Museums

Using Art to Describe Labor

by Jillian Steinhauer on December 7, 2012

Installation view, Esther Shalev-Gerz, "Describing Labor" at the Wolfsonian-FIU

Installation view, Esther Shalev-Gerz, “Describing Labor” at the Wolfsonian-FIU (click to enlarge) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

MIAMI — In the past year, there’s been a lot discussion about the Chinese workers who make Apple products. Exposés and reports have been written, all of which have presumably made us a bit more aware of the conditions under which those workers labor and live. But we still buy iPads and iPhones and MacBooks. Nothing much has really changed. There’s still a disconnect between the things we buy, the objects with which we surround ourselves, and the people who make them.

This disconnect is one of the focal points of artist Esther Shalev-Gerz’s current exhibition, Describing Labor, at the Wolfsonian-FIU. “What is it that we live with a faceless world?” she asked rhetorically at a press preview earlier this week.

Not only that, but workers have often been glorified, in the early 20th century especially, their image aestheticized for artistic or political purposes that reap them little gain. So when the Wolfsonian, a museum that focuses on the intersection of material artifacts and social and political change in the modern era, invited Shalev-Gerz to root through its collection and organize a show, she hit upon the figure of the laborer. The paintings, prints, and sculptures of workers that she found were her starting point.

Shalev-Gerz chose 41 pieces, and from there, asked people “who have a mastery of the language around art,” according to the show’s wall text, to choose and describe them. She filmed those descriptions, after which the artists and scholars placed the objects back in the museum’s storage area — not where they came from, but wherever they wanted. Shalev-Gerz then photographed the pieces in their new surroundings.

One of Esther Shalev-Gerz’s photographs for “Describing Labor”

Installation view, Esther Shalev-Gerz, “Describing Labor”

The material output of this process comprises mainly a large number of photographs, a split-screen video of objects alongside talking-head descriptions, the original Wolfsonian collection objects, and a number of glass hammers and hands made by Shalev-Gerz. Unfortunately, none of it quite comes together to amount to much more than what I just listed. The photographs, which makes up the crux of the show, are dramatically lit and at times evocative; at their best, the worker images resonate in contrast with the objects they’re placed on and around, making us think not only about the product-labor disconnect but also the divisions in the way we categorize things. Why is a painting traditionally valued more highly than a beautifully crafted chair?

Film still from the video for Esther Shalev-Gerz’s “Describing Labor”

The video takes this question one step further, although perhaps inadvertently: as I listened to the curators and historians and others fluent in the language of art, I couldn’t help but think about who writes history — who gets to write history, that is, and how our classifications of objects reflect our societal structures and hierarchies.

The people who describe the objects do so with enthusiasm, which makes the video enjoyable to watch. But ultimately the exhibition suffers from its own repetitions — the video segments all follow the same format, as do the photographs. While that’s hardly an automatic fault, the work here just isn’t compelling enough to hold and maintain the viewer’s interest. Describing Labor feels too clinical. At one point during the preview, Shalev-Gerz lamented “how the aura of things are leached out” of them in archives. Unfortunately, her presentation and aesthetic lead her back into that very same trap.

Esther Shalev-Gerz’s Describing Labor is on view at the Wolfsonian-FIU (1,001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach) through April 7, 2013.

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