2017-10-22 16:10:03
Art Review: Omer Fast’s Chinatown Installation Is a Misfire

Sometimes a frame gets more attention than the picture that’s in it, which is the case with Omer Fast’s current solo exhibition at James Cohan’s Chinatown space. The show is titled “August” after its centerpiece, a fine 3D video from 2016 that was inspired by the life of the German photographer August Sander. But that video, along with an earlier one, has been upstaged by a bizarre surrounding installation that transforms Cohan’s white-box space into a funky Chinatown shop or bus-company waiting room with metal chairs, broken A.T.M.s and a shabby facade.

In his past films, Mr. Fast has often played with elements of fake authenticity for the disturbance and distancing the disjunction can produce. Sections of his quasi-documentary film “Spielberg’s List” (2003) were set within a reconstructed Nazi concentration camp originally created for “Schindler’s List” and built directly beside the ruins of a real concentration camp. Mr. Fast, an Israeli immigrant to the United States now living in Berlin, seems to have intended the Cohan gallery “waiting room” not as a replication of any real Chinatown but as the kind of fantasy version of immigrant neighborhoods evoked to justify “slum clearance.”

He pretty clearly meant to provoke strong reactions and he has. A group of Chinatown-based activists have called out the piece as racist “poverty porn,” pure and simple, and demanded its removal. At best, the installation is a serious misfire, as some preliminary canvassing on the artist’s part might have revealed. The ethical indeterminacy that has worked in other contexts for him backfires here. It reads as nasty condescension. And, really, can a portrait of a “lost” ethnic neighborhood as a study in tawdry dysfunction read any other way? Not in the class-and-wealth co-opted New York City of today.

As a consequence of the miscalculation, the video that gives the show its name, and has a pertinent political content of its own, is in danger of being overlooked. Sander (1876-1964) is revered for his series of portrait photographs called “People of the 20th Century,” conceived as an encyclopedic survey of Weimar Republic society. According to some historians (though not all), he regarded his epic project as politically neutral, even after the rise if Nazism. And, the thinking is, he sustained that position despite the fact that his son Erich was arrested as a radical socialist and died in jail after being denied treatment for appendicitis.

Mr. Fast’s video, moving back and forth in time, departs from this account of Sander’s life by suggesting he eventually had a political awakening, though it came too late. We see him as a young photographer viewing the world through the camera’s lens and from under a black camera cloth. Simultaneously, we meet him old, blind, and haunted by the past, specifically by the apparitional figure of a Nazi officer whom Sander photographs even as he learns that this was the man who had let his son die. The question hangs in the air: Can art ever be morally neutral? The film becomes a meditation on the responsibility of the artist to engage in politics, whatever the risks, or die of regret.

The second video, “Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.),” from 2008, has a lighter mood, and a different message. Set in funeral parlors, it’s an unnervingly upbeat look at the work of professional funeral directors, the artists who give an appearance of life to the dead. We’re never quite sure, from one scene to the next, whether we’re at an embalming session or a fashion shoot, and the placement of video adds to the slipperiness. Whereas “August” is projected in a standard black-box space apart from the fake waiting-room installation, “Looking Pretty for God” is inside it and even has Chinese-language subtitles.

In ways successful and not, this show is about trying to make things threatened with extinction look alive: a neighborhood under attack; the mid-tier gallery as an engaged and viable enterprise: and the market-squashed ideal of art as a moral force.