Speak to any art student or recent graduate in the past 5 years, and one contemporary artist is more likely than any other to be referenced as an inspiration. Through a series of politically charged essays in e-flux, to distinctive video installations combining voice over narration with snippets of theory, video game graphics and upbeat techno, her vision of capitalism, technology and inequality is singular, richly aesthetic and as impactful as it is funny. That artist is Hito Steyerl.
For those who might ask why her work resonated so thoroughly with the generation just before her, the ‘Life Captured Still’ exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac may offer some answers. A selection of Steyerl’s work was shown alongside a major influence on her life and work; the late filmmaker and video artist Harun Farocki. This exploration of the connections between these two prominent German filmmakers and visual artists was the first major posthumous exhibition of Harun Farocki’s work in the UK and, remarkably, the first exhibition to put their work in conversation together.
An exhibition like this naturally invites comparisons between the two. Narratively, they come together; ‘Strike’ (2010) by Steyerl visually enacts a pun of the double meaning of the piece’s title to suggest physical violence (we see her hammer a chisel into a screen) and the idea of a trade union strike. Farocki’s ‘Labour in a Single Shot’ (2011-2014), meanwhile, produced a series of 1-2 minute uncut clips of people working in the broadest sense – paid and unpaid, material and immaterial, traditional and new – offering an expansive, and deeply political, view of society and experience. Stylistically, they’re far apart. As Steyerl explained in an accompanying video for the exhibition, “I don’t mind mixing fiction and documentary in my work. I think that’s perfectly legitimate, but Harun tried to keep those things rather separate.” ‘Labour in a Single Shot’ affirms this, a far-reaching statement to Farocki’s dryly documentary commitment starkly contrasted by the upbeat techno, video game graphics and wry humour that define Steyerl’s essayistic work.
But this is not exactly the exhibition I saw. Due to lockdown ‘Life Captured Still’ was cut short, closing to the public on Tuesday 17 March. The show continues online, partially: works displayed in the gallery which were not included online include Steyerl’s ‘November’ (2004), ‘Lovely Andrea’ (2007) and ‘The Tower’ (2015). With the gallery reopened, ‘The Tower’ remains on view until 31 July upstairs as a new exhibition occupies the ground floor.
‘The Tower’ is hardly Steyerl’s best work, but it has a fantastical story at its heart: Sadam Hussein’s real plans to rebuild the mythic Tower of Babel in contemporary Iraq. Narrated by a Ukrainian developer, we are told the story of a company which overlaps with the collapse of the Cold War and rise of neoliberalism and globalisation aided digital technologies. He mourns the shift in his career, recounting the closure of the Soviet Union’s space programme while describing his current clients, real estate developers across Europe and the UAE – a perfectly formed first person account of the neoliberal turn.
Reflecting on Farocki’s influence on her work in an interview for the exhibition, Steyerl argues he was ahead of his time with the concept of an “operational image.” This is an image that does not only record something, “but is able to act on something or to produce something.” This is part media theory, part ethical call for action. But she also means this literally; typically her works point to the overlap between military technology, internet history and global politics, drawing very real connections about the world and how art is deeply embedded within tyrannical regimes, corporate injustice and outright abuse. Beyond questions of style and approach, the artists share a common sense of purpose.
For Steyerl, image making is not a sidelined activity, but the very battleground where systems of power – ideological and material – are created and resisted. I think that this is the message which has so compelled the generations that have followed. Art which teaches us to read images critically, which offers alternative perspectives, is an urgent task. The stakes are high. Culture is more than something to care about; it’s a way to live.