Artists’ depictions of workers have historically produced powerful imagery. Gustave Courbet’s painting of proletariat subjects, The Stonebreakers (1849–50), Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother (1936) from the Farm Security Administration’s photography programme, and Lewis Hine’s images of Empire State Building construction workers perched thousands of feet in the air, are but a few examples of art works that have critiqued, glorified or agitated against labour conditions. Set in relief against this rich and weighty backdrop, ‘The Workers’, at MASS MoCA, assembles 25 contemporary artists who engage with the status of labour in this post-Fordist, late capitalist, increasingly globalized moment.
Originally curated by Carla Herrera-Prats as a smaller-scale project at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in Mexico City, the former home of muralist and labour activist David Alfaro Siqueiros, ‘The Workers’ has been expanded at MASS MoCA (whose buildings were previously occupied by the Sprague Electric Company). Once a bustling industrial site, the North Adams community faced economic devastation when Sprague closed its US operations in 1985. A spin-off company, Commonwealth Sprague, moved manufacturing to Mexico and eventually China. As such, the exhibition’s current location becomes a stand-in for sites where labour has been contentiously outsourced to the lowest bidder.
The video Centro di Permanenza Temporanea (Temporary Detention Centre, 2007) by Albanian artist Adrian Paci generates a series of indelible images that capture the pervasive insecurity and anxiety that comes with this need for incessant mobility. Initially, we see a group of would-be workers boarding a mobile staircase on an airport runway. The stairs become increasingly crowded, and as the camera pans out, it becomes apparent that the group are unattached to any vehicle – waiting for transportation that never arrives. Immigrant day labourers, some illegal, were cast in this piece shot in San Jose – they themselves trapped in a perpetual state of employment uncertainty. The contradictory state of being permanently temporary is aptly communicated by the literal translation of the video’s title, which is borrowed from the absurdly named Italian detention centers that house illegal immigrants and refugees. Poignant yet uneasy, the artist’s concern for the plight of his subjects is evident, but Paci is also complicit in the system he critiques by momentarily employing these workers, only to subsequently send them on their way.
Oliver Ressler’s two-channel video, Socialism Failed, Capitalism is Bankrupt. What Comes Next? (2010) examines disenfranchized traders at a large market in Armenia. Stills of abandoned factories are juxtaposed with low-wage earners who detail the hardships and scarcity of social services that have come with the Soviet Union’s dissolution. While the aim of Ressler’s work is admirable in that it gives these workers a platform to express themselves, the piece represents forms of didactic, awareness-raising art that often seems like well-intentioned acknowledgements of the context we all share, but ultimately manifest as a type of inadequate journalism.
Further investigations into marginalized members of society include Anthony Hernandez’s photographic series, ‘Landscapes for the Homeless’ (1989–2007). Focusing on a group largely defined by their lack of occupation, Hernandez reveals the domestic labour involved in these makeshift habitats: outdoor living spaces are constructed from scraps of carpet, a wood plank acts as a dining table, and a pair of pants hangs on a clothesline fastened between bushes. Through withholding a full view of his subjects, Hernandez offers us a vantage point that disallows an invasive gaze. Looking at poverty is a curious form of voyeurism, however Hernandez avoids objectifying his subjects and imposing narrative through a muteness – a refusal to deliver direct and maximum meaning. He portrays these displaced persons with a sparse, stripped down pathos. The ‘for’ in the title of this series (rather than ‘of’) is pointed, suggesting the artist’s intention to produce images that advocate for the cause of their absent protagonists.
Claire Beckett takes selected portraits of soldiers during basic training and deployment in order to critique the socio-economic conditions that place them into combat, as well as their status as disposable members of society. The photograph Private Rebecca Hill, Fort Jackson, SC (2006) shows a delicate but stern young woman returning the camera’s gaze from beneath a helmet and oversized glasses. Standing in a tentative contrapposto, her small features are overwhelmed by the rifle, boots and baggy camouflage that comprise her uniform. Private Nicholas Greene, Buzzard’s Bay, MA (2006) similarly shows a pensive officer with teenage acne, lit in dramatic chiaroscuro. There is a startling disjunction between the youth of Beckett’s subjects and the severity of their jobs; between the idea of a ‘soldier’ that exists as part of our collective, popular imaginary, and the unromantic, stark reality of who these war workers actually are.
In his series ‘Communist Party USA’ (2007), Russian-born artist Yevgeniy Fiks paints portraits of members of the New Left devoid of romantic, heroic or propagandist trappings. In a depiction of New York Education Coordinator Adam Tenney, a poster of Lenin hangs prominently in the background. The iconic, monumental head of the revolutionary leader appears exaggerated, in contrast with the candid and humble portrait of Tenney who, with a beard and buttoned pullover, hardly looks like our idea of a radical political figure. Similarly, Communist Party member Dan Margolis is portrayed casually, wearing an Old Navy shirt. A Dell computer box is visible behind him, as well as an American flag and banners bearing the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union logo, showing a complicated and somewhat uncomfortable mixture of competing influences.
Much of the work on display in ‘The Workers’ is invested in championing labour rights, attempts to end radical inequalities in society, and exposing vulnerabilities to geopolitical struggles. Largely absent from the exhibition’s scope is a self-reflexive awareness of the artists’ own positions as labourers, the prevalent model being that of the freelancer who is perpetually at work. Furthermore, this changing nature of work is scantly addressed on a larger scale – the increasing loss of separation between personal life and work time in all spheres. Overall, the possibility of the pursuit of happiness in labour seems to have been demoted to the wish for stability and basic necessities. However, ‘The Workers’ attempts to strip away propaganda, advertising and media imagery in the hope that by providing space for reflection, the potential to mobilize alternatives will follow.