

On view through January 3. 280 S. Columbus Drive. Tuesday through Saturday, 11am–6pm.

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