Omer Fast’s unsettling videos about the trauma of combat linger in one’s mind. In “5,000 Feet is the Best” (2011), “Continuity” (2012), and “Spring” (2016), all currently on view in dark, chamber-like spaces created at James Cohan Gallery, time becomes blurred, reality is tenuous, and anticipation keeps us on edge. But it’s the underlying insidiousness of his characters, as well as his bizarre retelling of tales, that cast doubt on the veracity of events and discombobulate the viewer’s perception of the truth.
The Israeli-born, Berlin-based artist’s technique is crucial to shaping our response to his films. In “5,000 Feet is the Best,” a cold, dispassionate drone operator answers questions in a hotel room about his job targeting militants in Afghanistan from a US base in Nevada — footage that’s interspersed with surreal reenactments of skullduggery on the ground. Precise details about how drones pick up body temperature and the slightest change in the environment from 5,000 feet above are followed by the operator’s perturbing account of an innocent family that walked away incredulously after being badly injured in the fury of a drone attack meant to target other suspects (who were immediately incinerated while planting a pipe in the ground). By juxtaposing the operator’s seemingly objective, scientific responses with his highly subjective retelling of strange and mysterious incidents, Fast widens the gap between the man’s two representations of reality begin to widen — and makes his credibility increasingly untenable. His stories — including a tale about the seduction of a man and the fetishistic robbery of his pants that occurs in the hotel room next door — feel creepy and unhinged, compelling us to think about the emotional strain of military operations.
A skilled cinematographer, Fast begins his videos with the anticipation of a linear narrative before scenes begin to repeat. In “Continuity,” a German couple drives some distance to an unknown train station to ostensibly bring home their son, who’s returning from serving in Afghanistan. But what appears to be the parents’ long-anticipated reunion with their child only becomes an uncanny, repetitive act: three men perform the role of the son on three different occasions. Through his nuanced, looping narrative, Fast investigates the hallucinatory effects that international armed conflict can have on families. Each son also reveals that something is amiss with the couple — both parents make sexual overtures to different boys, leading us to question their warped state of mind and wonder if there ever was a homecoming at all. During one journey to fetch the son, a camel appears out of nowhere from the woods. The mother’s pursuit of the animal leads her to a deep pit filled with dead German soldiers who were ambushed in war. The episode suggests the nightmarish and delusional fantasies that interrupt a grieving mother’s daily life.
Battle and the enemy become more complex in Fast’s new five-screen video, “Spring,” a prequel to “Continuity.” Here, the father appears to manipulate his son through Macchiavellian Skype conversations that are concealed from the mother, while the son betrays a surreptitious fascination with Western soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. Multiple screens reveal soldiers listening to Arabic music in the desert and getting pumped up to fight in a country they know nothing about. This recalls an episode in “Continuity,” in which the third and most animated son relates a tragic tale about an unexpected interlude in the mountains between the German soldiers and an Afghani family; it ends with the father of the family being killed. As in all of Fast’s videos, we don’t know if any of it really happened, but the soldier’s unaffected, macabre narrative and jokes about the Afghanis’ naivety casts innocent people who are seen as the enemy in a pathetic light. Fast make the enemy a dispensable, alluring other as much as he portrays the soldiers as heartless villains.
Fast’s films are an indictment of a society in which nothing is what it appears to be. In “Spring,” a bakery is the front for drug dealing and murder, each of the boy’s parents has an agenda, and we become embroiled in the mystery and enigma of their actions. True to his style, Fast cuts quickly between the scenes, giving us just enough to keep us on edge as we attempt to comprehend his surreal thrillers. But the real impact of his work hinges on its profoundly disturbing crux: whom and what do we trust in today’s increasingly complex world to determine credibility?
Omer Fast continues at James Cohan Gallery (533 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 7.