“Fiction or Reality”

“Fiction or Reality” brought together three young artists whose distinct perspectives on identity, language, and memory complemented one another. Senam Okudzeto emphasized the unreliability of memory in the reconstruction of stories. Born in Chicago to an African American mother and Ghanaian father, the artist grew up in Nigeria and studied in London. The video The Dialectic of Jubilation, 2002–2003, juxtaposed scenes of village dances in Ghana with Okudzeto’s poignant attempts to teach people in Basel the same steps, the gaps in her faulty recollection filled in by invention. Projected on the tiles of a disused public toilet, the video reflected the artist’s own fragmented identity, whether as outsider in Switzerland or as a tourist behind the camera in her father’s village. Presented as a scattering of torn text fragments across the staircase wall, Blue Orange Tree, 2003, a story about bargaining for oranges in Ghana, demanded the viewer’s mental reconstruction. Although the orange stand and a photograph of the site stood witness to the story, the initial incoherence of the account continued to call into doubt the truth-value of both photograph and found object.

Okudzeto was one of a wide range of individuals whom the Cameroon artist Goddy Leye asked to stand for election for leadership of a new pan-African state. The candidates’ manifestos were displayed with large-scale photographs of their authors, each of them creating a utopian vision of a state run according to a particular principle—for example, a state based on artistic values. The project, Bureau de vote I, 2003, even included voting booths for visitors to the exhibition, yet, juxtaposed with video scenes of African processions and daily life in Benin, its playfulness was tempered by underlying questions about the meaning of belonging and the fragility of idealism. Like Okudzeto, Leye also interwove memory of the colonial past with projections of a fictional future, casting doubt on the notion of a single, stable African identity.

The unreliability of information lay at the heart of the three video works by Omer Fast, born in Israel and now living in Berlin. CNN Concatenated, 2002, isolates ten thousand words spoken by reporters, fused into a new context that is amusing but meaningless; in the format of reportage, it continues to carry the authority of television news. A Tank Translated, 2002, tells the stories of four Israeli soldiers, each one presented on a monitor placed to reflect the soldier’s position in the tank that they shared. Fast’s translation allows, however, a degree of manipulation—statements cut short or words subtly changed in the subtitles—that transforms the soldiers’ factual account into absurd utterances, acting as a powerful metaphor for a more far-reaching distortion of truth for political ends.

Sharing the same documentary mode, Fast’s third video piece, Spielberg’s List, 2003—the most compelling work in the exhibition—highlights even more explicitly the difficulty of distinguishing between fact and fiction. Exploiting the appeal, particularly in Israel, of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List, the artist interviewed bit-part actors about their roles. Remarks concerning the “shooting” of individuals or assertions of marginal involvement in the action confuse Nazi crimes with the making of commercial film in a way that confounds even the interviewer. The actors’ emotional identification with their characters ultimately renders ambiguous the boundary between the fictional reconstruction of one of the overwhelming realities of the twentieth century and the factual evidence about the creation of that fiction.

Felicity Lunn