Not the mishmash it seems

Not the mishmash it seem

nostalgia 2 248 no 88 (photo credit: Omer Fast, coutesy of the Whitney Museum of Americ)
nostalgia 2 248 no 88
(photo credit: Omer Fast, coutesy of the Whitney Museum of Americ)
Should he ever want to, Jerusalem-born artist Omer Fast could easily slip into a career as a feature filmmaker or director of PBS documentaries. But, as his new show at the Whitney Museum demonstrates, Fast is more interested in dissecting those genres - in making viewers think critically about them - than he is in simply working within their familiar conventions. In Nostalgia, Fast's enigmatic ongoing show, the artist showcases three short films on separate but overlapping subjects, each taking a different angle on the interconnected set of themes. If not for the setting - one of New York's pre-eminent museums - it would be easy to lose yourself in Fast's technical mastery, in his seductive use of visuals and elliptical storytelling. Yet individually and together, the three mini-films work on multiple levels, posing clever questions about representation and memory - about how stories are told and retold, and how they are absorbed and analyzed. Not, thankfully, that they come across as that dry. Particularly in Nostalgia III, the final film in the series, the intellectual provocations arrive as part of a compelling package. A fictional Africa serves as the setting for the last film in a scenario that could be in the future, or perhaps part of a parallel past. Some sort of disaster - natural or man-made, it never becomes clear - has made England uninhabitable, sending desperate asylum-seekers fleeing south. "They're a proud, ancient culture," a native says condescendingly about the white "trespassers." "They're great dancers." As viewers attempt to untangle the setting, they'll likely get swept up in the mysterious characters and location. But they'll also find themselves thinking back to the first films in the show - a documentary-style piece about making traps in a forest (Nostalgia I), as well as a London interview with a would-be immigrant (played by an actor) from Africa (Nostalgia II). If the films sound esoteric and disconnected, that's part of Fast's point. RAISED IN Israel until high school - when his family moved temporarily to Long Island - the artist is primarily concerned with storytelling, and especially the artifice that's part of how people construct personal stories and history. His chosen medium, video, opens his works to an additional layer of analysis, generating questions about the form itself, and about how people's sense of themselves is influenced by the media. "For this [current] generation, you always carry with you the stories that you see on TV or on film - it's part of our consciousness now," 37-year-old Fast says. "When you work with video or film cameras, there may be more of an inclination to make a work that challenges the conventions.... I'm always working in a manner that is in some ways referential to the camera, and to things I've seen earlier in life." It's a theme that resonates through much of his work, perhaps most notably in Spielberg's List, a 2003 project filmed in Poland. A decade after Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning Schindler's List, perhaps Hollywood's definitive Holocaust drama, Fast returned to the site of its filming to interview local extras about the experience. Their recollections, as captured in his project, at times appear to conflate movie scenes with real history - a misapprehension many moviegoers may be guilty of themselves. The recipient of a Hunter College MFA in 2000, Fast quickly made a name for himself internationally, showcasing his films at prestigious cultural institutions, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which this year awarded him its Prize for Young Art. His frequent travels and border-crossing relationships - much of his family is in Israel; he shares a home with a German girlfriend - dovetail nicely with the themes of his work, which also often touch on subjects such as displacement, war and loss. WHILE HE shies away from sharing details about his own family history, traces of Israel can be detected even in art projects set elsewhere - such as in Nostalgia III, which features surveillance footage from Israel's security barrier in Jerusalem. (In the film, the location is not identified as such. Instead, it's implied, the structure is being used to keep Englishmen out of Africa.) As with many aspects of his art, connections with his own background prove difficult to elucidate: "As for Israeli history or Jewish history, I think they're too large to comment on," he says. But that history, he goes on, very much informed his early years, as well as his growth as a student of memory. "I grew up in a community of storytelling," he says, "and that kind of storytelling played a very specific role in the development of the people and community. The way the community was able to make sense of the history - it's something I've been aware of since an early, early age." His own skills as a storyteller have attracted growing acclaim - as well as the funding to match. Shot in five days in London, Nostalgia III was produced on a budget of more than $100,000 - putting it into the same financial realm as some feature-length movies. But despite his evident skill and versatility - Nostalgia III could be confused for a Hollywood political thriller - Fast says he'll stick with the form that's already brought him to the Whitney. "I don't feel the need to tell a story in 90 minutes," he says. "In the space [of this show], you can allow people to walk through and see different things. I like that. You can make stories that refer to each other and engage."