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Life, death, and photos: Omer Fast's storytelling makes us look around

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Omer Fast sits in the doctor's waiting room, the entrance to his show.
Berlin-based artist Omer Fast sits in the doctor's waiting room which serves as the entrance to his show at the Mia. His film, "Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.)," shows on a screen behind him.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Berlin-based artist Omer Fast wants us to look at history and apply it to the present. His new show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art explores life, death and politics through modern film and century-old photographs. 

Visitors familiar with Mia's photography gallery will be surprised to find it's been remodeled into something else. "What he or she sees first is a waiting room," said Fast. "And it's a kind of a diorama. It's a space that is a full-scale recreation of a doctor's waiting room."

Omer Fast designs things to be disorientating. In this waiting room there are magazines on the table, but there is also a flat-screen TV. It's showing Fast's film "Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.)." It's an interview with four New York undertakers about how they prepare the deceased for burial. Fast says this part of the show is about waiting, and death.

"Of course death, depending on what you believe in, is either a long, long waiting game, or it's nothing. It's limbo," he said. "Or it's a sort of intermediate space that you go into on your way elsewhere."

Launched on that thought journey, visitors are then encouraged to continue a physical journey, by grabbing a pair of glasses from a rack and then passing through a nondescript door to one side.

Omer Fast’s 'August' (2016) is now in the MIA collection.
Omer Fast's "August" (2016) is now in the Mia collection. It shows imagined scenes from the life of the celebrated German photographer August Sander.
Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

"You end up in a dark space, so the kind of limbo or the afterlife that we provide in this exhibition is a black cinema space, which I find charming," Fast said.   

This is where you need those glasses. They're for Fast's other film in this show, called "August." It's a 3D movie about German photographer August Sander.

"It's a film about an artist who is haunted by the subjects of his photos from the past and by the appearance of his son, who died in a Nazi prison in 1944," said Fast.

Between World Wars I and II, August Sander set out to document the German people. He made thousands of pictures using a large-format camera. He eventually chose some 600, split into 45 portfolios, each representing different kinds of people. There are farm hands and industrialists, factory workers and lawyers, circus workers and members of the nobility.

In the final room of the exhibit hang dozens of Sander's pictures, of Germans staring out at us from the past. One of them is a young man in a Wehrmacht uniform, in the days of Nazi Germany.

Fast says there is always a relationship in between moments of time in his work.

Fast’s 'August' imagines German photographer August Sander’s later life.
Omer Fast's "August" imagines Sander's later life, as he struggles with the specters of people he met and photographed in his career.
Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

"These photos are snapshots documenting a society, a very dynamic society, that was on the cusp of an extremely cataclysmic, catastrophic obviously, change," he said. "But they didn't know it. And we know it now."

The images come from the institute's own collection. Photography Curator Yasufumi Nakamori says Sander's photos are very relevant today, given the immigration debate in the United States.

Many of Sander's photographs were ultimately destroyed by the Nazis, because of his broad inclusion of people as Germans.

Fast says it's tempting to look at these pictures and wonder what these people did in the coming conflict — who would become heroes, who would become villains.

"But this is luxury, an indulgence that we have as viewers 70 years, 100 years after the fact," he said. "We should ask ourselves those questions. And that is what I try to do. I try to look at the past and connect it to the present."

Omer Fast will speak about his work at 2 p.m. Saturday at the institute. At 2 p.m. Sunday, he will be at the Walker Art Center for a screening of his film "Continuity." It tells the story of a German soldier returning home to his parents after serving in Afghanistan — although all is not as it seems. Which is how Omer Fast likes it.