Neuer Berliner Kunstverein - Lovely Andrea
Thomas Elsaesser presents Hito Steyerl, Lovely Andrea (2007)
Lovely Andrea was the first work by Hito Steyerl I ever encountered. I saw it on the second floor in the atrium of the Fridericianum on July 31st 2007, during the documenta 12, curated by Roger Buergel and Ruth Novack. Despite the slightly awkward placing of the video – trapped in what is basically a stairwell – I was immediately hooked: a fitting metaphor, since it caught my eye during one of Asagi Ageha's entrancing turns on the rope – suspended, falling, rising, floating. At first I did not quite know why the video held me spellbound, except that its cheerful insouciance did lightened up the rather serious and somewhat solemn atmosphere that seemed to hang over the documenta.
Lovely Andrea is an extraordinary inventive piece, full of sharp wit. It seduces with many unexpected but fitting juxtapositions: between "Spiderman" and "web-design", rope tricks and sweatshop garment factories, punk rock from X-Ray Spex and techno-pop from Depeche Mode, modulating into more somber associations with Guantanamo Bay's handcuffed prisoners, Abu Ghraib's notorious "hooded man with electric wires", and Japanese soldiers during WWII, tying up their Chinese prisoners before shooting or beheading them.
But there is also dry and deadpan humor, often of the self-deprecating kind, such as the 'tongue-in-cheek' name for this very personal quest: "à la recherche du cul perdu", or the fluffed takes and retakes that bookend the video. Not coincidentally these are (almost) the only scenes where the filmmaker herself is in the picture, deftly avoiding to give a straight answer to her German producer's question of what the film is finally about.
These meta-cinematic moments alert one to the fact that here is a documentary filmmaker very much aware of the increasingly difficult status of the documentary as genre and practice, especially in the digital age, especially when poised between cinema and television on one side, and art space, museum or gallery on the other.
In the art space of documenta 12 the video ran as a loop, so it really did not have a beginning, middle and end: another slightly counterproductive effect of showing it as "open plan" rather than in its separate "black box" (which Buergel and Noack explicitly banned from their show). And although commissioned by and for the documenta, Lovely Andrea is very carefully constructed in a filmic-linear fashion, despite the meta-filmic brackets. After all, it is a conceived as a quest, a search and a piece of research, which is why many commentators compared it to a "detective story", and even mentioned Citizen Kane. Its cinematic ancestors would also be ethnographic films, so that the missing photo of the young Hito as a bondage girl (as opposed to a Bond girl) becomes something of a pretext: to explore the seedy and frankly quite repugnant "nawa-shibari" (captured and suspended) soft-porn industry that services Japanese men's obsession with pubescent girls, some trussed like turkeys, others bound, gagged and wrapped like bundles of used rags ready for scrap or recycling.
As an exercise in erotic ethnography it has its didactic touches. We learn that Japanese bondage developed from the martial arts, when rope was used to capture, torture and transport prisoners of war. An aesthetic skill as well as a military drill, the rope's associations with eroticism is a 20th century phenomenon. We also get a bearded, chain-smoking "expert" leering into the camera, as he explains that "Japanese SM is submissive, it is based on the feeling of shame". Evidently pleased with his own cleverness, he adds, without being prompted: "and what is shame? - libido of the brain". But when an elderly gentleman in a natty suit, by the name of Tanaka Kinichi and deferentially referred to as "the Master" chuckles at the memory of how they used to trick or lure young girls off the streets into his studio, threaten them until they let themselves be bound and photographed, just in exchange for being set free again, the detective story has turned into a horror film, especially since it appears that this was the very man who photographed Hito twenty years earlier, and who even now proudly shows off his website with hundreds of such photos, insisting that they are "art" .
It's more subtle, though, in the video than in my description, but it does give substance to what is the final exchange in the film: "do you consider yourself a feminist?" Hito is asked: "Definitely" she replies, and as a feminist, her politics are both fiercely analytical and radically egalitarian. So, for instance, over shots of girls being prepared for a photographic shoot, she points out that "bondage is work", followed by "work is bondage": a nod to Jean Luc Godard's favorite rhetorical trope ("not just an image, but a just image"), illustrated with a video clip of rows of women in a factory, bent over their sewing machines as if they were shackled to them. The intertitles also draw an intriguing parallel between sexual taboos and political taboos, with the Japanese pornographers waxing nostalgic for the good old days of censor¬ship and police raids (when the business was more lucrative but also more edgy), and the teaser for the first Spider-Man film, which was withdrawn (censored) after 9/11 because it showed Spiderman trapping a police helicopter in a giant web spun between the Twin Towers.
But Lovely Andrea's politics extends beyond such comparison-equivalences. An important protagonist in the video is the already mentioned Asagi Ageha, a Japanese performance artist, former bondage model and now her own boss, who acts as translator to the crew and as go-between for the filmmaker. Ageha provides an alternative perspective, in fact a dual perspective: as an artist, and as a woman. As an artist, she uses her own body as expressive material, in the tradition of Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneeman in the 1960s and 70s, and Marina Abramovic in the 1980s. She calls her work "self-suspension", explaining what inspires and guides her in her performances, which are indeed extraordinary: "solo performances that draw on bondage modelling but emphasize acrobatic elements; in an inverted projection, [Ageha] looks as though she is propelled upwards, floating weightless." (Frieze)
As a woman, Ageha candidly talks about the pleasures of being bound: "in the air I'm really free, and on the other hand I am bound with the rope to the center of some¬thing", even conceding that "maybe I cannot live without this feeling anymore". She echoes a German bondage specialist and rope master who early on talks about some of the quote-unquote victims liking that floating sensation as well as the sight and the feel of the welts and bruises that the ropes leave on their skin, while another avers that "nur an Seilen fühle ich mich frei" (only tied to a rope do I feel free). It is up to us to "suspend" judgment, and "balance" the views of these women with what we see of the men who "assist" them, or with the macho swagger of the Tokyo rope masters and porn photographers.
But what about the title Lovely Andrea, and the missing photo? At first, it would appear to be the jokey nom de cul that Hito gave herself, when she was a film- and art-student in Tokyo, submitting to the titillating photo shoot back in 1987, for which the rope master wanted a taste of the exotic West to go with her bound body. Those who know Hito Steyerl's work, however, know about the emblematic significance of the name Andrea, the central figure of November (2004) and the unquiet ghost in almost all her work. From November we learn that Andrea Wolf was Hito's best friend when she grew up, whose fiercely independent and combative spirit the young filmmaker used to good effect in her first student film, and who later, under the nom de guerre Sehît Ronahî, joined the PKK, the Kurdish Liberation Movement in Northern Iraq, where she was killed in 1998. Hito has been doing mourning work for her lost friend ever since, especially since Andrea's body was never recovered, and all that survives is a poster photo, at one time paraded in protest marches where she was held up as a martyr.
A missing body, substituted by a photo in November, a missing photo substituting a fetishized (and "tortured") body in Lovely Andrea: Godard's trope of the cross-wise exchange applies here as well, since the relation of body to image goes both ways, as Andrea's image is also fetishized on the poster, while only God knows what happened to her body. Even though it seems the crew finally track down Hito's photo in one of the hundreds of glossy albums in the "sex archive", one gets the sense that an important ellipsis in Lovely Andrea is (the word) "missing", making the video a kind of rebus picture of all that has to remain an absent presence in both Hito Steyerl's work and her biography.
But lest we miss the wider (film-) political significance: One of Hito's constant themes in her film work and her writings has been the way that documentary images can be used and abused for political ends and propaganda purposes, and how the circulation of media images can change one's perception of reality in often decisive ways, so that the uncanny power of such images, prized from their context, but still trading on their "authenticity", is also an issue in Lovely Andrea. It makes the quest for the 'cul perdu' also the quest for lost 'cul' (French slang for daring or courage) of the documentary image, which came into filmmaking as a weapon in the struggle for truth and justice, but may now find itself both taken hostage and in bondage – in the art world perhaps no less than in politics.
Amsterdam Dec 1st, 2013