10th March 2012
Review by Darren Caffrey
In the event that you missed the LAB’s hosting of LABOUR, wherein Irish based artists each engaged for eight hours in performed actions around notions of ‘body politics’, everyday activity and political redress, then you will have missed a veritable cacophony of sound and dare I say it spunk, albeit of the lady kind. Of course, it is not my wish to undermine, but rather to underline the massive overshadowing form that went unspoken. You see, amongst the activity and passivity of artist and viewer alike, an elephant stalked the room.
If the title of the exhibition is LABOUR and in fact this thing called labour is carried out by an all female cast, then you would be forgiven for thinking that some room for enquiry into choice as relative to all levels of participation would naturally present itself. However, it seems that this word is being used here in only one sense. We might ordinarily use the word ‘labour’ to define a specific type of action, one where the product is regarded primarily in terms of its social contribution. Crudely speaking, its value. So, for example, to use the word in respect to childbirth would effectively illustrate the social value of bringing new life into the world. As such, this natural recurrence can be seen as a starting point for all socialist ideology; the space wherein the activity of woman necessarily enhances the future of mankind, as such, the sole catalyst for all evolution thereon.
Similarly, the word ‘labour’ is corruptible, to such a point, it may be seen that sacrifice for the greater good is our duty, that we all must do our bit. The word, depending on its context, is loaded with meaning, but always it implies that what is being done is not strictly for oneself, that it is, for the individual, a task that need be met with action. Exploitation of this thinking might range anywhere from the Communist run state to the oppression of marginal groups within society. Contemporarily, Irish women who were sexually active and open, were at the time of workhouses, not the norm. Consequently, they were considered to be inconsistent with the dominant ideological and political force, much like any conceivable threat to the power of state. The fact that this particular state was under the control of men obviously left women extremely vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation.
Examples in Ireland are unnecessary, so common are they, and yet LABOUR left us without any sense of how the actions of artists might constitute a true reflection of our society’s active responsibility. Instead we were presented a series of performers, each wholly absorbed in their own state of active disconnection and completely severed from the reality which surrounded them. It was not so much the agenda of the performers to create a desire for the fragility of mental anguish and tolerance but rather the construct of the show itself. It might be broken down thus: performer stands tests of time, agility, patience, solitude, servitude, penance or perhaps simply extensively long periods of objectification; the viewer however, in constituting the sole reason that these live performances are taking place, responds accordingly, both solemn and guilty, knowing and unknowing, active by their very presence.
Whether the artists were scrubbing, sewing or grinding, the viewer, or maybe just the audience as a body, was shown to be as complicit as any onlooker in cases of exploitation or indeed forced labour. Standing, quietly watching the goings on and slow methodical workings of this often silent exhibition, each individual was permitted the time and space to contemplate their presence, to be with the work. All of this points to a particular mode of exposure which is concerned less with activity and more with the environmental conditions which result; creating in effect, a space of contact between object and subject. Also there was a sense that the point which the artists and perhaps more specifically the artist-curators sought to highlight in fact extended from the notion that female identity is a question with a respect to all women, and that action is a shared responsibility, arrived at as a matter of individual cause. In this case study, it might be put in terms of active and passive or indeed clearer yet as artist and viewer.
In one work, strong reference is made to the Magdalene Laundries and to the respective work that these women carried out. Of course, in the case of such women, the work was not a choice in the strictest sense, and whatever you might feel about the conscription of young and somewhat ‘impure’ women into a life of service for the wider community, it must not be forgotten that the performers of LABOUR were not in any way forced to either conform or perform. By extension we must not forget that the actions of those who possess a choice are essentially free, as is the standard of freedom. This itself may have gone unnoticed by viewers on the day, standing instead within the space and making spectacle of the self-defined position of each and every woman who performed her ‘work’. It might simply be irony, it might yet be irony as art, but LABOUR surely was not a straight forward tribute to the position of the ‘other’. Instead, it became a vehicle for the recognition of the social responsibility of the individual, enquiring of its viewer what exactly it was that they were appearing to encourage. This dynamic, constant beneath the hum of work, made real the involvement of the viewer, whether or not it was ever responded to as such.
Advertised as a live durational exhibition, most viewers knew that the performers were each committing a ‘working day’ to this event, and so arriving meant for some an equal show of commitment to its somewhat vague and wholly circumstantial cause. Is this in itself not somehow the thing that kills reaction before it has even had the chance to effect and indeed to be effecting? It seems unlikely that this performance event, shown once in London and Derry before it reached Dublin, was intended as the thing which it appears. So what of the elephant, remaining largely unnoticed? It would perhaps have been seen as disrespectful to observe the human form as object when other such beautiful spinning and banging was happening in the realms of subject. Consequently, we all watched as women performed their actions according to the premise that we and time were their keepers, each of us fully aware that no performer was actually engaged in ‘work’ that was not in all respects their own doing.
Amanda Coogan possessed, in the guise of an iceberg, the fullness of this longevity; as such, in spite of her sloth-like movements, she was perhaps the sharpest thing in the room, aware of and observant to the elephants and the sheep and the way that each like to avoid one another wherever possible. Was it a case of the public being assumed as one single entity and in turn behaving consistent with their role? There is plenty which can be said about each performer, especially when taken in a purely active sense, however it might be that to see is not to know, which leaves us only with whatever has remained unsaid. As such, perhaps it is here that the true experiential shift between object and subject is to be found.
Tellingly Amanda Coogan in her curatorial text refers to a moment where “performer and spectator call(s) for the active participation of the audience in the liminal space of the present.” It is this very space which on the day functioned as a result of their various actions, and as according to the time and space in which these actions were engaged. Each work was a performance requiring not least a real commitment, and the artists for their part combined successfully to create a space in which meaning could be found. And yet the power, throughout this series of concurrent performances, remained solely with the artists, creating in effect a space where the viewer was disempowered by their very servitude to the unwritten conditions of the event, even if somewhat ignorant of the fact. While contrastingly the artists retained, and in their continued actions, sought to further exploit emotional interest for their own artistic credibility. Given the obvious political implications with respect to status and interchange, this should not have been good enough for anyone concerned.
All images by Paddy Cahill, courtesy the artists