Oct 23 2017

Omer Fast Exhibition in New York Generates Controversy

by Brady Ng

An exterior view of OMER FAST’s exhibition “August” at James Cohan Gallery, New York, 2017. The show has been labeled as “racist art” and “poverty porn” by the Chinatown Art Brigade and anti-gentrification activist groups. Photo by Phoebe d’Heurle. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery.

Israel-born, Berlin-based video artist Omer Fast’s current exhibition, “August,” at New York’s James Cohan Gallery has set off intense discussions about appropriation and representation in art. Fast’s installation at James Cohan includes the facsimile of a rundown Chinatown store that sells cellphone cases, where a broken air conditioner, two dingy ATMs, folding chairs, cardboard boxes, Chinese paper lanterns and a refrigerator holding bottled soda contribute to what is referred to as an “eclectic aesthetic” in a press release issued by the gallery.

The key work in “August” is a 3D digital film inspired by the life and work of August Sander, who is considered to be one of the most important German portrait photographers of the early 20th century. The 15-minute film shows Sander nearing the end of his life, vision severely deteriorated, and plagued by the memories of his son who died in a Nazi prison. In an attempt to situate the work in an environment that would highlight questions of the power of images and appearance versus essence, Fast decided to “transform the gallery facade and interior into what they were like before gentrification.” 

The show was labeled as “racist art” and “poverty porn” by protestors who are part of the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) and anti-gentrification activist groups. Demonstrators converged on the gallery on October 15—a month after “August” opened—for a loosely organized protest, where they unfurled a yellow banner with text in English, Chinese and Spanish reading “Racism Disguised as Art.” In their open letter addressed to the gallery, CAB suggested that Fast’s show “reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown.”

Installation view of OMER FAST‘s “August” at James Cohan Gallery, New York, 2017. The exhibition recreates the interiors of a rundown Chinatown store, which has garnered backlash from the local art community and anti-gentrification activist groups. Photo by Phoebe d’Heurle. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery.

Three days later, James Cohan Gallery released a statement to address the controversy, stating that the artist’s exhibition “provides an intentionally uncomfortable look inward,” and that “people are free to draw their own conclusions about art, but they should also be given the opportunity to do so—without censorship, barriers or intimidation.” Concurrently, Fast also shared a statement via the gallery’s website, calling his transformation of James Cohan Gallery’s facade and interior a “symbolic and temporary act of erasure” meant to “recreate what the space looked like before the gallery moved in almost two years ago.” The artist defended his work by saying that it draws a parallel between the gallery’s entry into Chinatown and the immigrant experience, describing the gallery as “a transplant that tries to affect an appearance and blend in, even while its essence is undeniably foreign.”

Facing criticism, Fast said he would expect the protestors’ characterization of him as “a non-US and non-New York artist” from “right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built.” He has asked the staff at James Cohan Gallery not to take down any of the protestors’ posters.

Omer Fast’s “August” is on view at James Cohan Gallery, New York, until October 29, 2017.

Look out for ArtAsiaPacific’s November/December issue, which includes regular contributor Mimi Wong’s essay on how a new generation of Chinese diaspora artists and curators in New York are tracing the footsteps of their forebears by operating their own spaces, in turn tackling the cultural limitations of institutional support.

Brady Ng is the reviews editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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