Hito Steyerl at the ICA

Filed in Reviews by on April 1, 2014

Hito Steyerl


5 March to 27 April 2014

Hito Steyerl: How Not to Be Seen

The current survey of Hito Steyerl’s work, now showing at the ICA, successfully delivers this much lauded post-internet artist the significant London platform she undoubtedly deserves.  Her commentary is complex, insightful and provocative, although never without an injection of modern self-referential humour.

Five films have been selected for the exhibition, beginning with Liquidity Inc (2014). Running over 30 minutes, Steyerl uses the universality of water as a gateway to understanding the omnipresence of the internet. Watery images abound. Animation, stock photography and news films present the ocean in a number of guises; calm, playful, disturbing, as well as destructive. A sub-story tells us about Jacob M. Wood. Vietnamese born, and then displaced by war and adopted into a US family, Wood is a banker made redundant from Lehman Brothers following the economic collapse of 2008. We begin to see connections between water and money, ‘Money is fluid’, we are told, ‘When you have liquidity, you’re in control’. Sadly, ex-banker, now amateur boxing commentator, Jacob Wood is no longer the triumphant captain of his ship. As water swirls all around us, instant messages, emails, pop ups and incoming mail sounds become close to unbearable. Our lost banker is instructed in the language of the 21st century to ‘swim Jacob swim #superstorm’. There is a sense of the past catching up with us, of storms brewing, of meteorological and digital warfare on our periphery and out of our control. In the final credits Steyerl assigns herself the role of ‘Nervous Breakdown’.

The next two shorter films are equally compelling, although the wonderfully wry How Not To Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File (2013) should be picked out as especially enjoyable. Commenting on the proliferation of data amassed since the internet’s inception, the film tells us that ‘whatever is not captured by resolution is invisible… Love is invisible, war is invisible, capital is invisible’. As viewers, we begin to appreciate the impossibility of being unseen in a digital age, as we are told by this mock instructional video some of our only options include being a ‘dead pixel’ or perhaps a ‘wifi signal’ moving silently through an unknowing human body. The less visually enthralling, but still emotionally engaging, Guards (2012) introduces us to museum security personnel, who have come to the arts sector following work in the military. The guards are trained to protect priceless artworks before human life.

The exhibition’s final two films are taken from recorded lectures and give us an alternative insight into Steyerl’s practice. Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013), as delivered by the artist at last year’s Istanbul Biennial, is a genuinely thought-provoking and intelligent study of what it means for a museum, artist or architect to be sponsored by corporations with dubious human rights track records. She links military conflict with the art market starting with the story of Steyerl’s friend Andrea Wolf who joined the PPK and was killed in 1998, before moving onto the ethical question of accepting arts funding from ammunition manufacturers, somehow via clips of Angelina Jolie bending bullets with her mind.  Steyerl creates an ever-moving, intricate and confusing web of connections. She challenges the notion of museums as safe and contemplative spaces and whilst Steyerl clearly feels a partial responsibility for the firing of an invisible, but harmful, bullet she also teaches us how to reach out and catch it, redirecting it, and changing a circular pattern of destruction.

Whilst at the show, I was reminded of the work of American contemporary artist Joseph Kosuth and his piece One and Three Chairs. In 1965 Kosuth famously put together a chair, an image of the chair and the textual definition of a chair. For me, Steyerl is taking this idea into the post-internet age and is giving us one and then infinite chairs, chairs of our past, present and future. In this data-logged state there are unending perspectives, images and mediums and she is showing us only the tip of that iceberg whilst never allowing us to forget the unseen expanse below. Daunting, intelligent and sharp-witted, Steyerl’s videos tell us so much about the post-internet world. It is not to be missed.

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Alex Howell

About the Author ()

Alex Howell is a writer and arts professional based in London. She studied English Literature at the University of Cambridge and has an MA in Contemporary Art from the Sotheby's Institute.

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