(This review was originally published on www.frieze.com in August 2012)
Our Work is Never Over at Matadero, Madrid, Spain
‘Our Work is Never Over’ comprises work by ten artists exploring the challenges of making a living. The exhibition operates on two levels. On one, it delves into so-called cognitive or immaterial labour, whose theoretical underpinnings include the work of André Gorz, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Maurizio Lazzarato amongst many others. On the other, it plays with a group of clichés still associated with the artist indulging in loose morals, relaxed schedules and self-obsessed narratives.
In the works of Mladen Stilinović and Pilvi Takala resistance to the exploitation intrinsic to immaterial labour is articulated around an absolute refusal of productivity. Stilinović’s seminal The Artist At Work (1978) shows him lying in bed, sleeping, dozing off and contemplating life. This Bartleby strategy is not only a negative politics of work, but also seems to play with the hackneyed idea that artists don’t even work. For Takala’s The Trainee (2008) – a couple of videos, a slide show and text-based documentation – the artist assumed the identity of a trainee who joins the marketing department of a large company. During the first days she seems to engage in the job but, as time goes by, she ultimately withdraws, sitting at an empty desk staring into the ether or riding the elevator for eight hours. Her passive-aggressive sabotage wreaks havoc in the polite and functional office environment; we are made privy to a string of shocked emails between colleagues as they try to find ways to solve ‘the situation’. Takala’s piece materializes a fantasy we’ve all had at some point: what would happen if instead of working, one simply stopped.
The video As If I Don’t Fit There (2006) by Mounira Al Solh presents the fictional life stories of four women – all former artists who gave up art in pursuit of more satisfying or better paid jobs – played by Al Solh herself. One of them, a troubled painter, becomes a lawyer specializing in helping immigrant artists – as she once was. Another one, a successful video artist, finds happiness when she becomes the art director of a TV station. What’s most beguiling in Al Solh’s work is that she deals with an art world taboo: struggling artists who give up their art practice are perceived as losers and good artists who give up successful careers are simply mad. That these women appear so poised, confident in their choice and still authentic shatters the notion that a life devoted to art and creativity is, by default, a superior one.
For Actors at Work (2006), David Levine legally turned a group of actors day jobs into performances and their workplaces into theatres, thus confusing their artistic activities with their less appealing (but necessary) work. This entanglement questions what makes our artistic aspirations so important to us, and what do we deem as being successful. Is it receiving money in exchange or is it the social acknowledgment? The Portuguese artist Joana Bastos offered a more light-hearted reflection on the multitasking aspect of artists’ lives. Next Money Income? (2007) consists of four large photographic portraits of the artist in the various outfits she had to wear in jobs she’s had, including visitor’s assistant in a museum, estate agent and baby sitter. The last frame is blank, embodying her anxiety about not knowing what job she will have to do next to support herself and her practice.
For Guy Ben-Ner the key to survival seems to lie in subverting the power of the art institutions that subsidise his work. His videoDrop the Monkey (2009) shows the Tel Aviv-based artist having a rhymed telephone conversation with a friend in which he unveils his machinations to get funding to do a project in Berlin so he can visit his lover there. Also playing with a brazen attitude, Ahmet Ögüt’s Send Him Your Money (2010) is a re-enactment of Chris Burden’s emblematic performance Send Me Your Money (1979), a live radio intervention in which the American artist tried, during the space of an hour, to persuade his audience to send money to his personal address. Ögüt’s piece might pose the question of how necessary (or interesting) the re-enactment of conceptual works by young contemporary artists is, but it does point to an important work made 23 years ago that retains its agency today. After all, what could be more pressing for artists than to address the stifling economic conditions in which their art is being made? As Hito Steyerl argued in her essay Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy (2010): ‘We could try to understand [art’s] space as a political one instead of trying to represent a politics that is always happening elsewhere.’
Images courtesy of Matadero