The Work of Art is an exhibition about labour, working life and artistic practice. It opens on Tuesday, 1 st May to coincide with International May Day – a day for reflecting on the conditions of workers worldwide.
This is an age where we are constantly told that work is on the brink of becoming immaterial. The information age, the knowledge economy, the third industrial revolution. And yet, for every job in a developed economy that involves computer work, desk time and intellectual effort, somewhere in the world a worker is laboring with their body for minimal pay in order for the basic fundamentals of our daily lives to be fulfilled.
We have become so used to encountering the end product of the manufacturing chain – packaged, shipped and presented in pristine and curated retail spaces – that we have forgotten the physical effort and manual labour that is inherent to production itself, and the innumerable areas of our economy that rely upon the hard labour of bodies and hands - manufacturing, cleaning, building, gardening, plumbing, childcare, hospitality, aged care. In the context of the Mission to Seafarers where this exhibition is housed, the labour of sea-workers who transport the billions of tonnes of industrial goods that sustain our consumer lifestyles is made apparent.
Art has a history of exposing and drawing attention to human labour. In 1979 Chris Burden produced a work called Hard Labor that involved the artist using his residency at an art school to spend three days digging a ditch. Feminist artists have long questioned the drudgery of housework and motherhood in works such as Womanhouse (1971-72) a co-operative exhibition featuring the work of 21 artists, led by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, or in Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Maintenance Manifesto. In more recent times, photographer Andreas Gursky shows us the intensity of the scale of industrial production and consumption in his large format photographs, while Santiago Sierra brutally enacts the exploitation of migrant labour in the space of the gallery. Art can reveal the means of production in such a way as to make us think critically about the aspects of our advanced industrial society that we take for granted, and the toll it takes on those who provide and maintain the services, products, infrastructures and comforts we enjoy.
But what about the labour of art? In one sense the contemporary artist is the epitomy of the self- exploited contemporary worker, the “precariat,” working from contract to contract, underpaid, overworked and responsible for their own exploitation. In another sense, the artist encapsulates the avant-garde dream of the enlightened worker, in control of the material and physical dimensions of their work, connected to their hands and creativity with freedom to make and a critical mind. Making art also relies on sustained manual, physical work by artists and others to materialise their ideas through practice.
This exhibition aims to explore these three aspects of art’s relationship to work. Firstly, it presents artwork that explores the conditions of labour in the contemporary moment. For example, Nick Walton-Healey’s documentary photographs reveal the unseen labour of abattoir workers in New South Wales. Suzan Dlouhy’s textile garments feature upcycled industrial denim, drawing attention to the wear of materials in uniforms and industrial work. Bek Conroy explores the ambivalent relationship between artists and money with her humerous work, Dating an Economist. Kirsten Lyttle’s painstaking material processes inscribe the artwork with the labour of the hand of the artist. And Bindi Cole Chocka’s emotive works point to the most unrecognized and taxing labour of the artist; that of emotional labour.
The second dimension of this exhibition is the labour of art itself. Throughout the exhibition, different artists will “work” from the space of the gallery, revealing the layers of manual, emotional and intellectual labour involved in the work of art. Ceri Hann stamps the words “Of Work of Art” into metal washers during the opening of the exhibition, which can then be gifted and traded for ongoing consideration. Andy Murphy carves wood in the space of the gallery, while Sarah Parkes makes installations from a range of hand-crafted materials.
Finally, the exhibition explores the often precarious aspects of supporting oneself as a working artist. This unfolds through dialogue with artists at work in the exhibition space. It is the focus of the opening night panel discussion which looks at questions of trade and exchange in contemporary art. And Bianca Vallentine is commissioned at $30 a piece to make Sleep Kits for Seafarers, in an act of economic exchange between the curators and the artist-as- entrepreneur.
Alongside the exhibition, there is a film screening of 600 mils, which follows the history of manufacturing decline in the heart of Melbourne’s textiles, clothing and footwear industry and gives an account of what it feels like to live through the repeated experience of disruption, or creative destruction, that drives the globalised economy.
“The Murphy Project” is a multidisciplinary group that brings together RMIT academics, unionists and interested researchers to work collaboratively to critically explore work, labour and working class life through a range of perspectives.
The group was established in 2017 and was named after William Emmett Murphy (1841-1921), a leading union activist and a key founder of the Working Men’s College in 1887, the precursor of today’s RMIT University.
“The Murphy Project” aims to promote the development of a conceptual base and theoretical resources to inform the development of research in a range of disciplinary areas related to working lives.
“The Murphy Project” engages in three areas of research and activism:
New New Work and Everyday Life
Education, Justice and Social Chang
Art, Performance, Film and New Activism