Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

That’s All Folks: Tobias Fike’s Disappearing Act

Stills from Tobias Fike’s “When I am Gone” (photos by Geoff Wichert)

Tobias Fike has filmed what it feels like … not to die, but a related experience we never have for ourselves. Most of us know what it is like to lose a loved one, a dear friend, or even a stranger we admired above all others. We know the hole torn and left gaping in reality when such a person departs. But what will it be like for those who know us, work with us, and maybe care for us, when our time comes to die? Fike has seemingly photographed his own dissolution: not a mere disappearance, such as a magician might perform in a puff of smoke, but a thinning out until his audience sees the background through him, less and less of him until he is gone. Or almost gone; his shadow remains, and a flicker like a memory that disturbs the air through which his vanished persona moves. Like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, it reveals just enough presence that we know we’re not being lied to: he really existed, and that fact (at least) remains for us to carry.

In the great age of animated cartoons, Bugs Bunny might have shown Tobias Fike this way. A can of “invisible paint” would allow the rabbit to paint himself out, the joke being that it doesn’t just camouflage his material form, but allows light to pass right through him. But those were painted images, entertaining but not convincing. Fike makes it as real as a photograph. Now you see him, then you see the land and fence through holes in him, and now you (almost) don’t.

Chroma keying, or as it’s better known, green screening, has proven to be one of the more popular visual effects made possible by video. Starting around 1990, Bob Ross began episodes of The Joy of Painting by slopping on “paint” that magically revealed carefully delineated scenes, a metaphor for how easy he was going to make it for his viewers to be artists. Around the same time, the movie Groundhog Day made another metaphorical use of the technique, still on video, as narcissistic TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) blatantly ignored his producer, Rita Hanson (Andy MacDowell) as she donned a green parka and posed before his green screen, turning herself as invisible in person as she was in his cynical view of life.

Fike’s “When I Am Gone” contemplates the inevitability of death, of individual disappearance from the world, through a performance in which a man dressed in white coveralls literally — and here “literally” for once is correct — paints himself out of the picture. His tools are a pot of green paint and a brush to apply it, and as each stroke dissolves a part of his body, revealing more of the background, he disappears, until only his former habitat remains, from which he has been subtracted. Viewers near me broke out in admittedly nervous laughter, surprised delight mixing with fear at this threat to their egos, but it was clear that for once found they’d found some pleasure in being reminded of the fate that awaits us all. 

It’s questionable how many viewers will want to travel all the way to downtown Salt Lake City to watch five minutes of familiar video magic, no matter how brilliantly repurposed. But there are five shows at UMOCA right now and, as a visiting art enthusiast I spoke to said, they comprise possibly the best overall selection recently — should we say “contemporaneously” — to be seen anywhere. Staffing a gallery is a temporal challenge, and while the crew assembled under Laura Hurtado’s direction is doing extraordinary work, no one can say how long it will be before they, like Tobias Fike’s painter, are no more. Partake while it lasts.


Tobias Fike: When I Am Gone, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 3


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