by Judy Holm
Describing Labor is a thought-provoking, emotionally-charged art exhibition commissioned by The Wolfsonian-Florida International University in Miami Beach Florida, created by artist Esther Shalev-Gerz.
Occupying the entire seventh floor of the museum, the project actually begins in the elevator; with the background voice of museum founder Mitchell Wolfson contributing to the experience of “describing labor.”
The exhibition is brilliantly constructed, creating direct and relevant contemporary content that links to the heritage of the museum as well as to the historical place of manual labor around the globe- from the period of 1885 to 1945.
Shalev-Gerz theorizes that this period of time, roughly beginning with the industrial revolution and ending after the Second World War, was the last time that laborers were conveyed and depicted as prominent subjects of art, and with the emotion of “heroism.”
At the core of the exhibition are art objects relating to the figure of laborers during that stretch of time. Approximately forty pieces of art –ranging from paintings and prints to sculptures and photographs (mostly belonging to the private collection of the Wolfsonian), were carefully selected by Shalev-Gerz as the integral layer for the exhibition. She then recruited twenty-four people from the art industry as participants. These artists, curators and professors were each asked to choose one of the pieces, based on their personal connection and artistic bias.
Subsequently, the participants were asked to locate a place to photograph their selection within the massive archives of the museum, which stores over 100,000 objects. The final photograph of each art work renders each piece indelibly connected to its surrounding framework, and to its unique curator- creating a link of the historical art work and depiction of labor with the present. These twenty-four photographs, shot with depth and detail, in predominantly dark setting, create the next layer of the exhibition. The individual works are also presented as an ensemble, on one wall within the museum. The contrast between the framed images in a free-form collage displayed a stark white wall and each image ensconced in a powerful photographic dark frame is one of the brilliant aspects of the exhibition.
As alluded to in the title of the exhibition, the project contains layers and subtle messages formatting the depiction of the theme. Each of the twenty four participants is individually interviewed and discusses the theme of labor as well as the reason for the selection of their piece. The interviews are shot at close range with a black background, and run in a video loop side-by-side with another image scanning in detail their individually selected work of art. The juxtaposition of the voice and expression of the individual participant with the intentionally discordant view of the art work perhaps reiterates the idea that “describing labor” is not merely a simple answer derived from the presence of its objects.
Each resulting tableau depicts an entire story about the participants’ interpretation of the theme – choosing different aspects and emotions connected to labor. Social injustice and disparity, subjugation, heroism, monotony, stoicism, solemnity, power and strength are just some of the emotions evoked in the exhibition. The observer may reflect on how and why the concept and practice of labor have shifted so dramatically over time. A Shalev-Gerz points out, we are now visually flooded with the faces of politicians, celebrities and athletes, but the visualization of those who create objects has all but disappeared from art and from prominent media.
Museum Director, Cathy Leff muses, “Describing Labor insists that the luster of things does not lie hidden beneath the patina of time; rather, the patina itself holds latent meanings awaiting activation.”
The relationship between words and images is integral to the exhibition. In discussing the work with assistant curator Matthew Abbess, he draws attention to the concept of art “speaking to us.” How and why different people see art in a certain light, and respond viscerally from their own experiences and historical perspective is often what connects us to history, or a physical object or image.
Describing Labor shares with the viewers a panoply of ideas, strong visual images, and with intellectual stimulation and exploration of the theme of labor, it challenges the audience to consider the changing role and voice of labor over time, and how people today relate to the past.
The exhibition which debuted during the week of Art Basel Miami Beach on December 3, 2012 will remain open to the public through April 7, 2013.