Berlin-based Israeli artist Omer Fast has an eerie way of blending fact and fiction. That talent is apparent in “Omer Fast: Appendix,” an exhibit on view through Feb. 18 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
The two-part installation includes his 2008 film “Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.),” shown in a waiting-room-like installation, and his latest film, “August,” a fictional take on the complex life of famed German portrait photographer August Sander. Supplementing this screening is a delightful arrangement of Sander photographs, mainly drawn from the institute’s collection.
“Looking Pretty for God” cleverly pairs footage from a staged children’s fashion photo shoot with audio drawn from interviews with morticians. It’s a stunning juxtaposition of the life/death duality, as we watch a child patiently allowing makeup to be applied to his face. By placing the video in a fake waiting room — Fast is known for creating faux settings as installations for his videos — the viewer starts to imagine a waiting room at an actual funeral home.
Next, viewers put on 3-D glasses and walk into a darkened room to watch “August” (2016), a 15-minute film in which Fast imagines Sander before his death in 1964 — an old man, blind, with ropes strung around his home that he uses to navigate his space while he flashes back to memories of photographs he shot.
Based in Cologne, Sander was an important part of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, movement of 1920s Germany, during the Weimar period between the two world wars. He used a strikingly realistic style to document less visible people, such as the working class, the poor, painters, revolutionaries, odd sets of twins, farmers, peasants, circus artists and physically disabled people, as well as death portraits.
When the Nazis came into power, Sander’s work was deemed contrary to the racist Aryan ideal. His plates for the 1929 photo book “Face of Our Time” were confiscated and destroyed. Much of his surviving work was lost in the World War II bombing of Cologne and a 1946 fire, and he subsequently gave up photography.
In the video, Fast imagines Sander having a conversation with a Nazi officer who praises Sander’s incredible talent and asks to have his portrait taken. Though this is all fictionalized, the viewer is left wondering whether Sander would have done it, not as a way to appease the officer but to document the moment. The intensity of Fast’s video is amplified by the 3-D glasses, which makes the event feel as if it were happening right now.
This same video is playing at James Cohan Gallery in Manhattan’s Chinatown. That installation has come under intense fire from activist groups — not because of “August,” but because Fast created a false facade replicating a Chinatown business that was there before the gallery moved in. Fast thought it would be interesting to re-create a space that was “transformed to appear like a poorly maintained Chinatown business,” according to reports from Hyperallergic. In a statement, the artist attempted to intellectualize the dispute, noting his own background as an immigrant and stupidly comparing one protest message to something he’d expect from “right-wing trolls.”
The people whose very lives are being affected by the ongoing gentrification of Chinatown did not have time for nuanced conversations about his art, which again speaks to the disconnect between the art world and everyone else (and I am saying this as an art critic, no less!). As the Chinatown Art Brigade writes on its Facebook page: “Omer Fast’s exhibition only further cements the blatant disrespect and disregard that commercial galleries have shown for our community. This gallery and its apologizers would have us believe that we are engaging in censorship — but we know this is a cheap attempt to shift the discussion away from these urgent issues.”
The activists are asking galleries to hold themselves accountable for their complicit roles in gentrifying neighborhoods. Similar protests hit a gallery in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood that eventually closed after many conversations. Here in the Twin Cities, gentrification is blamed in part for Intermedia Arts’ recent decision to sell its building.
Fast’s exhibition in the Twin Cities is receiving no such flak since it’s in a seemingly neutral museum context.
“For me, it is important to show work in a proper context in relation to the August Sander photographs,” said the exhibit’s curator, Yasufumi Nakamori. “I wanted to give a deeper understanding to August Sander’s politics. I see Omer as an artist who takes a position in what’s happening in the world now. He is a progressive thinker.”