In November, Hito Steyerl was the first woman to top the British magazine ArtReview’s “2017 Power 100” list, which ranks art world clout. Here’s an irony. The German artist, theorist, and filmmaker makes videos that unmask power with lucidity and cunning humor. She has described the honor as “not helpful,” because its focus is not on her work.
Her videos are frothy but piercing. She’s also known for her essays and gripping lecture/performances and has become a beacon of integrity in the art world. In September, when she realized an arms manufacturer was one of the sponsors of a group exhibition in Beijing that featured her work, Steyerl organized an artists’ protest. She formulated a standard contract between artists and institutions to protect against art being used to garner PR for ethically shady underwriters.
Her video installation “Liquidity Inc.,” newly acquired by the Institute of Contemporary Art, is on view there through April 22. In it, she sets her sights on intangible forces that shape and give tempo to our lives: capitalism and digital communication. But she’s no dragon-slayer — life is not that black and white. Rather, she’s superb at elucidating with allegory and humor the complexities of our relationships with such behemoths. She’s not taking anyone down: She just wants us to see what we’re immersed in.
Steyerl’s videos shuffle fact and fiction, documentary and animation. Her popular 2013 piece, “How Not to Be Seen: A [expletive] Didactic Educational.MOV file,” was inspired by a Monty Python skit, and is likewise drolly earnest. In it, Steyerl lists several ways to be invisible, including living in a gated community, being a superhero, and being a female over 50. Despite the tongue-in-cheek tone, the video chillingly spells out the ubiquity of cameras and surveillance today.
“Liquidity Inc.” is less arch. It takes off from martial-arts icon Bruce Lee’s counsel: “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless — like water.”
Steyerl makes water a metaphor for commerce, the Internet, weather, spiritual and athletic discipline, and life itself. Her message: Cultural and climatic events wash over us, and we have no choice but to be fluid and adapt.
The installation, however, hardly keeps us on our toes. The artist has built a great, blue, wave-shaped viewing platform, outfitted with beanbag chairs. It’s comfy, for sure, but lulling, and hard to get up and out — the woman sitting beside me had to scramble to her knees before she could stand. The setup emphasizes our passivity as viewers of this video and, in turn, as consumers of the tsunami coming at us every day through our screens.
But settle in and watch. The 30-minute video is bright and fizzy, bubbling with humor, eye candy, and a protagonist so sincere it’s hard to know whether he’s a hero or a pawn, hyped-up only to be knocked down.
He is Jacob Wood, a former financial analyst, who was caught up in the market frenzy until the bottom fell out in September 2008. Out of a job, Wood decided to turn his hobby, mixed martial arts, into a profession. He invokes Bruce Lee’s words, which become the video’s refrain.
We see Wood in the ring, we see him at his desk, and we learn how he was evacuated from South Vietnam as an infant during Operation Babylift, a Ford administration rescue effort at the end of the Vietnam War. He’s humble, avid, and sincere, and then Steyerl imbues him with super powers, suggesting he can swim the ocean at an astounding speed — comparable to the rate data travels. Text wobbles liquidly over the screen: “Swim, Jacob, Swim.”
The video swings away from Wood to Hiroshige’s “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” on repeat and caffeinated with color, to digital water animations, to loony weather reports offered by a man in a ski mask, whose digitized voice wraps weather with trade and personal unease.
“Your feeling is affecting the weather, and you’re feeling not so great,” he says. “You might be insane.”
Even the artist, in a text exchange about deadlines that flashes over the screen, admits to being near a nervous breakdown. She doesn’t explicitly tie mental health to the onslaught of images we experience daily, but it’s hard to ignore the link. Anybody tuned to cable news knows how its hectoring constancy and formulaic drama — the news is constantly breaking! — can impinge on well-being.
Steyerl fights fire with fire: Her dizzying colors, quick edits, insets, and animations are the heart-palpitating stuff of communication today. She wields them masterfully to point out just how potent and infectious they are.
The work goes down sweet, speedy, and bright, but it’s hardly a tonic. Humanity has been riding waves since the dawn of time, but the increasing interconnectedness of the world and the speed of technology make those waves more and more turbulent.
Can we be like water and adapt? I have my doubts.
HITO STEYERL: LIQUIDITY INC.
At Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, though April 22. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org