Pick of the week: Hito Steyerl, Ben Rivers, Wang Bing at Eye, Amsterdam

23 March 2018

By Ben Eastham

Wang Bing, Three sisters (still), 2012, film, 153 min. Courtesy the artist Hito Steyerl, The Tower, 2015, three-channel video (colour, sound, 8 min.), metallic structure, armchairs. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps, New York Ben Rivers, The Shape of Things, 2016, nine-channel video, 9 min. Courtesy the artist

As its name suggests, the Eye Art & Film Prize rewards artists, filmmakers and artist-filmmakers working in the disputed space between cinema and the visual arts. In challenging the conventions separating one discipline from the other, this exhibition of the first three recipients of the prize – Wang Bing, Ben Rivers and Hito Steyerl – also undermines the boundaries between art and politics, documentary and fiction, the real world and the represented.

That it is possible to identify shared themes in the work of these artists – who have little in common beyond having been awarded the same prize – only illustrates how shared concerns about the world in which we live shape the most important art of our time. Chief among them is an anxiety about the transmission of truth, the insecurity of which lurks behind the work of all three. The Eye Filmmuseum presents a selection of their films and videos in its exhibition spaces, each work sympathetically installed in a room of its own.

The first is devoted to Ben Rivers’s The Shape of Things (2016). Reminding visitors that humans have always sought to reproduce themselves in whatever medium is to hand, the two-minute film establishes a loose theme: the role that words and images play in constructing our perspective on the world. As the poet William Bronk intones over archival footage of four-thousand-year-old anthropological artefacts, ‘it is always a world and not the world’. It is inevitably jarring to move from Rivers’s mesmerising quasi-anthropological 16mm film projection Oh Liberty! (2008) into Hito Steyerl’s highly strung digital video installation The Tower (2015). But visitors prepared to allow time to adjust will find that The Tower and Liquidity Inc. (2014) pose similar questions about the relationship between truth and fiction, while alerting us to the physical labour underpinning digital culture.

Also shedding light on hidden labour, a selection of Wang Bing’s films is presented here as an immersive multi-screen installation. Speaking at a press conference prior to the opening, Wang explained that the extended duration of his documentary films (Crude Oil [Yuanyou], 2008, runs to 14 hours) was a ‘primitive’ attempt to faithfully represent the lives of his subjects, typically Chinese labourers caught up in (or left behind by) the country’s economic expansion. This ‘primitive’ fidelity to their experience might be conceived as a protest against the perversion of truth – and the stories through which it is constructed – by state and commercial actors. Or as Wang puts it, ‘the real political films are those which carefully avoid mentioning anything political’.

Hito Steyerl, Ben Rivers, Wang Bing – Eye Art & Film Prize runs from 24 March to 27 May at Eye, Amsterdam

Online exclusive published on 23 March