– Spring 2009

Omer Fast: When Images Lie... About the Fictionality of Documents

Maria Muhle

Omer Fast, Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.), 2008, video, still

Oh my God, they use a history that repeats itself...
- Anonymous

It is remarkable that in one way or another, more or less directly, the videos of Omer Fast all seem to deal with key historico-political topics: from the Shoah in Spielberg's List (2003) to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Take a Deep Breath (2008) and the Iraq war in The Casting (2007). Even his more 'intimate' work, De Grote Boodschap (The Big Message, 2007), which looks at life within four private rooms in an apartment building in the Netherlands, touches upon questions of racism and fear in times of the 'war on terror'. But, crucially, rather than dealing with these topics, Fast adopts them as a foil against which to investigate the status of the image, and does so in a very peculiar way: his work doesn't so much address a specific historical situation, its internal tensions and its mediation by images, but instead tackles the moral issue of what images can or cannot make visible. His works propose an investigation that takes as both its focus and it starting point images understood as things, that is, images in their materiality, interfering in real life, influencing it, even transforming it. And, by addressing the image in its materiality, as an object of the world - and not as a reflection or representation of it - Fast undermines the distinction between the factual and the fictional, and reveals the equally artificial nature of both. In this sense, Fast's work exemplarily follows Jacques Rancière's dictum that 'writing history and writing stories come under the same regime of truth', so that, in order to properly understand it,

  1. Jacques Rancière, 'The Partition of the Sensible', The Politics of Aesthetics (trans. Gabriel Rockhill), London and New York: Continuum, 2004, p.38. And he continues: 'This has nothing to do with a thesis on the reality or unreality of things.'

  2. The film is also an important addition to ongoing discussions about the representation of the Shoah, and the question about the possibility of witnessing. For further reading on the status of images of the concentration camps, see Georges Didi-Huberman, Images malgré tout, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2004; as well as Gérard Wajman and Elisabeth Pagnoux's response to Didi-Huberman's text on the exhibition 'Mémoires des camps' (Hôtel de Sully, Paris, 2001) in Les Temps Modernes (LVI, no.613, 2001). On the question of the possibility of representing an event such as the Shoah, see Jacques Rancière: 'Are Some Things Unrepresentable?', The Future of the Image (trans. Gregory Elliot), London and New York: Verso, 2007, pp.109-38. And regarding the impossibility of witnessing, see Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen), New York: Zone Books, 1999.

  3. Interview with Sven Lütticken, in Matthias Michalka (ed.), Omer Fast: The Casting, Vienna and Cologne: MUMOK and Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2008, p.34.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project [written 1927-40, published 1982] (trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin), Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 1999, N2a,3, p.462.

  6. Hito Steyerl, Die Farbe der Wahrheit, Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2008, p.9. Author's translation.

  7. The most striking and politically scandalous example of this are the images presented at the United Nations by US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in February 2003 to justify the intervention in Iraq: images that supposedly showed the sites where weapons of mass destruction were being made, but which were false.

  8. In contrast, Claude Lanzmann begins his documentary Shoah (1985) in the present, showing the empty location of the camp, and thus making it possible to 'hear' the witnessing of the old man in the clearance of Chelmo who brings past and present together not by reproducing or imitating the past in the present, but by addressing the past as a certain present, as a 'reality'.

  9. Another example is the film Retour en Normandie by Nicolas Philibert (2006), where the director interviews the inhabitants of a village in Normandy where René Allio's film Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mere, ma soeur, mon frère was shot in 1975. Philibert uses the same strategy as Fast in Spielberg's List, by investigating not Rivière's actual assassination of his family, but the effects the film and had on the villagers who took part in it.

  10. See, for example, the edition of Artforum on 'Realism and Courbet', in May 2008. On a smaller but very interesting scale, see the Realism Working Group at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main:http://realismworkingroup.wordpress.com (last accessed on 4 November 2008).