Ajay RS Hothi reviews Harun Farocki

At 41 years old, Alex Sainsbury has spent practically all of his adult life on the fringes of the contemporary art world in London. By his own admission, he didn’t want to deal, sell or patronise the arts — all of which would have come far easier to him than most. Alex is a member of the Sainsbury Family, founders of what is now the UK’s third largest supermarket chain. You may also recognise the name if you’ve visited the National Gallery since 1991: The Sainsbury Wing was funded at a cost of £50million. The family wealth is estimated at £1.3 billion.

In 2004, Sainsbury located an 18th century grade-one listed building that had lain destitute for twelve years. Collaborating with 6A architects over four years, last year he opened Raven Row, East London’s newest — and highest profile — non-profit contemporary art venue.

Raven Row’s fourth exhibition “Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom?” is perhaps the most mainstream option the space has seen yet. The Czech-born German filmmaker has received considerable attention in the UK this year. A small-scale show at South London’s Cubitt Gallery in January was followed by a sold-out artist’s talk at Tate Modern with writer/curator Sophia Phoca, and not to mention his retrospective, also at Tate Modern, which featured twenty of his films. The year of Farocki culminates with what is a must-see solo show at Raven Row.

Antje Ehmann, artist and curator, has been one of the driving forces behind this year’s rediscovery of Farocki. At the Cubitt Gallery, she displayed his work with a delicate sensitivity to a space that the work does not immediately lend itself to. Farocki’s work would challenge any curator. His films are political land mines, internally potent and finely crafted.

At Raven Row, Ehmann has shared curatorial duties with Kodwo Eshun on this show and the scale of their ambition cannot be understated. Nine multi-screen works, including a six-screen installation, are on view. The themes of technology and war, consumerism and capitalism, are constant in the artist’s work. His are not light topics but the sensitivity with which he treats these ideas is not at all didactic or overly polemical.

“Immersion” is Farocki’s latest work, exhibited here for the first time in the UK. In his signature style, it explores the connection between the military and the virtual reality training that soldiers often undergo prior to deployment. Itself an interesting incursion into the methodologies of psychological penetration, it fell too easily into glib humour which is not typical of Farocki’s other work. Farocki used the same virtual reality scenarios employed by the US military for the recruitment and training of troops, and for post-battle trauma. This re-appropriation and recycling of images provides Farocki an open-ended world to contend whith his ideas in.

This particular work was originally exhibited at STUK Leuven, and since that exhibition, Farocki has called gaming technology “the most appropriate medium for waging war today,” in part because propaganda no longer seeks a narrative based on heroic images, in the manner that it used to. When viewing the work, it is easy to forget that the virtual reality scenario being played out is, in fact, the same instructional material used by therapists treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Farocki calls attention to the fact that these images are constructions, and so it follows that today’s propaganda is a reality that may or may not exist.

56 Artillery Lane
November 19 – February 7

[Originally published in Artwrit, Volume 1, December 2009.]