The Work of Art: An Exhibition of Art, Labour and Working Life
1-11 May, Mission to Seafarers, Docklands
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
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.
About: The Murphy Project
“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
This exhibition proudly acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations, the traditional owners and custodians of the land. We acknowledge and respect Elders, past, present and future.