MAO Assembly – Art and Labour

MAO Assembly is a way for you to direct our online conversations into areas that mean the most to you. For this latest piece, Oxford University DPhil candidate in English, Kitty Gurnos-Davies responds to what she describes as the ‘elusive and complex’ subject of artistic labour, traversing William Morris’ early arts and crafts movement, Judy Chicago’s ‘Birth Project’ and Ai Weiwei’s artistic response to the migrant crisis.

The relationship between art and labour is complex. Fundamental to how this relationship is conceived is the question of what constitutes artistic practice. In other words, when we talk about art, should we consider the end product – the finished canvas, the video installation, the sculpture – as distinct from its process of creation? And, if we understand the two to be intertwined, who should be credited as the creator?

In the decades around the turn of the twentieth century, the Art and Crafts movement in Britain saw art and the labour necessary to produce it as inseparable. Following the mass industrialisation of consumer objects like furniture, wallpaper, and textiles, individuals associated with the movement called for a return to hand-made artisanal design. One the foremost proponents, William Morris (1834-1896), argued that art should be defined as the ‘beauty produced by the labour of man both mental and bodily’ (‘The Relations of Art to Labour’, 1890). For Morris, the physical labour necessary to envision effective design was a defining element of art itself. Committed to his socialist beliefs in principle, if not always practice, he gave the craftspeople in his workshops a greater level of autonomy hoping that they would be creatively fulfilled by their work.

Love is Enough installation image © Modern Art Oxford. Image: Andy Keate

Contemporary artists have continued to politicise artistic labour as part of their practice. The American artist Judy Chicago frequently undertakes collaborative processes of art-making as an enactment of her feminist politics. She conceives of collaborative art-making as a feminist statement that challenges individualistic modes of artistic production. For Chicago, the latter have worked to exclude women and other underrepresented artists whose practice does not conform to the mythical status of the (often, white male) artist working alone to single-handedly shape the course of art history.

Between 1980 and 1985 she worked with over 150 female sewers to create a series of textile images relating to motherhood. Titled ‘The Birth Project’, Chicago used the making process as a means to explore two forms of labour specifically relating to female experience; childbirth and the traditionally ‘feminine’ skill of textile production. The collaborative nature of the project cast the sewers as a community of women bonded by their shared creative efforts and collective meditation on the theme of motherhood. Chicago consequently understands the production process of the artworks as important as the final product and the textile images are frequently accompanied by photographs, correspondences, and written documents that document the nature of the specific collaborations. The inclusion of these documents when exhibiting the project ensures that the viewer is made aware of the nature of the labour employed to create the work before them.

The relationship between art and labour is perhaps nowhere more complex than in the context of conceptual art. Coming to prominence in the late 1960s, conceptual art refers to works where the idea, or concept, of the project is deemed to be more important than the physical artwork itself. Although the term ‘conceptual art’ is often used in the context of art history to refer to works made in the late 1960s and 1970s, its practices are widely used today. Well-known contemporary conceptual artists include Jeff Koons with his large-scale metallic balloon sculptures and Ai Weiwei, the artist famous for filling the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with thousands of porcelain sunflower seeds in 2010 – a commentary on global economic exchange. It is Ai Weiwei’s recent exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, London that we turn to next.

Ai Weiwei, Fly The Flag (2019) Photo by Camilla Greenwell

In the exhibition, Ai Weiwei presented a series of cast-iron sculptures created using sections of the rare Brazilian tree, pequi vinagreiro. The project took Ai Weiwei to the Atlantic Forest of Bahia in the Northeast of Brazil where he worked with local communities and artisans to locate the roots which would serve as the base of the large-scale sculptures. Plaster moulds were taken of the forms which were then transported to China to be cast in iron and finished with a patina of burnt-orange rust. Titled Roots (2019), the project investigated ideas of uprootedness by drawing a symbolic connection between forced human migration and the destruction of the rainforest – a message represented through the metaphorical and literal uprooting of the trees referenced by the presence of the sculptures displaced in the London gallery.

A short video accompanied the exhibition that visualised the labour processes employed to create these large-scale sculptures. The video began by briefly showing a subtitled conversation in which Ai Weiwei decided which sections of roots would be fixed together to create the physical composition of the pieces. The rest of the video featured no dialogue, and instead focussed on the activities of the artisans in Brazil and China tasked with making the sculptures.

The video itself can be interpreted not only as the documentation of the art-making process, but a piece of video art in its own right. It focusses on moments of spectacle; the luminous orange pot of molten iron, the crack running across the white plaster cast as it is chipped away, the bright white sparks flying from the soldering iron. These actions are cut as short sequences juxtaposed in a montage with atmospheric underscoring. The camera frame is often focussed tight on the manipulation of the materials in the hands of the artisans – rendering the bodies of the men both visible and anonymised. Out of the context of the exhibition, the activity onscreen might be more readily interpreted as industrial labour and might prompt us to consider what distinguishes such forms of production from art-making. Is it the status and intention of the person overseeing that work? Or perhaps the context in which the finished object is presented and interpreted?

Unlike Judy Chicago’s ‘Birth Project’ which is interested in how the creative vision of each sewer engages with the larger textile piece, here, the artisans are tasked with materialising Ai Weiwei’s vision. It is the artist’s concept – his creative vision – that is conceived as most important in the hierarchy of production. It is Ai Weiwei alone who gets to speak in the film and his name that heads up the exhibition.

My observation is not intended as criticism. Collaborative models of production have always underpinned the creation of art – we see this in the workshop model employed by the great masters of Western art who worked with groups of artists to meet the demand for their work, often on the same canvas. In a contemporary context, collaboration is particularly necessary when working on ambitious, large-scale projects that employs unconventional materials such as in Ai Weiwei’s work.

Nevertheless, conceptual art prompts interesting questions concerning the relationship between art and labour. Are those who contribute to the making process best understood as co-artists, collaborators, or labourers? To what extent does their own creative agency and interpretation shape the final art object? Should all contributors be credited? The answers to these questions are elusive and complex, differing in the specific context of each work. However, they demonstrate that looking beyond the art object exhibited in the gallery can offer valuable insights about the nature of artistic practice and the power dynamics of creative agency.

Kitty Gurnos-Davies is a DPhil candidate in English researching women and materiality in contemporary theatre. Kitty also volunteers at Modern Art Oxford.

Read more about how you can get involved in MAO Assembly here. 

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