Omer Fast – 5,000 Feet is the Best – video still
Christian Marclay and Omer Fast at the 54th Venice Biennale
I had the good fortune to travel to several European cities this summer, including a three-day stop in Venice to check out the 54th Venice Biennale. The sprawling exhibition was chock full of glowing screens and projections, underscoring the prominence of video in contemporary art. By my estimate, 80% of the projects presented in the Giardini and the Arsenale contained moving images. Most of the video at the Biennale was predictable— a monitor showing an artist performing some repetitive task, a projection of glitchy Youtube appropriations, or a high-production narrative lacking a solid core. You know the drill. It’s not that any of these video art tropes are inherently weak but if you’re going to rehash a recognizable approach to video making at one of the most prominent international exhibitions, at least make it interesting. I’m hesitant to name specific video works that I found lacking because, frankly, if it didn’t grab me in some way, I was out of there but quick!
That being said, there were two videos I saw in Venice that were absolutely mesmerizing. The first was Christian Marclay’s stunning 24-hour video, The Clock. Marclay deserved to win The Golden Lion—nothing else in the Biennale came close to matching the uncanny beauty and clever editing of The Clock. I watched for two hours before peeling myself from a comfy couch to look at the rest of the work in the Arsenale. The video has been shown in several U.S. venues and has been written about extensively so check out Roberta Smith’s review in the New York Times if you want to know more. Here’s an excerpt:
“That timepieces crop up everywhere in movies is no surprise: Film was the first visual art form to capture and package time, and every movie is an elaborate manipulation of time. Time is the form and content, and, above all, the material. Moviemakers have developed endless devices to make us aware of time’s passage in their films, and to hold us in thrall, or suspense, within that artificial time — while we forget about the real kind outside the theater.
Central to the power of “The Clock” is its strict adherence to real time and its manic compression of movie time. When a clock on the screen reads 11:15 in the morning, it does so at exactly 11:15 in the morning Eastern Standard Time.”
The second video that captured my full attention was 5,000 Feet is the Best by Israeli artist Omer Fast. His single channel projection was shown in a large, darkened space behind a room full of Tintoretto paintings. Fast has been mixing fact and fiction in his work throughout the last decade and this video is no exception. The narrative of 5,000 Feet is the Best revolves around interviews with an anonymous drone pilot from the United States military. His face digitally blurred, he recounts the technical aspects of his job while he was stationed in Afghanistan. Two additional, interwoven narratives add complexity to the drone pilot’s tale. In the first, a fictional character played by Denis O’Hare (True Blood fans will know him as a former vampire king) visits a series of mysterious rooms where he is questioned by a second character who is one part therapist, one part journalist. Their relationship is never made entirely clear but the interviews always begin with identical dialogue before diverging into unexpected directions. “Fictional” interviews bleed into dramatic pseudo-recreations of the events, with a voiceover describing “real” scenarios from Afghanistan while the images are obviously from the American Southwest, specifically Las Vegas and the surrounding desert.
Fast employs small bits of humor to soften the otherwise harsh details of his characters. For instance, in one voiceover segment, a character describes a group of young men burying an IED in the road as a vacationing family approaches. The disembodied voice assures us that these men are identifiable as locals because of their native dress and head ware. The clothing is blue jeans and t-shirts and the head ware is a baseball cap. This brief moment of humor allows us to drop our guard during an otherwise tense scene. In contrast, the extremely violent scene that follows (remember the drone pilot?) hits even harder.
Omer Fast is one of a handful of video artists who deftly manipulates narrative conventions into elegant loops that defy linearity. One could truly enter the work at any time. The beautifully captured images and steady pace provide ample bait for the red-hot political poetry that Fast wants us to experience.
The 54th Venice Biennale is open through November 27th. You can also see 5,000 Feet is the Best in Dublin from September 3rd– November 27th as part of The Tunnel, a large-scale installation by Omer Fast at The Model.