The Lives of Images of Lives: Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerl at the SBC Gallery

The Image Factory at SBC Gallery for Contemporary Art

“Everything that is said straightforward and with no contradictions, it is always wrong.” So said a former Kurdish freedom fighter in Hito Steyerl’s 2004 video work November, but it is an apt warning that applies to both video pieces—November and Harun Farocki’s 2007 work Respite—that comprise the SBC Gallery’s current exhibition, The Production of Images.

Projected in the small annex room painted black, Harun Farocki’s Respite consists of silent footage from the Westerbork Police Jewish Transit Camp in the Netherlands during the Second World War.  Commissioned by the Nazi camp commander, the footage had been intended to become a documentary extolling the camp’s virtues: its harmonious and self-sufficient industries and services (the Westerbork hospital, staffed entirely by Jews, was the largest in the Netherlands for many years), its contented and industrious inmates and its unique and important function as a transit camp—certainly innocent of the kinds of war crimes that were already being suggested at the time.

At Westerbork the smiling inmates seem to be conscious of almost having created their own world—in song and dance productions, in farming, in communal exercise, crafts, and industry. The emotional weight of the footage is tied to the knowledge that we have of these camps retrospectively: of course they had no idea that the trains that hundreds boarded each Tuesday were taking them to places that no one had imagined possible. In the rearview, the document makes a chilling mockery of the dream of many Jews of escaping to Palestine before and during the war, which was often the false promise given by Nazi officials.

It seems that in a sense, the camera’s complicity was as insidious as the lies about the true function of Westerbork and the extermination camps themselves: after all, if it was being filmed, how could it be that bad?

Hito Steyerl’s November documents (maybe allegorizes is better?) a different era and a different struggle, one that is highly personal as well as fragmented and plural. Narrated by Steyerl herself, it takes as its subject her best friend, Andrea Wolf, who became a member of the German Revolutionary Left in the 1990s. She was killed in 1998 as a PKK, a Kurdish freedom fighter, and made a martyr for the Kurdish cause.

In contrast to the single source of footage and the relative formal simplicity of Farocki, Steyerl’s work exuberantly exploits the links and overlaps of filmed “truth” and fiction, and the strange coincidences that occur between them. For example, clips of Steyerl’s first movie—a feminist martial arts film made in 1983 that starred Wolf as an indomitable champion of justice and perennial victor in her battles with the male villains—were interspliced with Bruce Lee’s last movie and real-life funeral, both of which were echoed in footage documenting Wolf’s role as a revolutionary fighter, and then martyr, for the Kurds a decade later. (Moreover, Wolf had maintained her martial arts practice throughout her life). Cameras and martial arts: this is how war is waged in these heroic struggles.

November speaks about the fallout after the big wars and revolutions, when “peripheral struggles become particularized, localist, and impossible to communicate.” It reveals the ways that these struggles are often both invisible (the war in Northern Kurdistan was “a white spot on the map, it occurred in a vacuum”) and close to home—the Kurds (as well as the Roma and Sinti) who lived in Germany were treated as aliens to the nation.

Steyerl’s work is more complex and harder to succinctly describe than Farocki’s, but this it strikes me as an appropriate reflection of the postmodern period it documents. To me, its greatest strength is the surprise coherence of its disparate elements.

As part of the SBC’s ongoing inquiry into the relation of image production and sovereignty, the subjects of these works bear a historical—and geographical—connection with that of Yael Bartana’s remarkable film, And Europe Will Be Stunned, which preceded the present works at the gallery. Whether in Poland (Bartana), the Netherlands (Farocki) and Germany (Steyerl), each illustrate the ways that countries have turned on their own populations and divided themselves from within, before and after wars. They seem to point to a reckoning with the past (and in the case of Steyerl’s and Bartana’s work, a reckoning led by a youthful revolutionary idealism). The real potential of these assessments lies in their recognition that power resides in who wields the camera as well as their deployment of fiction as an imaginative tool that can bring about actual change.

I highly recommend this exhibition that represents the SBC’s dedication to presenting sophisticated and exciting video work.

SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art, space 507
Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerl
The Image Factory
February 28 – April 27, 2013


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