LONDON — In the exhibition Life Captured Still at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, a selection of Hito Steyerl’s work is shown alongside that of the late filmmaker and video artist Harun Farocki, exploring the connections between the two German filmmakers and visual artists whose works are often associated with one another. “Being invisible can be deadly” said Steyerl in a video essay for London’s Tate Modern in 2016. This quote could apply to both artists, who delve into the human condition through the camera lens.
In theory, the pairing seems perfect: both artists focus on political issues — Farocki often on working conditions for laborers and Steyerl on biopolitical themes. This initially suggests that the marriage of their works goes beyond the superficial, but the unity of the experience becomes disjointed at times as both artists’ voices demand attention.
The exhibition begins with Steyerl’s works November (2004) and Lovely Andrea (2007), which both address Steyerl’s friendship with Andrea Wolf and deal with her death at the hands of Turkish police due to her membership in the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The films play on loop; their revolutionary talk echoes as you move to Farocki’s Labour in a Single Shot, made in collaboration with the artist’s partner, curator and artist Antje Ehmann.
The latter installation includes 60 films, each of which is one to two minutes in length and shows a laborer at work in cities across the world. Their subjects range from law enforcement (specifically, police in riot gear) to cattle herding to skinning animals for meat. The sound barely audible, the project emits a gentle hum, mixing the narratives of the workers together. The use of the single shot in the shorts means that viewers can linger on each subject, hopping from screen to screen without becoming overwhelmed by the whole.
At this point, the exhibition’s parts begin to feel disconnected in some places. Where Farocki’s works are meditative, Steyerl’s are bold and loud — which would make for an interesting juxtaposition if the selected works by the two artists didn’t feel so at odds with each other. Steyerl’s short Strike (2010) — in which Steyerl strikes once against a flat screen, causing it to fracture in sharp color — could be a continuation of the exploration of laborers’ rights (the title refers to both hitting something and going on strike), but the work sits above a stairwell, isolated and in desperate need of context.
Nearby is Steyerl’s vigorous, immersive “The Tower” (2015), a three-screen installation that showcases a software developer’s description of making of a video game based on an unrealized architectural project spearheaded by Saddam Hussein. The work is stimulating both visually and aurally, putting the viewer in place of a gamer, but it is situated in a separate room and is a marked change in pace from the rest of the exhibition. Transitioning from The Tower back to the slower pace of Farocki’s work almost feels like getting whiplash.
Farocki’s work dominates the majority of the entire gallery — over 15 monitors comprise Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades (2006), Re-Pouring (2010), Two Paths (1966) and Comparison via a Third (2007), which collectively take up the largest room in the upstairs gallery. Steyerl’s selected works could fill this room twice over. The result is an overwhelming sense that Steyerl’s work is being used to fill the gaps between Farocki’s, to serve as an intermission rather than a co-feature. There is something that feels competitive about such an imbalance, as the artists and works vie for spatial and thematic dominance.
Because the artists are so intrinsically linked in their practice and origins, it’s disappointing that their visions don’t seem to mesh, which was likely not the intent of the gallery in choosing this pairing. The selected works never quite harmonize, leaving viewers with a frustrating desire for what could and should have been.
Harun Farocki & Hito Steyerl: Life Captured Still was scheduled to continue at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (37 Dover Street, London, UK) through April 4.
Editor’s note: Please note that viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Discussions around art and culture remain important during this time, so we have opted to publish this review to enable readers to explore the exhibition virtually as many of us continue to self-isolate. The exhibition is currently accessible via a video on the gallery’s website.