The measure of a translation has been its fidelity to an original, traditionally conceived as absolute and immovable. Jerusalem-born, Berlin-based video artist Omer Fast, whose 2005 video Godville is included in the 11-artist exhibition “Found in Translation” at the Guggenheim Museum, is known for his affecting short films that breathe new life into the familiar Postmodernist notion that the concrete and unambiguous original is in fact only a chimera, easily obscured or overwhelmed by versions of itself -- that is to say, by translations.
But as any good translator will tell you -- and as Fast’s work suggests -- translation involves unexpected gains as well as losses.
Godville is based on interviews with three people who work as costumed “character interpreters” at a living history museum in Colonial Williamsburg. Fast has his subjects speak directly into the camera, telling the stories of their fictional 18th-century personas as well as relating their own autobiographies. But Fast has manipulated the material, cutting and stitching each character’s two identities together so that real and imagined, past and present, are seamlessly interwoven.
The result is unsettling, as Fast’s seemingly sane actors appear to lose their footing in reality, devolving into fiction and integrating a canned history into their own present. This sensation is aggravated by Fast’s omission of his own interview questions, a strategy that somehow casts the viewer into the uncomfortable role of interlocutor.
In Fast’s edit, his subjects seem to become gradually aware that they are being manipulated, that their identity is being undermined. Will, a black man who plays a slave, appears to move uneasily between his performed and authentic self, and grows increasingly confrontational, finally insinuating that Fast is -- or that we are -- racist: “You want me to play songs and tell stories, is that what you want me to do?" he chides.
Jack, an actor who says he fought in Iraq and whose colonial character is a member of the militia, frequently speaks of wars, but it is unclear which war he means. At one point, he interrupts his own narrative to describe Fast’s position as cynical artist and outsider: “You aren’t interested in me,” he asserts, smugly. "I know what kind of clichéd character you're trying to make me into."
In other works, Fast has consistently integrated doctored film, video and television footage in order to deconstruct and reconstruct narratives, re-constituting his subjects’ histories and identities. His final graduate project at Hunter College, Glendive Foley (1999), is a two-channel video; each channel is projected on one side of a screen which hangs in the middle of a room. The front presents a series of exterior shots of suburban houses filmed from the street, complete with standard neighborhood sounds: cars, a lawnmower, a barking dog. On the other side of the screen, we see Fast at work in his apartment, using his own voice to record the audio that had seemed to be a “real” part of the “original” footage.
With his multiple versions of the same scene, overlapping soundtracks, and single actors playing a number of roles, Fast implicitly questions the integrity of his own narratives, and the real-world truths that they presumably reflect. Are fact and fiction truly separable, or is the distinction between them more fluid than we might expect?
The notion of translation is everywhere in Godville: Fast’s actors enact a costumed history; the true history, whatever it might be, manifests itself in their everyday lives; and their performances transfer their own lived experience into a historical narrative.
Fast thus makes the idea of the vanishing original, replaced by the process of translation, almost palpable in Godville. And of course his transformation of his subjects’ postures and attitudes into his own artistic expression is itself a translation, a product whose authenticity is as dubious as the narratives it documents.
“Found in Translation,” Feb. 11-May 1, 2011, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10128.