Work, somewhere between emancipation and alienation

 Reims  |  1 June 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

At the back of the first exhibition room, a McDonald’s lies submerged by water. Upstairs, a poster retraces the evolution of anarchy in France. Classroom desks and benches are set out here and there. This summer, the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne is gathering artists around the notion of work…

According to the Larousse dictionary, work is “human activity applied towards producing, creating or maintaining something”. Does artistic practice fall into this category? As he strolls around around a city, artist Francis Alÿs pushes a block of ice until it melts, allows a thread from his sweater to unravel until nothing is left of it, attracts metallic objects with the help of a magnet. His performances carried out in public space at the end of the 1990s bring, head to head, the action of doing something, and its result. “Sometimes, doing nothing amounts to doing something and doing something amounts to doing nothing,” he explains. Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing also reveals the apparent uselessness of certain acts, namely artistic ones, according to a production-driven perspective. Since the objective of artistic practice is not utility, some believe it to be futile. And unlike the case of French intermittents de spectacle (contract workers in the entertainment industry), artists’ thinking time – these pauses which interrupt active production, necessary in order for thought, ideas, and the artistic work to emerge – receive no economic recognition. The question of the artist’s status in society is also at the heart of Patricio Gil Flood’s reflections. Since 2012, the Argentinean has focused his research on work, namely the status of the worker-artist, a question that is as topical in his country of origin as in France. In his work Travailler moins pour lire plus, published in 2015, he gathers philosophical, sociological and artistic texts that oppose the dichotomy between work and leisure. This opposition is precisely the subject of the work 3 temps en 4 mouvements by “documentation céline duval”. In the manner of an anthropologist, the French artist assembles portraits to illustrate three moments in life: rest, work and leisure. This grouping eliminates individuality to reveal homogeneity to the point of standardisation. The work thus reveals a paradox: the introduction of paid leave so that workers can enjoy greater individual freedom has enabled them to consume produced goods and generated conformity. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Moulène’s photographs, querying the notion of work, also point out a paradox. They present “strike objects” such as “Le parfum de solidarité” (Solidarity Perfume) or the “Emploi, Solidarité, Justice, Liberté” (Employment, Solidarity, Justice, Liberty) frying pan – objects created by strikers during social movements, to be sold, and thus to provide for their needs during strike periods. The strike therefore becomes a productive activity, not only in terms of objects manufactured by employees, but also speeches and joint actions that reveal their capacity to organise themselves. The photographs are both witnesses of these social actions and their products. “Work is essential for reflecting on our relationship to the world,” comments David Evrard. His collages, whether paintings or sculptures, symbolise the body at work. They compile photos of factories, the logo of a company that produces pornographic films, a steel cogwheel, wooden logs that recount both a personal and a collective history, the history of labour.

Solidarity-economy strategies

While strikes enable social progress to be made, and while work contributes to the emancipation of individuals, it can also be alienating. With humour and derision, Julien Prévieux puts up smokescreens and takes control. His letters of non-motivation sent to recruiters invert the roles of supply and demand. The standard replies of human-resources departments highlight the dehumanisation of the job market. With the exception of an artisan glass-maker who takes the time to explain the importance of his profession. But what if the hope of a more human society were possible? Superflex believes this to be case, even if he, as a human – and namely as an artist – acts, criticises and intervenes in order for its rules to change. Superflex’s Flooded McDonald’s video announces an irreversible human catastrophe if capitalism continues to dominate the world. Action is also the catchword of artist Jean-Marie Perdrix. In collaboration with a Burkina Faso association, he recycles waste into plastic that he transforms into a wood substitute, from which he produces classroom tables and musical instruments. His works enable the development of a local economy while having a real ecological impact. Jean-Marie Perdrix develops his practice outside of the field of art by appropriating the strategies of the solidarity economy. On the other hand, Plamen Dejanoff seizes hold of capitalistic strategies to develop his artistic and social project, for sales of his bronze sculptures allow him to undertake an ambitious architectural project in Bulgaria. The Bronze House envisages gathering several cultural infrastructures including a library, a theatre and workshops constructed from bronze.

Utopia according to Charles Fourier

Fifteen artists pore over the idea of work via their own practices, whether through the eyes of an anthropologist or a historian, while glancing back at the past. In this way, to produce her installation Le Travail attrayant, Elsa Maillot has delved into the history of anarchic contestation to retrace its different attitudes, whether antagonistic or pacifist, and to refer to the theory of French utopianism philosopher Charles Fourier. Posters and sculptures illustrate key moments as well as the idea of alienation through work. In the same room, artist Francis Cape exhibits the benches that characterise European communities; like anarchists, European communities advocate community spirit over individualism. Further off, artist Koki Tanaka observes five pianists collaborating. Will they manage to organise, imagine and play a piece together? Finally, the work Steam Powered Mobile Phone Charger (Nokia Version) is as absurd as the society described in this exhibition, a society that seeks answers, that does not understand itself, that is at conflict, that denies its humanity and that favours inequality. Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane thus show their phone charger in a man-sized steel case. While managing to bring two revolutions together – the industrial and the digital ones –, and while operating smoothly, the charger above all reveals the insanity of an inventor disconnected from reality. Precisely one of the liberties which is accorded to the artist…



“Le travail à l’œuvre / L’alternative”, until 17 September. FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, 1 place Museux, 51100 Reims.


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