A pile of hand-shaped bricks arranged on a bicycle seat, metal branding irons designed to imprint commercial logos, a painting of a lone street sweeper in an apparently abandoned Times Square, and detailed, anonymous portraits rendered on the fabric or wood of containers once used to gather or ship goods harvested from farms and factories: the forms and materials featured in this multi-media exhibition suggest a range of contradictions, anachronisms, and dichotomies. Exploring the evolution of industry in the 21st century, Labor&Materials presents a precarious balance between promise and peril. The scale, scope, and speed of technological innovation heralds unprecedented changes in what, how, where, and by whom goods and services are produced and provided. Economists describe the explosion of radically new platforms and products emerging in the digital age—robots and other forms of automated labor, self-driving cars, three-dimensional printing, the explosion of bits and pixels transmitted across the internet, and the growing global network of trade driven by the shipping container—as an inflection point: a time in human history when how we live and work is utterly transformed. What does an inflection point look like? How will the transformation of commerce and consumption affect access to goods and jobs, to information and infrastructure? Given the widespread changes to everyday life generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, how work is experienced, defined, and valued has become increasingly complex and contradictory.
From photographs of today’s living and working conditions by Katrin Korfmann, Alejandro Cartagena, Pieter Hugo, and Zanele Muholi; to portraits of those laboring in 21st-century fields, homes, factories, and mines by Lina Puerta, Pierre Gonnord, Serge Alain Nitegeka, and Jay Lynn Gomez; to fantastical visions of a world defined by data and digitization by Karine Giboulo, Chen Jiagang, and Gonzalo Lebrija, the imagery on view is both nostalgic and futuristic. As today’s primary means of production, the computer, becomes better, faster, stronger every day, more material and digital goods are made, shipped, transmitted, used, reused, and discarded, evoking concerns about environmental degradation and socio-economic inequities. Kara Walker’s figurative sculpture of a young 19th-century enslaved laborer and Marina Zurkow’s software-driven animation of today’s shipping trade provide bookends to the spectrum of this investigation into our contradictory era of concurrent abundance and scarcity. The African Boy Attendant Curio Walker sculpted in resin and molasses references the history of slavery and the essential role enslaved labor played in the sugar industry, products from which are now consumed in dangerous excess, while Alison Saar’s Reapers feature images of young women printed on repurposed sugar sacks, a reminder of the exploitative labor that fueled the development of agricultural industries. Within the labyrinthine code of export and import shipping tariffs that inspired Zurkow’s More&More (the invisible oceans), sugar—along with other former plantation crops like tobacco and cotton—constitutes a single category of classification, thus linking our agrarian past with production in the post-industrial present to envision creation, commerce, and consumption in the imminent, uncertain future.
While recently recognized as essential workers, the often invisible, overlooked, or under recognized, Latinx laborers who farm crops, take care of children, clean homes and commercial buildings, landscape yards, and cook food, are the central subjects in works by both Lina Puerta and Jay Lynn Gomez. Each of Puerta’s series, From Field to Table: Seven Tapestries Honoring Latino Farm Laborers from the American South portray the people who work labor-intensive crops predominantly grown in the southern United States. Puerta illustrates the backbreaking labor of harvesting strawberries in Strawberry Crop Picker, depicting the worker doubled over, his back arched over a small bush of la fruta del diablo (the devil’s fruit)—so called by those who must bend down all day to tend to them. Puerta creates her tapestries in a papermaking studio, combining fabrics, cotton and linen pulp, ribbons, beaded appliqués, fur, feathers, and chains, to create images of the leaves, flowers, fruit, and pollinators who contribute to the process of bringing food from the field to the consumer. “I love the idea of the worker being part of this chain, or process, or dance. I think that there is something poetic in that whole process that I wanted to highlight,” Puerta notes. Her layered, vibrant works combine images inspired by photographs with quotations describing the crop workers’ experiences, such as, “When you first get here, your waist, hands and feet can’t take it,” and “In a 2012 report, Human Rights Watch surveyed female farmworkers. Nearly all of them had experienced sexual violence or knew others who had.” The materiality, form, and visual composition of these works recalls the art-historical precedent of Medieval-era tapestries, which often illustrated tales of royal heroism or religious mythology; Puerta’s 21st-century tapestries present anonymous images of Latinx laborers as worthy of reverence. “For me, it was important to show them with integrity and respect and recognition of their hard work, a work that is not recognized by our system.”
Reflecting the experiences of her family and friends at labor, Gomez depicts Latinx domestic and custodial workers, obscuring their features and rendering their faces unreadable. In Gomez’s painting, A Man Sweeping (Times Square), the lone figure wears a bright red uniform, and yet remains unseen in one of the most trafficked areas of densely populated New York City. The working man’s face turns towards the ground, his shoulders slightly hunch over—all subtle coping mechanisms, as Gomez calls them, and visual markers of shame, tension, sadness, or frustration. His blurred features echo his blurred status; visible but invisible in a setting that both needs and denies his existence and role in American society and domestic life. The child of Mexican immigrants, Gomez illuminates the hidden realities of domestic and custodial work in the U.S. today by making the labor and laborers prominent in spaces where they were previously unseen, visually linking the lives and histories of unnamed laborers across the country.
Turning the camera on themselves and their family history, Zanele Muholi’s staged photographs of themselves as a domestic worker pay tribute to their mother, who worked for the same family in South Africa for forty-two years. Muholi’s series historicizes the labor of their mother and of many black women who were and who continue to be trapped within a system that controls black female labor. Muholi notes,
“The series is meant to acknowledge all domestic workers around the globe who continue to labor with dignity, while often facing physical, financial, and emotional abuses in their places of work.” Spandita Malik’s series Vadhu, meaning “bride” or “daughter-in-law,” was created in virtual collaboration, due to the pandemic, with small communities of women in India. Embroidery, a tradition passed down for generations, is both a source of income and form of expression. Malik and her collaborators re-imagine this type of “women’s work” by recreating photographs as embroidered portraits. Alejandro Cartegena’s photographs narrate the everyday struggle for survival in the city of Monterrey, Mexico. Photographing early in the morning from highway overpasses, Cartegena captures images of truck beds filled with workers and tools as they embark on long commutes from the economically depressed suburbs to more affluent towns and cities within Mexico. The seriality of Cartagena’s Carpoolers—multiple images of different men in different cars, all choosing to get to work in the most efficient way possible—emphasizes the invisibility of these workers and the ubiquity of their situation.
This extreme vulnerability and the human cost of the exploitation of labor is the subject of Serge Alain Nitegeka’s paintings created on pieces of salvaged shipping crates. Nitegeka spent much of his young life escaping civil strife in Burundi, Rwanda, and Kenya and is now based in South Africa; his multi-media artworks address the plight of the refugee and the migrant, depicting his vulnerable subjects’ innate dignity. Using everyday materials like charcoal, coffee, and tea, Nitegeka paints images of people as if they were confined within the crates; the barcodes from the containers become stamps on the human bodies, a reference to the persistence of human trafficking and the role of unseen, human labor within the global economy.
Many of the tools that previously powered industry, guided transport, branded property, and built products have become obsolete; their forms are now fodder for artistic innovation. Purdy Eaton and Catherine Yass’s photographs of monumental structures within the landscape are simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic. Eaton’s image of the omnipresent windmills of her native Midwest transforms an icon of 21st-century energy technology into a symbol of potential obsolescence while Yass’s lighthouse sits unmanned, its original function now automated by the global positioning systems accessible to anyone with a smartphone. One of very few remaining offshore lighthouses, Yass’s glowing, color-saturated image—taken from a boat looking directly into the sun—transforms the 1970s lighthouse from a cutting-edge triumph of industrial utility into a nostalgic, other-worldly icon of a world in transition. Malleable, imperfect, and handmade, Kyle Cottier’s installation of hammers and an anvil are made from wood rather than steel; the installation presents refined, albeit useless utilitarian hand tool poetically highlighting the diminishing demand for such craftsmanship.
Invented by the ancient Egyptians and used by the ancient Romans and civilizations since to show ownership of livestock and of slaves, Erik Brunetti’s 21st-century branding irons hold familiar logos and recognizable symbols, often ones that consumers purchase voluntarily, willingly marking themselves as the property of a corporation. Pepe López’s Guapísimas —indigenous hand-woven food baskets painted with logos of
the Playboy bunny, Superman, Louis Vuitton, and Nike, among others—track the transformation of found materials from craft to commerce to art. As international travel and trade have expanded, the tourist-driven market for these traditional baskets has changed the demand; the handmade tools that men traditionally painted as a gift for their bride now charts the cultural erasure that often follows the expansive reach of global economics.
The experience of working from home has grown exponentially since March 2020, and while remote work allows for greater self-determination for some, the accompanying isolation can drive disconnection, even depression. Daniel Jackson and Russel Hulsey interrogate the artist’s solitary studio practice, appropriating found materials to question the potential and purpose of their toil, and creating art that requires the audience to work to decipher meaning. Hulsey’s After Bruce Nauman tablets pay homage to the artist Bruce Nauman and his 1967 work–a neon sign installed in the front window of Nauman’s abandoned grocery store studio that read: “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” By using the materials of advertising, Nauman’s satirical work asks the question, “Is art just another consumer product?” Hulsey intentionally misspells the original statement, posing his playful yet poignant question in a format that visually references stone tablets from the ancient world, inscribed with hieroglyphics whose mystery and meaning we still ponder. An imaginary self-portrait that seems predictive of the loneliness and listlessness of pandemic-era quarantine, Jackson’s The Thousand Yard Stare (Possible Future Me) envisions his destiny as an unsuccessful artist engaged in mundane activities; here, a mannequin sits on a crate abjectly slicing vinyl records, drinking beer while a crow rests on his shoulder, watching the world pass him by through the mirror in front of his eyes.
The challenges faced living and laboring in burgeoning urban centers, by those workers who have recently been deemed “essential,” yet often remain undervalued, are explored in works by Héctor Zamora, Katrin Korfmann, and Karine Giboulo. Zamora’s Brasil, a bicycle, stacked high with handmade clay bricks, is a portrait of his adopted country, Brazil, and an homage to the Brazilian laborer. As more people flock to cities across the globe to seek work and shelter, these bricks have become the ubiquitous building components of DIY housing, and of businesses quickly conceived and abandoned. The precariousness of the sculpture alludes to the volatile construction and unstable foundations of these structures, which place workers and inhabitants at risk. Towering piles of glass dwarf a factory worker in Katrin Korfmann’s Glass, Anix. Part of her Back Stages series created in collaboration with Jens Pfeifer, Korfmann’s photograph reveals the behind-the-scenes of mass production making the people, places, and processes visible within the larger manufacturing system. The factory floor, cramped dormitories, bloated consumers, and the trash-strewn environment are the subjects of Giboulo Electronic Village. Her carefully sculpted, painted, and electronic dioramas are based on what she witnessed when she posed as a CEO and gained unrestricted access to a factory and its workers in Shenzhen, China; unremitting, repetitive labor, environmental degradation and pollution, greed and excess—all generated by the seemingly endless demand for technology.
Using the human body within the natural landscape as a metaphor for change, both Chen Jiagang and Zhang Huan’s photographs examine China’s rapidly changing landscape and the impact of the global marketplace on humans and the environment. Best known for photographing decaying industrial sites in rapidly developing Chinese cities, Chen deploys the lone figure in Cold Forest amidst a wintry rural hinterland, unfamiliar to those seeking an urban foothold in China’s new economy. A poetic futility informs Zhang’s performance To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond. Zhang, who left his rural home to pursue an education in Beijing, has gained international recognition for demanding performance art connecting contemporary notions of identity with nature, history, politics, and labor. Here, performers connect intimately with the landscape and engage in ephemeral work—adding enough bodies to a fish pond to enact meaningful change.
The surreal assembly lines attended by the tireless, morphing beings who populate the fantastical world of Chris Doyle’s video animation, THE FABRICATORS, create a mesmerizing, disquieting vison of labor as eternal automation. The artist explains: “Based on an invented group of sixteen related machines, each individual machine is a component in a larger system. All are caught in a loop of perpetual effort. Like workers on an assembly line, the animated laborers make constant forward progress while moving nowhere.” What is being made in this factory of the future, and for whom is it being produced? And what impact does this ceaseless production have on the natural resources upon which life depends?
As illustrated by Marina Zurkow’s More&More (the invisible oceans), today’s ever-expanding, often opaque shipping trade exerts an unparalleled impact on communities worldwide, and on the global environment. Considerable amounts of refuse from the post-industrial world—innumerable plastics, obsolete hardware—comes ashore in places like the polluted Agbogbloshie market in Ghana, photographed by Pieter Hugo, and in the favelas outside of Rio de Janeiro, where Vik Muniz maintains a warehouse studio. Here, Muniz engages young residents in creating works such as Pictures of Junk: The Education of Cupid, after Correggio, transforming a world of waste into the raw materials for an art practice that fosters the essential work of collaboration and ingenuity, connection and visibility.
– Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director, Chief Curator