Omer Fast’s second exhibition at James Cohan Gallery, ‘August’, is titled after his latest short film, centered on the famous German photographer, August Sander (1876-1964). For its New York debut, he has installed the 15-minute work of historical fiction in a black box at the back of the gallery, and created another historical fiction by staging the façade and front room of the gallery’s Grand Street location in Chinatown as an imagined earlier state of the building, before the previous local business (a grocery store) was transformed into a white cube. In this make-shift waiting room, lined with cheap, mismatched folding chairs along the walls and a couple decorative yellow and red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, Fast’s video Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) (2008) plays on a video monitor.
The artist has hung a yellow, aged awning with ‘Art Gallery’ spelled out in red Chinese characters above a cemented-over wall, framing a non-descript door. Next to its frame, visible from the street, is an animated and glittering LED sign announcing ‘ATM’. Inside, the room contains a glass display full of burner cell phones and cases with handwritten prices in red Arabic numerals on yellow signs, and common-place homemade NYC business signs making declarations such as ‘all sales final’. A tear-away calendar, a gold trinket, the lanterns and presence of Chinese characters in the space were borrowed signifiers of the neighborhood’s Chinese-American history, present and uncertain future. As advertised, inside two ATMs sit side-by-side with matching out-of-order signs; the machines and a tall potted plant flank the video monitor, hung high.
Looking Pretty for God (After G.W) is positioned like a coda for the installation and the new video; it weaves first-person accounts of unnamed American funeral directors, images of funeral homes and a photographer’s studio populated by children who pose and sometimes mouth the absent funeral director’s voice-overs. This older work meditates on the well-trodden trope of photography’s relationship to death: the moment between when a subject is alive and animated, and before it is fixed and lifeless as an image or a corpse. In one shot of an empty embalming room, a male voice describes the state of a body that is lifeless but still warm upon its arrival at his funeral home. The video’s title refers to a line by another funeral director, who states that his kids do not understand what he does, only that his wife, who produces the make-up for open casket ceremonies, ‘makes people look beautiful for God’.
A basket of 3D glasses sits next to the entrance to a corridor, which leads to a darkened room where August plays on loop. In that short passage, plywood leans beside a garbage pail, alongside other items suggesting a state of transformation that leads into the pristine, sound-proofed room with a single bench. The architecture thus mirrors the process described by the funeral directors: the lifeless but still warm waiting room leads to the corridor under repair, and finally, to the slick, static and presentable black box.
In that last space, Fast extends the motif of the photographer’s role in freezing and fixing life like a funeral director. August imagines Sander at the end of his life, blind, informed that his son has died of appendicitis in a Nazi prison and tasked with creating a portrait of the SS officer who delivers this horrifying news. Fast flashes between earlier moments in the photographer’s life, when his son assisted him by pulling string from the camera to the subject in order to measure the sightline, to the older, blind Sander feeling his way along strings that connect objects and rooms in his home, and eventually lead into the woods.
Rather than installing his new work in a pristine space, Fast has created by its means of display to address the parallels between his and Sanders’s ethical dilemmas in their respective political contexts. In response to his fictional depiction of a local business, members of the activist Chinatown Art Brigade group picketed the gallery and published an open letter declaring the installation a ‘racist aggression towards the community’ that ‘reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight’. However, the work can also be read as an intentional critique of the gallery’s gentrifying presence, and Fast’s own complicity in this process, slowly ‘killing’ vulnerable communities like Chinatown and making them ‘pretty for god’.
Neoliberalism does not discriminate, as it loosens government regulation and subjects us all to market forces; galleries can both exacerbate and fall prey to this trend. Fast’s attempt to address the political crisis in Chinatown reads as a condescending performance of politics given that some locals, such as CAB, consider his gallery critically disengaged from community interests. No matter how deep, poetic or well-intentioned Fast’s gesture may be, many residents fighting for their homes and their history see only a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Main image: Omer Fast, August, 2016, film still, stereoscopic film in 3D with surround sound. Courtesy: the artist and James Cohan, New York
First published in Issue 192