If the first machine age helped unlock the forces of energy trapped in chemical bonds to reshape the physical world, the real promise of the second machine age is to help unleash the power of human ingenuity.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
A pile of hand-shaped bricks arranged on a bicycle seat, a life-size sculpture of a child and an upside-down polar bear joined in a kiss, metal branding irons designed to imprint commercial logos, 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 widespread transformation of commerce and consumption affect access to goods and jobs, to information and infrastructure?
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 Ramiro 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 slave 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 slave labor played in the sugar industry, products from which are now consumed in dangerous excess. 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, awe-inducing future.
Often invisible, overlooked, or under recognized, Latinx workers 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 Ramiro 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.” Using torn pages from home design or luxury magazines, Gomez carefully paints in images of Latinx domestic workers, obscuring their features, rendering their faces unreadable. Their blurred features echo their blurred status; visible but invisible in a setting that both needs and denies their existence and role in American society and domestic life. The son of Mexican immigrants, Gomez illuminates the hidden realities of domestic work in the U.S. today by making the labor and laborers prominent in spaces where they were previously unseen.
Turning the camera on herself and her family history, Zanele Muholi’s staged photographs of herself as a domestic worker pay tribute to her mother, who worked for the same family in South Africa for forty-two years. Muholi’s series historicizes the labor of her 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.” 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.
“Unstable boat” is both the title and subject of Kwassa, Kwassa, a film by the Danish trio SUPERFLEX that charts the demanding and treacherous journey of would-be migrants from the island of Anjouan to the French island of Mayotte, both of which lie in the Indian Ocean. Impoverished and isolated, Anjouan sits between Mozambique and Madagascar; many of its inhabitants are willing to take great risks to seek safety, freedom, and opportunity in the European world to which Mayotte belongs. Mesmerizing and lyrical, the imagery appears at once mythic and highly realistic, following the beginning of the boat’s labor-intensive fiberglass construction through to the loading of the passengers and its departure into the ocean. The film weaves images of the unstable boat and the faces of passengers and smugglers with the buzzing of saws, sanders, the slopping of viscous paints and glues, and the soft voice of a narrator who explains the origins of the word “Europe,” paying homage to past and present conditions for those in the European Union, and those yearning to reach its shores. As the narrator explains, the continent—often the destination of choice for those searching for a better life—was named after Europa, a beautiful maiden seduced by Zeus and transported from her home in Phoenicia (present-day North Africa and the Middle East) to the Greek island of Crete. Europa, like many of the people who cross the choppy, shark-infested oceans, was a migrant; she arrived on the shores of a continent that eventually carried her name.
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. 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.
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 tools, poetically highlighting the diminishing need for human labor (and artist’s labor) with the advancement of technology. As the authors of The Second Machine Age might ask, what is the role of the artist in unleashing the powers of human ingenuity? 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. An imaginary self-portrait, Jackson’s The Thousand Yard Stare (Possible Future Me) envisions his destiny as an unsuccessful artist engaged in mundane activities; here a useless and listless 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. Andy Freeberg’s series Art Fare pulls a curtain back on the business of selling art, revealing layers of effort, absurdity, pathos, and posturing. Describing his two-year journey to art fairs in the U.S. and Europe, Freeberg says, “I was attracted not only to the people but to the combinations of art, clothing, technical devices, and postures. I found the lighting, costumes, and set design excellent for photographing these living dioramas, where the art world plays itself.”
Johan Thurfjell and Pierre Gonnord go to work in the natural world, exploring history and memory to reveal how the past, both individual and communal, shapes fate and identity. Thurfjell reenacted a lost friend’s journey into an underground mine, recreating the site within a minimalist wooden sculpture, inscribed with words both personally and universally relevant: “…isn’t that something you say—that if you expose yourself to what scares you the most, you come out as a stronger person.” Pierre Gonnord’s photograph, Miroslaw, is a large-scale, highly detailed, and dramatically lit photograph of a miner in Northern Spain that transforms the sitter’s worn, lined, and dirty face into a vision of beauty and dignity.
The challenges of living and laboring in burgeoning urban centers 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’s 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 an ephemeral labor—adding enough bodies to a fish pond to raise the water level by one meter—that alludes to the time and effort needed to enact meaningful change. Humans, animals and the natural environment are all in peril: Chen Lei’s sculpture of a life-size polar bear and a small child connecting in a gravity-defying kiss is an allegory for the relationship between the natural world and the human race. Chen’s choice of animal seems prophetic: the polar bear has become an international symbol of the fight against global warming, as the erosion of its arctic habitat due in large part to man-made climate change is endangering the survival of the species. As more people produce and consume more goods, generating more waste and environmental degradation worldwide, can this balance last, or will excess further endanger the planet and its inhabitants?
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 collaboration and ingenuity.
-Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director, Chief Curator