The art of work: Invisible labour on show at Dowse Gallery’s The Future of Work

The Future of Work at Hutt City’s Dowse Art Museum makes visible our changing work conditions. Mark Amery took a tour, and even got some work done himself while he was there.

I’ve gone to work at the gallery. And I’m making an exhibition of myself. Making my labour visible. I’m writing about the exhibition you are reading about, from within the exhibition itself. 

I borrow an electric car for the day, drive to the Hutt, and plug it into the charging station outside the Dowse. Inside, in the centre of The Future of Work, is a co-working space. A fancy term for a table with stools, powerpoints and a fake pot plant. I plug in my laptop and click on DowseWifi. 

The Future of Work (install shot), 2019. The Dowse Art Museum, photo by Shaun Matthews

Can I bring out my lunch? I look up for some kind of sign. My desk is directly below a glass walled office a floor above. A sign on the wall in big letters points out it’s the Museum Director’s Office. Just like the bosses of old did above the factory floor, he can look down on me. Don’t think they’re not watching still.  

These are smart ways to involve the visitor in this exhibition’s concerns. With changes in technology, mobillty and deregulation, working conditions have changed dramatically for all of us in recent decades. The Future of Work provides space to consider just how much our lives have been affected: through the work of contemporary artists alongside artefacts from the Hutt’s strong industrial labour and union history. It was a Petone carpenter, Samuel Parnell, who campaigned for the eight-hour working day. 

Elisabeth Pointon, Win big. (install shot), 2019. The Future of Work at The Dowse Art Museum, photo by Shaun Matthews

And Mr Director, my working conditions aren’t exactly great. High ceilings, concrete floors, dim lighting, and sound from varied works bouncing off the walls. Most distracting are Elisabeth Pointon’s two wobbling inflatables, playfully bringing the cheap carnival marketing antics of the car yard into the gallery. There’s an ‘air-dancer’ and a cage within which you try to grab floating golden tickets offering the glib yet complex positive affirmation: ‘Good job.’  

The air dancer is Crystal, named after a difficult coworker at the car dealership in which Pointon worked and made herself an artist in residence. There, she examined the workplace power hierarchies through co-opting and subtly changing its language and grammar: on business cards and in the set-dressing of employee birthday work ‘shouts’. Smart new watercooler-art moves.

Neatly paired with Pointon is a 2005 project by Liz Allan, in which the artist took employment in the cafe attached to the Govett Brewster, highlighting the a young woman artist’s typical working life – in a cafe, not a gallery. A photographic self-portrait of Allan behind her counter at work mimics Manet’s famous 1882 painting, with its mirrored portrait of a bored female bartender, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere

But there’s a difficulty for this exhibition. I’m not sure all these works are at best in this environment. Might we understand Pointon’s work better visiting it on a weekend at the car yard? Likewise John Vea’s installations feel stagey and a bit one-note. Like alternative museum displays, Vea replicates a domestic staircase (going nowhere) and kitchen cupboards and stuffs them with Griffins biscuits and bags of Mexicano corn chips, recognising the alternative currency in Māori and Pasifika communities of freebies from factory work. Yet these emphasise the absence, rather than presence of these very people in the gallery – in contrast to Vea’s powerful quiet odes to labour through videoed performance works. 

The Future of Work (install shot) with work by Fiona Jack (blanket and book) and Deborah Rundle (background), 2019. The Dowse Art Museum, photo by Mark Tantrum

Fiona Jack has long been interested in the visual emblems of workers rights, creating and documenting banners and getting involved in protest actions. Here she provides a blanket sewn with the diverse arcane emblems of trade union movements. It’s not hung on the wall, it’s left on a chair to offer comfort or protection to the visitor. The gallery can be a tough place. Yet it would more likely be touched down the road at the library – wrapped around oneself while reading Jack’s accompanying artist-book. 

These are artists comfortable making actions for and with community. The exhibition space provides validation and documentation. But I find myself asking, once again, whether the white box gallery space is the best design for the presentation of some of this work. Should we be considering redesigning parts of our gallery spaces, just as we have already our libraries and museums? What if this temporary co-working space was permanent? 

The Future of Work (install shot), with work by Peter Wareing, 2019. The Dowse Art Museum, photo by Mark Tantrum.

I think of this as I try to get comfortable watching long strong film works by Harun Farocki, Allan Sekula and Noel Burchby, and Peter Wareing (with the latter, bean bags most appreciated). There’s a tension here that curator Melanie Oliver is surely acutely aware of it. Her last group show (with Bridget Rewiti, and now at Christchurch Art Gallery) on Māori moving image was titled an ‘open archive’, a gathering of record with an extensive discussion and performance series. Not all of the gallery felt comfortable for this.  

The tension is no more apparent than with the work of collective Public Share, who celebrate organised labour through making and firing ceramic cups to share as part of worker smoko events. 

They’ve made mugs for each of the Dowse workers and provided baking fortnightly on Thursdays during the exhibition run. Each worker in return has signed a collective agreement requiring they take a ten minute tea break every four hours. It reminds them that the last National government did away with that tea break, only for it to be reinstated by the current coalition. 

Yet rather than get to see the actual cups or have a livestream of the tearoom cup rack in action (an opportunity missed) we’re left with a still digital image. The action is elsewhere in the building. 

Time for this worker to pay for his muffin and coffee at the museum cafe. And collect the receipt. During my self-imposed tea break I check out Public Share member Deborah Rundle’s work Employee of the Week: a carpark out front. Numbered too-cutely 51 (after New Zealand’s biggest industrial dispute, the 1951 Waterfront Strike), it’s a park that’s impossible to get into, boxed in between building and a hedge. It’s a conceptual joke at the people’s expense. Why not negotiate an actual free car park for a worker in the Hutt?  

John Vea, Not To Be Sold Separately, 2019, kitchen cupboards, Griffin’s biscuits. Photo by Shaun Matthews.

Join us and help make
independent journalism happen!
Find Out More

The Future of Work excels in linking issues that matter to the work of contemporary artists, and connecting the exhibition to relevant history of labour in the Hutt. I like its art and social historical meld. The exhibition hosts a Griffins factory workers’ reunion in October. It contains old photographs of workers and work condition related ephemera from various, often long-gone, industries in the Hutt. Notably absent is commentary on the conditions for workers in the Hutt today – more social agency would have been welcome. 

Complementing these displays are several key moving image artists who make visible what our employers would prefer we didn’t. There’s groundbreaking NZ artist Darcy Lange’s early ’70s film of freezing workers carving up carcasses as if sculptors (to which Peter Wareing’s film of Barcelona outlier street scrap metal collectors is a kind of contemporary companion). Then there’s German Harun Forocki’s collection of scenes from movies of workers leaving factories. It hinges on the fact that the first film footage ever shown was of workers leaving the Lumiere, photographic product factory. Art and labour, walking out of the gates hand-in-hand. 

Industrial labour may be increasingly mechanised, but The Future of Work reminds us we’ve yet to be granted the promised reduction in working hours. Time to clock out. I unplug the Macbook and the car and head for home. 

The Future of Work is on at the Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, until 17 November


Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.