In conversation with Omer Fast

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

Laura Herman visited Appendix, Omer Fast’s first solo show in Belgium at STUK Leuven, and had a conversation with the artist about his construction of artificial environments, and use of cinematic devices which confuse our sense of reality.

Laura Herman: walking through your exhibition at STUK, comprised of two film installations, August (2016) and Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) (2008), I was immediately struck by the fact that I could barely distinguish between what was real and what was not. You don’t walk into an exhibition space, but through the front door of a deserted two-bedroom family apartment. The exhibition brings a level of realism that makes the suspension of disbelief almost redundant. Why are you interested in the image as a palpable materiality that is nevertheless still artificial?

Omer Fast: For the exhibition Talking is not always the solution that opened at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin earlier this year, the space consisted of seven gallery rooms and was very linear. My stories are not linear. I had the challenge to think about how to create a choreography or mise-en-scène allowing me to guide people through seven spaces without boring them to death. So I started playing around with the installation and pulling away from the black box, which resulted in three full-scale theatrical reproductions of waiting rooms in Berlin. I used those rooms to address the issues I deal with in my work in a spatial, sculptural way. It felt like a good idea to continue that process at STUK, rather than convert the space into one big black box. I like the idea of entering a space you might be familiar with, but which has transformed quite radically and takes you somewhere completely different. I don’t want to be just dealing with shadows and projections, but also with materials and things. It’s important for me that the work is seductive, compelling people to step in. I like to create a degree of illusion and emerging realism, so that I can then disrupt it. I do feel connected to the world and often try to reproduce aspects of it in my work. By then changing something about the illusion and the appearance of it, I test where the borders lie of credibility, authenticity, legitimacy, or normalcy.

I like the idea of entering a space you might be familiar with, but which has transformed quite radically and takes you somewhere completely different.

The exhibition is titled appendix, a reference to August Sander’s son Erich Sander who died of a ruptured appendix, after being imprisoned for his anti-Nazi activism. But there’s also the idea of parasitism present in the metaphorical layers associated with the meaning of the word.

The appendix is a multi-use metaphor; it’s a strange object. We don't know its function, so it’s an object of speculation, something that is very ambiguous. The appendix is thematised in the second work August as something that could have an unnoticeable co-existence within the system and then suddenly flare up and endanger it. There’s the idea of a hygienic society that wants to inoculate its citizens, and wants to cut something out before it becomes dangerous. It’s a way of metaphorically regarding dissidence, agitators and mavericks — all individuals that are dangerous to the well-functioning of a system. The notion of danger, infection, disease, and death is close to my work, and I insert that in very banal, everyday situations, like the apartment at the beginning of the exhibition. The relationship between society and the individual has a bearing on this apartment that appears to be a normal and everyday place. But then you look at some clues, and you can find that there is some kind of politicized situation at stake that may or may not flare up. The apartment is also the appendix of the exhibition. You enter an appendix when you come in. An appendix has also a second meaning, which is the part that comes at the end of a text and contains a lot of references. In a way the visitor is invited in, like a crime scene investigator. There hasn’t necessarily been a crime at this apartment, but there are some clues and references. It’s not a legible story, but you can put it together in your head and whatever you come up with, will be your fault.

You have said that your stories aren’t linear, but in contrast to earlier films such as The Casting (2007) or Continuity (2012), the works in the exhibition — especially August — are less experimental in the sense that they build some sort of narrative momentum. At the same time, your installations draw on the disrupted relationship between the fictional and the factual, between inside and outside, and between different temporalities.

I agree with you that both video works are very straightforward in terms of their storytelling. In August you see a short episode in the life of an old man who can’t sleep. He’s an insomniac who wanders about in his dark house as figures from his past appear and haunt him. He engages with them a little bit, until he can’t take it anymore, and walks into nature — a place that happens to be empty. August finds refuge and rest between the trees where you would usually expect the ghosts and fairies and goblins to roam about. But nature happens to be just “stuff”, it’s a place devoid of illusion and metaphor. The metaphors are inside the house. The second work is Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.), a documentary which I made in 2008 with funeral directors who speak about their work. If we talk about the appendix as being something in between function and dysfunction, between rupture and a comfortable symbiosis, we could describe these people as being tasked with a type of work that lies at the very periphery between life and death. They are entrusted with the bodies of the recently deceased and are in charge of making these bodies presentable to a public presentation in a catholic context. Their work is about sustaining an illusion in order to enable a kind of process of mourning and a social ritual that is all about funeral. They talk about make-up, surgery, the different tricks that they use, the process, etcetera. They see their work as a ritual and a system of rules.

In Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) the speech of undertakers is mounted onto the synching lips of child models. In August (2016) a father mourns the death of his deceased son. How are intergenerational relations approached in your work?

I didn’t think about intergenerationality. In Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) the children seem to be fetishized into two systems that make use from them differently, namely the mortuary business and fashion photography. In August it’s more personal, but nevertheless the children in both films appear ghostlike in both senses. In Looking Pretty For God (After G.W.) the children appear almost possessed as they speak with the voice of adults. They talk about the work of adults. You can describe the dissonance between their child bodies and the adult things they are saying in terms of hysteria, or ascribe a psychoanalytical symptom to it.

To me they are almost ventriloquists: hosts possessed by God. But they are also fairylike creatures. For me, the ghosts and the possessions are actually happening in the working lives and cultures of funeral directors and insomniac men. The children — and this relates to another work I made called Continuity — are always going to suffer for the sins of their parents, and in my work they certainly always do. They just appear as carriers of different symptoms of that struggle.

Your work is permeated with enigmatic devices and mystery metaphors that at times seem to operate as McGuffins. I’m thinking about the coil of rope, which August first uses as a measuring tool to define the distance between his camera and his subjects, and which he later — when he’s grown old and blind — uses to organise and navigate his living spaces.

All of that stuff is highly fictional. Photographers at the time didn't need a coil of rope to measure distance. Since I knew I was going to create this film in 3D, the set that we used would have been rather dull. So I wanted to mystify the interior and demystify the exterior. In the interior, you have these strings that are hanging everywhere and that have a function as connectors to the real world. But if you think about it a little, this man has been living in a small house for a long time he’ll be able to find his way to the toilet without needing this web of strings. So there’s almost a quasi-mystical or metaphorical function for them; they are used for orientation and for navigation. August is almost like a spider trapped in a web, pulling on it and it bringing figures from the past out of the darkness into the present. Like fishermen pulling things out of the sea. During his flashbacks, I wanted to connect his bleak, mystical present to an episode in his past, and so I invented this crude mechanism that in fact you don’t need.

Speaking of the past flowing into the present, could you comment on the ways in which your work often deals with socially constructed borders, thresholds or limits? I’m not only thinking about the lines between past and present or life and death, but also of the social delineations of ‘family’ or ‘work’ in modern society.

The family and working life are two things I keep returning to. These kinds of constructs are very interesting for me. I always want to learn about them. I often put myself in touch with people whose work I find interesting, whether it’s morticians, home directors, drone operators, or adult film performers. I want to meet them, but not so much because I have some idea of them being involved in a construct. For me these people are liminal figures because they traverse a certain kind of boundary. I talked about how the morticians traverse the boundaries between the physical, the spiritual, and the social, between life and death, between illusion and reality. In that sense they are magicians. They stop the clock and freeze time to suspend the biological process of decay, which is part of life and death. I wanted to talk to them about that, much in the same way I wanted to talk to the drone operator in 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011) about how his work involves life and death, but takes place in a very banal, domestic situation. His work involves combat in a virtual way that simulates video games, yet is very similar to office work with shifts and breaks. There’s something very bizarre and liminal about that, because it is speaking to certain ruptures that we have in our world that we don’t pay enough attention to. My work is always about these ruptures — the boundaries between things that we suppress or repress, and for which we have other people do the work for us.

Appendix – Omer Fast, STUK, Leuven, 11.10.2017 – 13.12.2017. Curated by Karen Verschooren. 

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021