In recent decades, many artists have riffed on the idea of labour as a form of subjugation, using their work to explore a number of hypotheses such as Karl Marx’s: “In proportion therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases”. These artists seek to denounce the labour-related abuses of modern capitalism, their work serving as a form of political protest.
In the late 60s, Argentinian artist Óscar Bony created a performance called La familia obrera (The Working Class Family), in which a father, a mother and a child sat on a pedestal in a gallery in Buenos Aires for eight hours per day. They earned a wage in exchange for that labour, actually double what the father made in his exhausting low-paid factory job. The purpose was to protest against the badly paid jobs that people are forced to accept, despite sordid conditions. The job of the family in the gallery consisted of living their daily life on top of the pedestal as people stared at them.
The artistic treatment of this issue has since become global. Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh, famous for his year-long performances – such as remaining only outdoors for a year, or being tied to another person with a rope for a year – focused on the concept of labour between 1980 and 1981. In Life Work, he punched a time clock every single hour for an entire year. He had a witness and took a picture every time he completed the process. Moreover, he shaved his head before beginning, and proceeded to not cut his hair, so that its growth was the only real visual proof of the passage of time – the clock showed the time of day but not the date. This pointless, repetitive task can be read as a reference to the exploitation of workers who measure out their entire lives in mindless toil. He failed in his duty 133 times in total – 94 times because he was sleeping. The face of the artist reflects boredom and exhaustion – a life enslaved to work is gruelling and thankless.
The artist who has arguably explored most extensively the idea of labour subjugation and job insecurity is the Spaniard Santiago Sierra. He has created his often-controversial work in many countries around the globe, highlighting people’s determination (frequently driven by circumstance) to do anything in order to make money. In 1999, in Cuba, he paid individuals to have their back used as a permanent canvas, which he tattooed with a line. The concept was different from Bony’s: these young workers were paid a ridiculously small amount – 30 dollars – to have their bodies permanently marked. This work showed two things: desperate people will accept degrading jobs in exchange for any amount of money, the necessities of the ephemeral present foreclosing consideration of the endless future, and that labour is a (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes physical) scar that stays on our bodies forever. He went even further – and became, even more, explicit – the following year, when he paid participants 20 dollars to masturbate in front of a video camera in their own homes, and then proceeded to screen the recorded videos in a gallery.
Recently, in 2013, Sierra hired thirty people, paying them the minimum wage recommended by the National Employment Service of Spain, to write the sentence “El trabajo es la dictadura” (“work is dictatorship”) in a thousand notebooks. This work denounces several things at once: first, the repetition – like in Hsieh’s performance – imitates the mechanical actions we do over and over again at work (especially in an office or a factory). Secondly, the idea of earning minimum wage in conjunction with the content of the message demonstrates acceptance of a dreary status quo, solidifying this sense of compliance by granting it a physical and permanent form.
In this century, many more artists have taken up the cause. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is one of the foremost contemporary Asian artists whose work focuses on exposing political corruption and human rights offences. This led to his imprisonment for three months by the Chinese government for charges related to political activism. One of his largest-scale and most visually impressive works is Sunflower Seeds, consisting of 100 million porcelain actual-size sunflower seeds, as the name suggests. At first sight, they all seem identical, but in reality, each of them is a completely unique sculptural form. Eschewing industrialisation, Weiwei had hundreds of Chinese artisans craft and paint each seed individually by hand. Sunflower Seeds was exhibited at London’s Tate Modern museum. Initially, visitors could participate in the work by stepping on them. Thus, the public could develop a more intimate connection with the amazing handcrafted labour of these miniature pieces.
This interaction between the public and the artwork also creates a dialogue to explore themes of subjugation and oppression. Does the public metaphorically infringe upon the personal liberties of the artist in the act of literally stepping on his creation?
The themes of labour as a form of subjugation continues to be explored by young contemporary artists in recent years. For example, Spanish artist Alán Carrasco recently presented his work Ne travaillez jamais (“never work”) with three other emerging artists at a homonymous exhibition in Barcelona. In this piece, Carrasco presents pages and pages of data – government and legal documents mixed with newspaper articles, graphs, personal stories, etc. – related to the high unemployment rate in Spain during 2015. Through this work, the artist strives to demonstrate potential difficulties in finding concrete and accurate information regarding the countries economic crisis and his concerns regarding the media’s biased representation of figures and events.
Ne travaillez jamais is actually a statement by the French philosopher and film director Guy Debord, who openly rejected wage labour throughout his life, and later adopted the statement as a slogan of the Situationists. The sentence was a rallying cry during the famous revolts of May 1968 in France. Carrasco has repurposed this phrase to link the past events of civil unrest to the current extended crisis in his country. Carrasco suggests that the Spanish government has helped business owners to degrade the job conditions of their workers and that the media assists in obscuring this by presenting inconsistent and misleading information.
Ne travaillez jamais is not the first of Carrasco’s works to have focused on the theme of labour. In 2010, he presented Plusvalía cero (Surplus Value Zero) in Italy. For this work, he calculated how much money an Italian worker made on average, setting an official value for a person’s time, and ultimately, their life. The gallery contained only a neon sign saying “Questo è Quanto” (” how much is this”), and then, as every previously uninformed visitor left, he gave each individual a check for the value of the time they had spent viewing the exhibition.
All these artists have used their creativity not only to expose the harsh conditions suffered by workers but also to show how one’s life passes by doing something often hard, boring and unfulfilling. Ultimately, many jobs are unfair and a waste of time – sometimes even punishment or slavery. However, is there any way to escape this?