Art & Development

Labor and Time

As posited by Art Monthly (#356: May 2012):

In a western world dominated by immaterial labour, and where scientists and philosophers have thrown into doubt our understanding of physical objects, how have artists – from John McCracken and John Hilliard to Wood & Harrison and Andrew Dodds – questioned and defended the nature of things?

‘Sculpture, of all the arts, must surely be responsible for mapping the various journeys of thinghood. “What is a Thing?” – the question Heidegger asked in the 1920s – turns out to be a question that we have to keep asking.’

As I help M prepare his exhibition, the challenges of working with materials become instantiated everyday. In contrast to clicking “undo” and swiping screens, sourcing, handling, manipulating and displaying materials—not to mention lending them the illusion of perfection and timelessness so often desired of art objects—is complicated, expensive, and risky. Entropy constantly threatens. Nothing gets done without physical energy and attention; things take time and skill. Labor has become, as Art Monthly put it, immaterial—and I wonder how this shifts how art objects are perceived and understood. So many of my recent art viewing experiences have conjured thoughts about production values, for better or worse. The drawback, for me, is over-emphasizing how something is made over what it accomplishes in content or concept. For those who are disconnected from materials and labor, perhaps the work triggers thoughts unencumbered by human and environmental costs, at best looking with “deadpan” eyes (as Rosalind Krass described of Minimalism) at form and form alone, and at worst, with the Like/Dislike, Instagram-worthy consumer browsing. In that mindset, to register visually, to click and upload, is the power to put a thing in a shopping cart, pay for it, bring it home, and store it in a vast garage, all in one instant.