Hito Steyerl's Duty-Free Art

Text and pictures by Maria Santos

Bpigs is currently in Madrid, the capital of Spain, of pinchos de tortilla and beautiful, idyllic blue skies straight out from a Windows desktop. We have told you about the city's vibrant cultural scene before and we are going to keep doing it in the near future, since this month we've got a good number of art dates down here in the sunny south.

While the international art fair Arco is kicking off in merely two weeks, we think you shouldn't miss the shows that the State Museum Reina Sofia has to offer. We highly recommend you to take a break from the fair and spend some quality time in the city center visiting Dan Vo's astonishing pseudoarchaelogical installation at the lavish Crystal Palace in the Retiro Park, or checking out Berlin muse Hito Steyerl's gig at the central building of the MNCARS, both conveniently close from the Atocha railway station.

Museo Reina Sofia, Edificio Sabatini, 3rd Floor. After passing by masses of tourists desperately seeking for the Guernica painting and walking through Ignasi Aballi's extensive exhibit, we land at our destination: Duty-Free Art.

Strike (2010) perfectly works as a foreword to this comprehensive exhibit. A wild-haired Hito welcomes us from her digital realm in a bare room consisting of a screen sinking its metallic structure in the floor and reaching out the ceiling as a sculpture, or as a sort of digital altar. This 28 second piece shows the artist "chiseling" on a Samsung screen inside the actual screen, anticipating the glitchy extravaganza we are about to attend. And so is the once wretched screen blessed in a ceremonial way by the sculptor of found images. 

Right after this, we enter the darkness of the next room to find Guards, a piece from 2012 filmed in the Art Institute of Chicago and presented on a tilted vertical screen. On this confusingly funny documentar-esque video, suave guards Ron Hicks and Martin Whitfield stress the idea that no one is safe at the museum: “They are soft targets”. The narrators expose how easy it is for someone to enter an art house like this just passing as an innocent civilian and fire a bomb, as part of a terrorist plot. Although the cop and the PTD-recovering marine might provoke and outrage the audience with quotes such as "9mm bursts sound like popcorn", their choreographic security act is part of their dedicated work to protect Twomblies and Rohtkos and even the artist herself. Represented as mere visitor here, Hito is as exposed and vulnerable to war and violence as the art works are. Luckily, these men who once served their country are now at the disposal of the arts.

Is the Museum a Battlefield? wonders Steyerl in 2013 in a performative lecture held during the Istambul Biennale, an event that coincided with the popular uprisings in Gezi Park that led to a highly mediatized response of police brutality against civilians. Also in this space, one can find the lecture from Former East, at the Berliner Haus der Kulturen der Welt; a really good one worth remembering while resting on an arrangement of sacks. Especially because I still have the hope - just as I did when our Bpigs team attended the event- that Hito would start singing her very own version of "I dreamed a dream" for the audience. Overall level of comfort of the seating area: * (interesting setting, but sacks suck)

On a different note, Liquidity (2014) offers the answer to the ultimate question: “How does liquidity affects you and me?”. One can't help but to think of other german speaking digital visionaries such us Kraftwerk bringing up similar concerns: The sheer possibility of an imminent apocalyptic dystopian scenario involving water shortages and economic collapse might feel pretty distressing, but we can just take it with the lightness of sardonic humor to formulate our biggest fears like good old hippies, because “Radioactivity is in the air for you and me”.

Certainly, this room is the most playful in the whole exhibition. A nap-inviting, blue ring mat full of cushions reenacts the wrestling show in the video. This is the perfect spot to relax and feel like water and be fluid like money, or like Jacob Wood´s sweat...

Level of comfort: *****. It is lovely to listen to Arthur Russell when feeling a little bit sensitive and hangover after all those drinks from last night.

November is not a new piece to Berliners, and neither is to Madridians, but this early one can't just be overlooked since it is a capital one in the artist's production and the context of her discourse. Same as the Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File from the 2013 Venice Biennale, presented here with an additional installation.

The Tower is probably the most appealing piece for Steyerl's Berlin followers since this is a new one from last year: this two-part video installation was specially conceived for this show. In the first space (we will call it the "information center") we follow the artist surfing the web, going through the pages of Wikileaks and reading aloud correspondence between starchitect Rem Koolhas and Assad's office regarding his contribution to the gentrification planning in some areas of Syria. In case of not having all the time in the world to watch the video-essay, you can always read more about this case of art speculation here.

In the inner room, all coloured in red, a 3 channel video features a studio working on a 3d rendering architecture simulation project. Based on an original idea of Sadam Hussein for a mashup of the Babel tower, this architectonic collage is inspired by the Samarra tower, the Einstein's tower in Potsdam and the Reichstag building, and is conceived to contact with other worlds. The video suddenly turns into a first person shooter, with loud techno music and lots of virtual violence.

Level of comfort: **** if you really can forget about the evils of capitalism and chill on Erik Jørgensen´s Corona chairs.

But arguably, the winner staging goes to In Free Fall. In this screening room you are going to watch this aeronautic tragedy like you have never seen it before: travelling in first class. This is going to be the most luxurious flying experience ever without leaving the ground, although you will miss the dry Martini here. This experience has been rated with a total of ***** in terms of comfort.

After such a spectacular display of wit in HD, an older and less visually striking piece, Adorno's Grey, is left for the exhibition finale. Unfortunately, not many people actually make it to the last room, intimidated by the reading material displayed on the walls and the sobriety of the screening room (complete lack of comfort here, therefore no stars). What those who do not enter this space know is that there are actually boobs in this work, although not explicitly shown.

The screening room, all painted in grey (the color of the mass in your brain, and the one that made Adorno's students concentrate), has a grand stand for a seating area resembling the Frankfurt university where the events took place. With academic methodology and austerity, two workers will follow the directions of the artist, who is keen to expose the old grey paint hidden under years and layers of putty, clay and white paint. The same grey paint that covered the walls and witnessed the Bussenattentat that prompted Adorno to leave the room and the lecture in a rush, roughly a month before his death. 

A timeline featuring events of interest in the life of the philosopher as well as students' revolt-related milestones are exhibited on a wall, along with disarranged canvases showing stills from the monochrome film. The poetic images of hands dissecting the wall with scalpels leaves us thinking if they did find Adorno's Grey or if she actually staged a picture of a ghost? After all, Hito Steyerl has shown a magnificent talent for staging narratives 


Hito Steyerl - Duty-Free Art

On view through March 21st at Museo Reina Sofia

Broke artist's tip: go at 7pm for free entrance

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