State Secretary for Culture Halbe Zijlstra recently announced some controversial cuts to cultural funding in the Netherlands. These dramatic slashes are likely to jeopardize the quality of the Dutch contemporary art offerings and downright kill artist grants and institutions like NIMk and SKOR. For this reason alone I could tell you to go see the Omer Fast show at the Nederlands Instituut voor Mediakunst – if anything, to show some support – but an even better reason would be, well, that the exhibition is worth it.
I'm usually not a fan of video art, but I watched every minute of the five videos on show. What I found so enthralling about this retrospective was not Fast's cinematic prowess, but rather the simple, gripping appeal of the spoken word that underlies all his pieces. From Nostalgia - built around a series of interviews with former Nigerian child soldiers - to The Casting – a surreally dramatic journey into an American soldier's memory – the backbone of the Israel-born artist's work is dialogue-driven storytelling.
Much of his method is shown and discussed in the movies themselves, often including the figure of a director who interrogates people and tries to get a particular narrative out of their anecdotes. As mentioned before, the subjects and their stories recall tense and difficult situations – wars in Africa and Iraq, racial prejudice in Europe - but Fast tries to extract the personal rather than the political. Once the narrative is there, the artist proceeds to stage it.
The interviewees – and the interviewer himself – are never depicted directly, but impersonated by actors. The recollection of memories thus happens through a cinematic reconstruction, alternating proper narration to layers of critical detachment from the action. In showing a reproduction of himself directing somebody's memories to the areas of his interest, Omer Fast critically engages with his own work. While doing so, the artist manages not to get sucked away in some sort of postmodern vertigo, but composes disorienting collages of lived life experiences, poetic fiction, and thought-provoking reflections.
The video artist challenges the innocence of representation without giving up an eagerness to tell relevant stories, accepting the risk of delivering only a partial truth. Some of his aesthetic choices verge on surrealism and might at times suggest an artsy self-complacency, but it's hard not to be intrigued by the sheer power of spoken words.
If this is not enough to convince you to go check the show out for yourself, then maybe I should repeat that this might be one of the last chances you get to visit NIMk. I hope it's not, but still.
~Nicola Bozzi, a writer living in Amsterdam.
(Images: Omer Fast; Courtesy of the Artist and Netherlands Media Art Institute - Montevideo/Time Based Arts; Nostalgia, Production Photo by Thierry Bal, 2009; De Grote Boodschap, production photo by Erik de Cnodder, 2007; Courtesy of the artist and Arratia, Beer, Berlin)