An invisible bullet

MARK AMERY
Last updated 06:51 13/08/2014
Hito Steyerl's doco

COMPLEX TENTACLES: German artist Hito Steyerl's documentary artwork Is a Museum a Battlefield at Wellington's Adam Art Gallery.

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Any remnant illusion of art being insulated from politics was given a shake-up in this part of the world earlier in the year. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, the chairman of the Sydney Biennale and its major sponsor Transfield Holdings, resigned. Transfield withdrew all involvement after a group of biennale artists threatened a boycott, due to spin- off Transfield Services being managers of the controversial offshore Australian refugee detention centres.

The complex tentacles of investment and involvement of major companies internationally mean no-one is immune to considering questioning the ethics of the forces that shape their lives. We are all part of the network. The question is, at what point does it stop being comfortable for us? Some, for example, might even baulk at the involvement of Wellington City Gallery principal sponsor EY (formerly Ernst & Young) in the "optimising" of the performance (as its website puts it) of the mining, oil and gas industries.

This morning my Facebook feed alerts me to the fact that the New Zealand Super Fund has invested in Boeing, a major arms supplier who sold Israel fighter jets and helicopters that have been used in attacks on Gaza.

Artists have choices as to how they realise their cultural capital. To boycott, or use the stage given to them to make visible and tease out the complexities of these issues. German artist Hito Steyerl opts for the latter in her impressively inventive, complicated yet compelling lecture Is a Museum a Battlefield. It has just finished screening at Adam Art Gallery in Wellington, but can still be viewed online on Vimeo. In this dazzlingly playful merging of documentary, fiction and art practice, with the artist as performer-writer, Steyerl does what she calls "reversing the bullet". Steyerl lost a friend who had joined the Kurdish rebel group the PKK in Turkey to a battle in 1998. Finding out where the battlefield was, she made a documentary artwork. Taking shells found on the field, she traced the bullets back to their manufacturer. She found it was a major sponsor of a Chicago museum where the artwork she made was being screened.

Following an invisible bullet back from that battlefield, among many other things she follows the arms manufacturers' involvement in the arts, taking us on a long, circuitous trajectory, with asides both humorous and deadly serious. Where reportage stops and artistic licence starts is left deliberately hard to detect, itself a comment on the reliability of words and images.

As we watch Steyerl speak at the 2013 Istanbul Biennial, outside (we are told) demonstrators are being tear-gassed and hounded by armoured vehicles supplied by one of the major biennial sponsors, also suppliers in the fight that killed her friend.

Seen from Google Earth, military hardware-makers Lockheed Martin's Berlin headquarters is exactly the shape of one of the missiles shot. It is designed by Frank Gehry, famous for his Guggenheim museum, the digital technology used to design museums adapted from that used for military aircraft.

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Steyerl points out that museums like the Hermitage and Louvre were once feudal stockpiles, stormed to become public places. She suggests they need to be stormed again. Quite how, she leaves hanging.

The work is rich and densely packed, with poetic flights of logic, using the analogy of a bullet that can bend. Yet it's a ricochet kick back from the digital cloud hanging above all of us. Steyerl's artistic flight gives us the perspective to consider our own compromised position. This is compelling art for our times, finding spaces to whistle its reverse bullets through. If the museum isn't literally being stormed yet, young artists here are starting to treat it as a place to highlight the connections.

Two now showing at Wellington's Enjoy Gallery touch on some similar documentary and thematic ground as Steyerl, if lacking her material or conceptual complexity. With a bank of TV monitors on the floor crudely mimicking a camera surveillance centre, Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh has collected together public and media shot footage of Michael Jackson's funeral motorcade, anonymous black vehicles passing down a barren freeway.

Like Steyerl, there's an interest in the impact of mobile technology and social media, and the capacity for it to be controlled.

The effect of this work seems deliberately dulling. Asdollah- Zadeh aims to draw attention to the way documentation of social unrest during Iran's disputed elections in 2009 was censored, and both social and mainstream media worldwide were then overloaded by news of Jackson's death. Iran was forgotten. I found the work's reliance on a flyer to make this point problematic, but the sinister funereal mood of the work and the comment it makes on our media lingers.

Neatly paired in its use of found digital historic footage with this, yet a rather simple collage to my eyes, is Angela Tiatia's Cream. It brings together YouTube footage of riots and protests in Europe in 2012 reacting to austerity measures with film of the sale at auction that same year of Edvard Munch's The Scream for a world- record price.

While Munch's figure screams, seemingly at the horror of the world, the painting itself is claimed as a spoil of a rich private buyer, to the applause of a large audience as the hammer falls.

MUST SEE

Like poetry tiles on a fridge, Grant Stevens has a talent for rearranging the banal language of our self-obsessional lifestyles to reveal through visual poetry genuine emotion beneath. In a patchy show, Supermassive is an impressive, witty, large, four- channel video in which lists of self-affirmations and other written hot air become significant, shifting galactic cloud clusters. What We Had Was Real, Grant Stevens, City Gallery, Wellington, until September 6.

- The Screen, Angela Tiatia and Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh, Enjoy Gallery, Wellington, until August 30.

- The Dominion Post

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