In 1971, the discovery of a tribe of cave dwellers living in isolation in the Philippine rainforest provoked a media sensation. The Tasaday people stirred journalists and anthropologists, inspired films and books, shaped Filipino image abroad, and are said to have influenced the hippie and back-to-nature movements. Access to them was soon restricted, however. Only in 1986, after the end of Ferdinand Marcos’s rule, did researchers return to the area, finding the Tasaday living in houses, wearing jeans and smoking cigarettes.

Opinions are divided as to the authenticity of the Tasaday. Some consider their discovery a hoax staged by the Marcos government to divert attention from its oppressive regime. Others find it implausible that a group of peasants could reenact stone-age life so convincingly that Western reporters and even anthropologists were fooled. Yet is it plausible for a community to exist in primitive isolation while modern civilization is only a few miles away?

German artist and filmmaker Clemens von Wedemeyer has spun a fascinating and elaborate web between fact and fiction, and around the notion of “first contact.” Installed on two floors, his exhibition featured some nine films (on hanging screens and monitors, and in wall projections), along with posters, photographs and book-filled vitrines. A newsprint catalogue with essays by scholars, filmmakers, critics and the artist elucidated the show. Rather than formulating a conclusion about the Tasaday, Wedemeyer presented a network of truths; moving through the exhibition felt like following links in cyberspace, or being a detective or explorer.

The exhibition’s title, “The Fourth Wall,” alludes to the imaginary barrier between actors and audience that must exist for a performance to seem real. Such a barrier was questioned in many forms throughout the show. In one video, for example, actors playing the Tasaday inhabited a cavelike stage within a theater day and night, seemingly unaware of spectators moving in and out. A three-channel video sequel shows the actors and audience mingling after the performance, their interactions strangel choreographed. In another work, Wedemeyer is seen interviewing an ethnographer who lobbies against contact between outsiders and isolated tribes so as to prevent irreversible damage on both sides. That dialogue inspired Wedemeyer to create a follow-up, an unsettling film in which a young explorer visits the ethnographer to tell him of the immortality he was granted in a tribal ritual. In response to the ethnographer’s disbelief, the explorer slits his own throat, only to be resurrected as the film seamlessly loops.

The impossible tangle of documentary and staged material is most evident in a skillful montage of TV news reports on the Tasaday and clips from various movies. From subtle factual evidence to subjective debate, manipulative media coverage to personalized accounts, Wedemeyer suspends the viewer in a perfect limbo of belief and disbelief, and  exposes the interdependence between the public’s desire for illusion and the eagerness of the media, social sciences and arts to deliver. Ironically, in verbalizing a response to the exhibition, you become part of the plot—a storyteller fabricating narrative and constructing facts. However, as the artist makes clear, no one on either side of the fourth wall can lay sole claim to the truth.

Photo: View of Clemens von Wedemeyer’s exhibition “The Fourth Wall,” 2010; at Koch Oberhuber Wolff.