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‘Momentous Times’, C.C.A Derry-Londonderry, Art Monthly, Issue 370, October 2013

September 29, 2013

PDF – Momentous Times, Art Monthly, Issue 370

Bringing together a range of aesthetic and dialogical practices, ‘Momentous Times’ seeks to examine the relationship between art and the shifting forms and conditions of labour. The curatorial vision for the exhibition does not gloss over the complexity of this discourse; rather it provides multiple points of access, employing useful categorisations of artworks across historic, present day, futuristic and abstract spectrums. As a result, the depth of inquiry is far-reaching, and the exhibition – which is supplemented by two forums, three screenings and a publication – evokes reflection on a broad ‘labourisation’ of culture as it is represented in contemporary art.

This year marks the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout – Ireland’s most prolonged and significant industrial dispute to date, when 20,000 workers cited the right to unionise as their central concern. An in-depth, nationwide, labour-themed exhibition programme has been devised across six gallery platforms in Dublin, Belfast, Limerick and Derry, utilising the Lockout centenary as a timely moment to consider not just historical legacies, but the present-day, globalised interplays of labour and capital in post-bailout Ireland and beyond. This exhibition takes its title from a speech given by trade union leader Jim Larkin in 1914 acknowledging the achievements of the Lockout strikers in ‘raising the Irish working class from their knees’, opening with the words “Comrades – We are living in momentous times.”

Taking a longer view of history, several artworks in the exhibition trace the evolution of labour under empires which have come and gone. Within Olivia Plender’s playful installation Words & Laws, 2011 a sequence of illustrative works contrast the grandeur of stately homes possessed by ruling classes, with the sparse means and produce associated with agricultural peasant life. An image of a lion, crown and unicorn references the British coat of arms, while also triggering associations with Orwell’s vision for a specifically English form of socialism, liberated from Empire and an out-dated class system. These elements hang in a mobile formation across the windows of the gallery, floating like clouds above a plan of a Victorian walled garden adorning the floor below. Notions of fairy tales (which temper society’s hidden dangers) and folktales (which evolve in their passing from one generation to the next, accruing cultural changes) further pervade an ethnographic reading of Plender’s multifaceted work. An evolving acknowledgement of childhood during the Enlightenment period is embodied in a pile of children’s wooden building blocks, which also provides a physical metaphor for the cycle of demolition and reconstruction upon which empires are built.

No less complex in its research and production, Ultimate Substance, 2012 by Anja Kirschner and David Panos, comprises a single-channel video projected onto a screen supported by a large-scale geometric sculpture. Shot in the Numismatic Museum in Athens and the ancient mining district of Lavreotiki (which produced the silver for the introduction of coinage in ancient Greece), the film fluctuates between the two locations, conjuring tension between different cinematic modes. A dark, fictive, subterranean drama unfolds, depicting naked, toiling bodies, enslaved in their molten surrounds, eating fruit, sensuously, almost decadently, around a meagre fire with dirty hands. A harrowing, repetitive audio punctuates these scenes with each thud of stone against stone.  In contrast, above ground, cool documentary-style footage relays the interior of the contemporary museum, as school children consider the role of historians in preserving and disseminating history. The film is interspersed with computer-generated geometric diagrams, allowing a correlation with the sculptural work in the room, while also referencing the Pythagorean legacy of geometry, amidst the many contributions of ancient Greece to modernity.

The first of the three programmed screenings for ‘Momentous Times’ was Harun Farocki’s mesmerising film  Workers Leaving the Factory, 1995 which uses the factory gates as a semblance-point for an analysis of the evolution of the moving image.  A screening later this month of  Megs Morley and Tom Flanagan’s  film The Question of Ireland, 2013 promises to further extend this alignment of labour history with cinematic narratives, enacted through cross-disciplinary accounts of  the relevance of Marxism for contemporary Ireland.

Examining the conditions of the present-day worker, Marianne Flotron’s multi-channel film WORK, 2011 depicts a therapeutic intervention in a Dutch corporate setting. Using techniques from the Theatre of Oppressed and guided by its director, participants search their souls, uncovering their true feelings about their living and working conditions. The resulting sections of footage are presented across four screens, installed in a room isolated from the main gallery space.  Following a residency in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Aideen Doran is currently devising ways to synthesise her experience. Her photographic and text-based contributions to the exhibition’s publication focus on the poverty and inequalities of workers in the region’s garment factories, outlining the precarity of globalised labour.  Doran’s new works have gathered momentum, combining digital stills, audio and dual-language textile banners which locate a more hopeful pop-optimism in the relentlessly industrious process.

Toril Johannessen’s Words and Years, 2010 employs Capital’s hard-edged, data-aesthetic  to meticulously map the fluctuating usage of key words such as ‘hope’ and ‘reality’ across a complete range of journals and publications since the late 1800’s. Similarly, Hito Steyerl’s Red Alert, 2007 deconstructs codified vocabularies and reproducibility in an era of global terror.  With a future-orientated trajectory and a strong theoretical grounding in Marxist critique, Colin Darke’s The Year of the Revolution – Remove as Appropriate (or hand over to the barbarians), 2011 consists of 200 copies of Rosa Luxemburg’s book The Accumulation of Capital, published in 1913. Viewed in multiplicity, the collective books become abstract, which, on a sculptural level, has infinite appeal.

Presenting at the first of two scheduled seminars, Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective spoke pensively about ‘time’ as an omnipresent power and driving force of labour, which served to situate their practice across spatial and temporal dimensions.  Raqs Media Collective’s The First Telegram from the Last International, 2013 is a time capsule which they interred within the gallery’s disused fireplace, to be opened on August 26th, 2113 (exactly 200 years since the start of the Dublin Lockout). This act of ‘putting away a box of time’ warranted some reflection on assembly-line production targets, ‘time theft’ as a corporate crime and the erosion of distinctions between work and leisure through technological commodification, while also functioning to re-affirm the very purpose of this exhibition.

In marking history, the process of commemoration aims to understand why something is worth celebrating, and to “seize the time to make it memorable”. Occurring at a point of convergence between disparate histories, the timeliness of this exhibition also embroils an acute awareness of context.  Providing a temporary ‘distraction’ from a troubled militant past, and the effects of mass unemployment felt in the region since the decline of manufacturing industries, the U.K City of Culture 2013  programme proclaims ‘A New Story for Derry-Londonderry’.  As a counter to such slogan-orientated, authorative claims, ‘Momentous Times’ suggests conversely that “there are no clear answers on how to proceed”.  In responding to the Lockout centenary, this exhibition, along with concurrent programmes in other venues north and south of the border, reactivates a focused discussion on the inherent themes of labour for a contemporary audience.  Once a subject reserved for the Left, the forms and conditions of labour, (like political corruption and the state of the banks), has become a mainstream conversation. With precarity defining a post-industrial western workforce under a macro-economic jobless growth strategy, and mass protests by industrial workers in Asia and the Middle East highlighting the dubious role of western multinationals in these scenarios, it is hard to identify a set of issues more pertinent or worthy of exploration and representation in the visual arts.

 

Upcoming Events for ‘Momentous Times’:

October 5, 3–5pm

Artist talks by Aideen Doran & Colin Darke

October 9, 8–10pm

Screening of The Forgotten Space, a film essay by Noël Burch & Allan Sekula

October 26, 8–10pm

Screening of The Question of Ireland, a new film by Tom Flanagan & Megs Morley

November 2, 12–6 pm

Public forum with contributions by Mark Curran, Eamonn McCann, Anthony Iles,

Precarious Workers Brigade, Kerstin Stakemeier, Hito Steyerl & Josefine Wikström

Joanne Laws is an arts writer based in the west of Ireland.

 

 

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