Distinguishing reality from fiction is a deep human impulse; but visit this exhibition and it will come to seem the most absurd of quests. Something else must be at stake.
BALTIC provides a grand-scale immersion in finding out what that might be, with two blacked-out floors of the building showcasing seven continuously-looped film and video works by Israeli artist Omer Fast. Fast is renowned for complex structures of narrative, documentary, performance, image production and non-linear time in his films. At times visceral, at times tender, often visually sumptuous, they create a feeling of traveling the inner pipework of a story – parts that are normally bent outlandishly to fit behind the walls and out of view.
Here we are given a former operator’s account of drone warfare (5,000 Feet is the Best), interviews with funeral directors about the mysteries of their craft (Looking Pretty for God), a multi-track short story about the lives of adult-film performers (Everything that Rises Must Converge) and the domestic drama of a returned soldier (Continuity). Two earlier works are also included: CNN Concatenated and A Tank Translated, in both of which the editing process tells its own story. Finally Spring is a new five-screen commission for BALTIC which develops characters from Continuity.
Almost nothing is what it seems. Or rather, when it seems mis-matching, illogical, fractured and incomplete, that’s what it more truly is. Real-world people play actors playing real-world people, cameras watch cameras watching scenes, events unfold in reverse or start again differently, tragedy is mis-read as farce and vice-versa.
Speaking to Corridor8, Fast stressed his interest in the conversations and “portraits” his work reflects, more than any particular thesis about the human condition. There are macro-themes aplenty – terror, death, sex, deception, loss – “the politics are there”, he says – yet they are fabrics and currencies rather than a directed message.
For this exhibition, BALTIC has enveloped its levels 3 and 4 in massive blackout curtains and carpeting, so the projections could almost be taking place inside the mind. Some sound leakage between the separate spaces on the upper floor could perhaps be better managed. There is an exciting contrast between giant screens and tiny ones; the sequence in which one encounters the works is effective; and allocating the four Tank Translated videos between the two floors gives a nice integrative touch.
The visitor does however have something of a conundrum in knowing how best to approach the whole. Watching each film would involve fully four hours of viewing, and with only a single bench available as seating in each of the larger galleries, sampling en promenade may not be the way to do best justice to the work, especially its long-form metaphors. On the other hand there is a generous exhibition run to allow for multiple visits; and seeing so many pieces together gives a good flavour of the artist’s body of work. A book of essays accompanies the exhibition too.
On a purely filmic level these are skilfully engineered works (Fast’s first foray into feature-length form, Remainder, goes on UK release in May). Pacing and edits are well judged, and varied viewpoints support the thread of plural reality. Unease and tension infuse the most banal scenes, while the most horrific ones hold the seeds of their own comic deflation.
Contemporary attitudes to the truth of experience appear conflicted. On the one hand the very idea seems increasingly irrelevant, as we offer ourselves multiple modes of being, and become ever more creative in manipulating and corrupting data. At the same time however this may be fuelling a greater yearning for authenticity where we can find it, and a ramping up of rival claims to the authority of competing sciences and religious ideologies.
The role of the visual document may be no more suspect in the digital age than it has ever been, but we do now seem to have more angles from which to question its conventions and its effects of moral displacement. Omer Fast is surely one of the artists doing this in the most intelligent way.
Experiencing Fast’s work has nothing to do with distinguishing between reportage and mythic re-enactment. But it may have everything to do with the way we each construct our reality from a mix of both things, living in a state of unreliability, contradiction, ambiguity and distorted time. In this sense, the stylised stagings and elliptical testimonies woven together in this exhibition may be offering us a truer perspective than we think.
Omer Fast: Present Continuous continues at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, until 26 June 2016.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.
Images: Omer Fast, 5000 Feet Is the Best 2011 (still). ; Omer Fast Continuity 2012 (still); Omer Fast, Spring 2016 (still). All images courtesy of gb agency, Paris, Arratia Beer, Berlin and Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv. © Omer Fast