New York

Omer Fast, August, 2016, 3-D digital video, color, sound, 15 minutes 30 seconds.

Omer Fast, August, 2016, 3-D digital video, color, sound, 15 minutes 30 seconds.

Omer Fast

James Cohan | 52 Walker St

Omer Fast, August, 2016, 3-D digital video, color, sound, 15 minutes 30 seconds.

In the autumn of 2016, Omer Fast had a solo exhibition in his adopted hometown of Berlin. Mounted by the Martin-Gropius-Bau, the show included a number of the elegantly perplexing, serious-minded video and film works the artist has made across his fifteen-year practice, including his newest, August, 2016, an impressionistic elegy for the early-twentieth-century German portrait photographer August Sander. In something of a departure for Fast, the show also featured a series of spatial interventions, with three of the show’s seven works set in installation environments meant to simulate transitional spaces—the waiting rooms of a doctor’s office, an airport lounge, and a German immigration agency.

This fall, Fast brought August to the United States, showing it alongside his video Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.), 2008, at James Cohan. The location of the exhibition—held not at Cohan’s chicly ahistoric Chelsea space but at the gallery’s downtown branch, which two years ago took over a vacant storefront previously occupied by a market on a busy corner in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood—apparently inspired the artist to attempt something more elaborate, namely turning the front of the gallery into what the show’s press release described as “the waiting room of a Chinatown business with an eclectic aesthetic,” an “ambiguous gesture [representing] a futile attempt to roll back the clock and speak about community, citizenship, and identity.” As it happened, the gesture turned out to be ambiguous and futile in ways Fast had not imagined, and ended up reading as a patronizing caricature of a dilapidated neighborhood convenience store–cum–dollar bus station, complete with cruddy linoleum, a half-empty drinks fridge, and a counter stocked with cheap cell phone cases.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for this conceptually misbegotten decision to become politically toxic. Protests were staged, at which point the artist released an itchily defensive statement that equated the demonstrators’ actions to those of “right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built.” Despite calls for its closure, the show stayed up for its full run, but the entire enterprise had by then been swallowed by the debate, and its centerpiece, August, made an unwitting casualty of Fast’s superfluous, tin-eared gesture. The day I visited, protesters’ placards had been left on the facade where they had been placed the previous days. Meanwhile, the gallery’s travestied front room was mostly empty, save for a handful of visitors sitting on mismatched folding chairs and watching Looking Pretty for God—a work interweaving scenes of funeral parlors with jolly footage of concocted kids’ fashion shoots that features interviews with funeral directors occasionally ventriloquized by the child models—which was shown on a flat screen hung between a pair of out-of-order ATMs and an unhappy-looking potted plant.

Such filmic oscillations between truth and fiction are Fast’s stock-in-trade and are put to darker use in August, which awaited visitors in a back gallery untouched by the artist’s spatial ministrations. The film collapses several temporal threads into an unsettling oneiric present, oscillating between depictions of Sander as a young man staging some of his most famous portraits and near the end of his life—frail, alone, and wracked with regret in a modest country home. The aged photographer is visited by a Nazi officer who expresses obsequious condolences regarding the death of Sander’s eldest son (Erich Sander, who worked with his father, died in a German prison in 1944) and, using a description of the artist’s work by Walter Benjamin, praises his “tender empiricism” before gathering himself up to pose for his own portrait, which a suddenly younger Sander reluctantly takes. It was certainly strange and affecting, but for all its attempts at stately gravity, August finally seems undercut by the same poorly thought-through disconnects that troubled Fast’s architectural intervention. Shot in 3-D for reasons not obviously motivated by its content and erroneously depicting the aged Sander as blind (this latter decision was weirdly described by the artist in a recent interview as a “dramatic flourish” employed as part of an attempt to “fluff” the story up), the film seems oddly in thrall to its technical and narrative innovations. Fast didn’t destabilize its subject in order to intensify our relationship to it, as even the most serpentine of his fantasies typically do, but rather diluted and diffused it, producing a fiction for fiction’s sake that feels like an outlier in the artist’s otherwise estimable practice.

Jeffrey Kastner