December 6th, 2008


The secret life of work

Emma Balkind tells me that Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market is to close to tourists. That's fine; when I visited last year I felt two things, really: awe at the vast, vital interior, and a strong sense that I and the other tourists there were getting in the way of the work being done.

I'm glad I saw Tsukiji while it was still open, though. That surreptitious feeling that non-workers shouldn't be there -- in a vast shed filled with intense activity at 5 in the morning -- was definitely part of the thrill. Visiting Tsukiji felt like that other activity in vast, industrial spaces, visiting an art biennial like, say, Manifesta. Joe, Emma, Hisae and I drove a thousand kilometers in August to see the biennial, and I remember the way our spirits lifted when we entered the Alumix smelting plant in Bolzano, this gigantic post-industrial space filled with art, some of it referring to exactly the kind of industrial activities that would once have gone on there.

The most interesting thing I saw at Vienna Art Week last month was the opening of Sharon Lockhart's show at the Secession. Lockhart is an American photographer-turned-artist who's fascinated by workers and workspaces. The centrepiece of her Secession show was a video called Lunch Break, a slow motion pan along a seemingly-endless corridor in some gigantic industrial facility, lined by boiler-suited workers swigging from Thermos flasks and eating sandwiches. At the opening, people were sitting in the darkened corridor built for this video for hours, watching the pan zoom deeper and deeper into the Hadron Large Collider-like corridor of the plant. (A steel plant? Car plant? It's not clear.)

Another video downstairs showed American workers streaming out of the gates of a factory at the end of the working day. Lockhart's title relates to photos she took of a 1989 Duane Hanson installation. In her photographs of art installers working around Hanson's hyper-realist sculptures of workers it's hard to tell who's fibreglass and who's flesh. I was reminded of installing my own show in this same room at the Secession last year -- I arrived at the empty downstairs room and was asked how I wanted it laid out. A small army of workers was put at my disposal to arrange the risers and sound equipment however I wanted it, and for most of the afternoon these men provided the muscle and the technical knowhow to make my whims a reality. During installation, even a post-industrial art space is industrial. But once you've made your wishes known, you feel a bit like a tourist at Tsukiji, even at your own installation.

Workspaces inevitably fascinate people whose closest experience to the kind of scale and feel involved is a big exhibition or the warehouse end of their local branch of Ikea. Lockhart's interest in American workspaces and particularly American workers feels like a slightly transgressive subject, partly because we, the audience, "aren't supposed to be there" watching men at work, partly because the blue-collar worker is a neglected, endangered and almost taboo American subject. This is a time when industrial work has been outsourced from the US to other parts of the world (notably China), and when it looks like an entire sector, the auto industry, may soon disappear, turning tens of thousands of jobs into the hidden, domestic, atomised agonies of unemployment. But there's also a sense that American politics has hidden the American worker too; in the official ideology, the US is a land with entrepreneurs and consumers, not a land with workers, those heroes of America's nemesis, communism.

Sure, McCain announced that "the American worker is the best in the world", but this sentiment only emerged as a way to spin his previous statement that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong". In other words, he was using workers as a fig leaf for an embarrassing mis-statement about the economy. A more worker-friendly US would show workers more, and show them in the heroic poses of Soviet posters. Or, at the very least, encourage them to unionize. Imagine American workers given the respect and attention shown to firefighters after 9/11, for instance.

But it's possible that Sharon Lockhart's work has auratic power for the same reason Tsukiji does, and the American worker does: because hidden things can be fascinating. Long before industrialisation, a system of guilds and apprenticeships protected the world of work via a system of hieratic secrecy, and there's still a sense that access to industrial spaces -- secular cathedrals filled with fire, where ore is transformed magically into ingots, and muck into brass -- should be restricted, and knowledge of their processes protected. If Sharon Lockhart's photographs and videos "open a discourse on the idea of the worker, from the museum worker to the construction worker and full circle to the absent artist-worker", there's a sense -- the same sense we get in certain Matthew Barney films -- that work is something sacred, with hidden, private rites that richly reward the post-industrial voyeur even as they make him feel guilty for intruding.