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Meaning it, not literally: Omer Fast

INTERVIEW! Hyped video artist Omer Fast has installed a high-profile, seven-film show (complete with its own Ausländerbehörde) on the top floor of the Martin-Gropius-Bau (on through Mar 12). We asked him about process, politics, and porn.

Image for Meaning it, not literally: Omer Fast
Omer Fast: Continuity (2012) 40 minutes, single screen, looped.

Hyped video artist Omer Fast has installed a high-profile, seven-film show (complete with its own Ausländerbehörde) on the top floor of the Martin-Gropius-Bau. We asked him about process, politics, and porn.

The Israeli-born Berliner, who recently landed at #16 on Artnet’s list of “50 Most Exciting Artists in Europe”, uses fiction to question our truth and documentary to examine our fictions in his new solo Talking is not always the solution. Continuity (2012) centres around a middle-class German couple, Torsten and Katja, who repeatedly hire male escorts to enact the role of their son Daniel who, we are led to believe, was killed in Afghanistan. We meet them again in Spring (2016), but at an earlier point in their story, told from the perspective of the young men whose lives intertwine in a looping Möbius strip narrative. The third German-language film, August (2016), is an imagined night in the late life of famous Weimar-era photographer August Sander as he reflects on personal loss suffered during the Third Reich.

The remaining four are in English and draw on factual footage of people who work in invisible or taboo industries: drone pilots (5,000 Feet is the Best, 2011); embalmers (Looking Pretty for God, 2008); and porn performers (Everything That Rises Must Converge, 2013).

Image for Meaning it, not literally: Omer Fast
Omer Fast: August (2016) 3D projection

You often employ interviews in your videos. What attracts you to that setup?

I use my work to put me in touch with the lives of others whose work I find interesting. I often need those conversations in order to generate the work. Once I speak with them I collect material, but I always think about what the conditions for my meeting with them are, and that often leads me to depicting an aspect of the conversation. 

Another technique you use often, and especially in Continuity, is repetition. Why?

I wanted to make something that would initially appear to be a conventional melodramatic family story where all the roles are extremely transparent, and then obscure those roles until you really have to struggle to keep the pieces together, to understand who’s doing what, and why. And I’m interested in repetition in order to explore those roles. We understand who people are by understanding what their habits are, what their behaviour is like. When they repeat something we understand that it’s part of their lives, and then when they break from that repetition we begin to have a sense of what their spontaneity would be like, what their perversion might be like, and so on.

What is Continuity supposed to suggest to the viewer? Is it a political statement?

The work was triggered by a statement that the defence minister in Germany at the time [Franz Josef Jung] made about involvement in Afghanistan, which he said was not a war. And I just thought, if it’s not a war, what is it? I thought that by inverting the roles I would look into that statement. And that’s how the work started, so I guess that’s the political or social connection to it. But I think it would be reductive to say that it’s a political statement responding to the defence minister. It’s not. 

What’s the purpose of the “waiting room” installations in the show – the Ausländerbehörde, the airport terminal, and the doctor’s office?

I didn’t want to show works in seven dark spaces one after the other. While sitting at the Ausländerbehörde, I realised I wanted to reproduce that environment. Then I came up with the airport and the doctor’s office as two other variations on that theme. It’s about allowing visitors to breathe a little bit, and it also has kind of a theatrical dimension and a thematic component that I think is relevant for the work – these are spaces where productive time is suspended, where we feel like we’re frozen in a way and we’re part of a bigger system.

Image for Meaning it, not literally: Omer Fast
Omer Fast: 5000 Feet is the Best (2011) 30 minutes, single screen, looped.

The opening film CNN Concatenated (2002), which viewers see in the ersatz Ausländerbehörde, is a torrent of words, while August (2016) is almost wordless. Is there a journey between these two pieces?

Yeah, I think so. [CNN Concatenated] is a very, very verbal engagement with that hugely tumultuous moment in history around September 11. The last work has similar preoccupations, but it uses a very different sort of visual language and certainly is much more sparing with words. I think CNN is typically sort of a younger artist piece about bravura: ‘What can I do with this? How can I impress you?’ And August is a bit more relaxed.

August definitely feels like a departure from the rest, and not only because it’s filmed in 3D. How did it come to be?

The idea came when the director of the Gropius-Bau, Gereon Sievernich, said that August Sander was one of the first exhibitions that he had done in the same space that I was given for this show. Originally it was a fairly dry idea of re-staging some of those well-known Sander photographs as a 3D shoot. But then of course I got in the way of those simple ideas. I thought of the figure of the artist alone in his house, haunted by the past, and decided to fluff it up a little bit. He wasn’t blind, by the way. That’s a dramatic flourish which allows me to use those goofy wires that he hangs all over the space in order to give him some orientation. As he walks along the wire, he’s connecting different parts of the architecture, but also different moments in time, which is what the film is about. It kind of collapses his past into his present.

The final film in the show, Everything That Rises Must Converge, is a pornographic depiction of the daily routines of four adult film actors, woven together with two shorter vignettes across several screens…

On the most superficial level, that screen is a window, and looking through a window is a voyeuristic act. On the other hand, we’re visiting each one of these four people, and I wanted to sustain this notion of simultaneity. It’s more about the porosity of borders, and I use the adult film performers to that end, but we also continued to film in the same house for those little vignettes that also involve figures that cross boundaries in a way.

Finally, the title: Talking is not always the solution. Do you mean that?

I certainly mean it as a provocation, but for me talking is the only solution. If it’s not talking, then what is it? Certainly now, this notion of dialogue has gained more urgency. So yeah… I do mean it, but not literally.

Omer Fast – Talking is Not Always the Solution, Through March 12 | Martin-Gropius-Bau, Kreuzberg