COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on how we work; even as we return to normalcy, it remains unclear if the workplace will ever fully return to how things were in pre-pandemic years. An intimate, single-gallery exhibit at the MSU Broad offers an ensemble of works which explore labor as depicted in art, with a particular focus placed on the ambiguity between domestic vs. work spaces. Anyone who has worked from home this past year will immediately relate to the contents of 24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock.
This is a show which brings together an eclectic ensemble of photography and works on paper which span just over a hundred years. Together, these works speak to the notion of work beyond the boundaries of the 9 to 5 workday. COVID forced many of us to work from home, but for many people in certain lines of work this was historically the normative experience. A trio of anonymous photographs shows workers in telecommunications, textile, and agriculture, all industries which once were performed principally in domestic settings (telephone operators once had switchboards in their homes, for example, so they could be on call day and night).
Two works approach this theme with tongue-in-cheek humor. In a wry parody of the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, Krithika Varagur and Eric Macomber give us Good Night Zoom; its imagery, color palette, and style echoes that of the original classic, but now our beloved rabbit protagonist is wishing goodnight to the things which have become fixtures of our pandemic-era lives (“Goodnight screens,” for example). Also approaching the subject with humor is the animated film El Empleo (The Employee) by Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, in which there’s no boundary between work and domestic spaces, and humans are paid to perform the roles of functional, inanimate objects. The redundant, joyless lives of the film’s characters echo the pulverizing tedium of the fictional worlds envisioned in the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett.
El Empleo (The Employee), Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, 2008.
Some of these works are visually mesmerizing, such as Michael Kenna’s moody, backlit photographs of Dearborn’s Ford Rouge Complex, which manage to turn the factory into something that verges on the sublime and the surreal. Together, these images seem to suggest that this complex is a living, breathing behemoth that never truly shuts down.
Concurrent with (but unrelated to) 24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock, a second gallery space explores the human impact on the planet’s biodiversity. The Long Goodbye is a considered ensemble of sculptural work by multimedia artist Jenny Kendler, who tactfully integrates the media she uses with the message she delivers. Although inhabiting a comparatively small space, the visual impact of this exhibit is striking.
Nearly filling the length of one of the gallery walls is Whale Bells, a collaborative project by Kendler and glass artist Andrew Bearnot. This is an ensemble of two dozen functional glass bells. The ropes for each bell incorporate traditional sailor’s knots, and the clappers are actual fossilized ear bones from Miocene-epoch rorqual whales, the ancestors of today’s humpback. Kendler makes the point that 5-20 million years ago, these now-extinct whales, equipped with the ability to create music, were once very likely the most culturally advanced entities on earth. Here, the bones that once allowed these whales to perceive sound are now employed as the literal instruments which project sound. The environmental commentary here is understated, but the installation invites us to consider that today’s humpback whale was once an endangered species before it became the center of one of the first international environmental campaigns (Save the Whales) in the 1970s. Through this installation’s use of sound, we’re also reminded that in recent years noise pollution caused by human commercial activity in the ocean (tand he oil industry in particular) has had a detrimental effect on whales’ migration patterns and mating activity.
The literal centerpiece of this exhibition space is Amber Archive, a circular table on which are displayed approximately 130 fragments from different plant and animal species which are vulnerable to extinction as the direct result of human activity. Each specimen is individually encased in a glowing orb of amber resin. These include (among many other things) fragments of bird feathers, whale baleen, and snakeskin. This installation is visually striking, but it also serves as a sort of DNA time-capsule, not unlike the world’s seed-vaults which aim to preserve and protect Earth’s biodiversity.
Each of these two exhibits nicely supplement the Broad’s current lead exhibitions. Interstates of Mind, with its focus on Michigan’s automotive industry, certainly parallels much of the content of Art + Labor, particularly Michael Kenna’s photographic series on the Rouge automotive plant. And Kendler’s work certainly underscores Seeds of Resistance in her emphasis on preserving biodiversity. Taken together, this quartet of exhibitions prompts us to consider the relationship between industry and the environment, and how our commercial pursuits have lasting ecological consequences.
24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock is on view through August 22.
The Long Goodbye is one view through June 27, 2021 at the East Lansing Broad Museum.