Critics’ Picks

Hito Steyerl, Abstract, 2012, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 7 minutes 30 seconds.

Hito Steyerl, Abstract, 2012, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 7 minutes 30 seconds.

Berlin

Hito Steyerl

Akademie der Künste | Pariser Platz
Pariser Platz 4
February 21–April 14, 2019

A striking detail found at the margins of Hito Steyerl’s essay-film, Abstract, 2012, are the calluses that mark the tips of the artist’s fingers. These calluses are shown in a long countershot of Steyerl holding her phone in the sprawling Pariser Platz in Berlin. The artist is shown filming the severe facade of the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin, whose bombs killed her childhood friend, Andrea Wolf, while she was fighting in the Kurdish resistance. The calluses index Steyerl’s obstinate presence and her determination to reanimate the residues of violence into a constellation of historical remembering.

Steyerl’s presence in front of Brandenburg Gate in that work, and now within the exhibition hall of the Akademie der Künste, reads as a return of sorts. More than twenty years ago, along the empty stretch of land between the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz, Steyerl embarked on an elaborate research project documenting the reconstruction of post-reunification Berlin. The resulting film, The Empty Centre, 1998, is Steyerl’s most militant piece to date and uncovers the neglected narratives of political exclusion, borders, and barriers that were periodically and systematically erected, dismantled, and reconstructed in the German capital.

Steyerl’s early militant cinema effectively deploys two strategies: immediacy and opacity. In the former, her friends, Dong Yang and Huan Zhu, address the camera directly, recalling stories of contemporary racism and monuments to corporate power that have been erected in the city. The latter strategy can be identified in her blurry, furtive footage of neo-Nazi marches and right-wing union demonstrations. These sequences are repeatedly disrupted and the shot cuts to black—her camera moves amid the crowd but is often attacked, pushed to the side, or ordered not to record. It is precisely this darkness that Steyerl pushes up against, a refusal to succumb to the oblivion of historical forgetting on which power relies.