An Artist's Work is Never Done
It is hard returning to the office after perusing an exhibition by Simon Gush. His ongoing thesis on work, which exposes how unnatural an activity it is, usually, if only temporarily, relieves you of the compulsion to, well, work. But can it really be removed? Even if Gush is able to convince you to make a beeline for your sofa where you binge on series while grazing on crisps are you disconnected from work? It’s a question I try not to ask when lying on my sofa licking my salty fingers, but Gush forces it on you.
In person Gush tends not to gush about much, not even his work, but I imagine he would say you can’t ever stop working. For the purposes of journalistic research, I have spent many workday afternoons trying not to work and have found it virtually impossible, because it is either done under the guise of journalistic research (work) or I will spend much of my slothful time justifying how this free time, will better equip me to be more effective during work time. In this way lounging around is a preparation for ‘work’ and is only permissible or acceptable because it will be balanced out by a productive activity at some point. And then there is the fact that whatever I am doing – I remain an art critic. Even if the paper tells me not to write about art ever again – which they have done - I’ve been doing it for so long now, that not only has it become an integral part of my identity but even if I want to carve out another identity separate from my profession, people around me prevent me from doing so.
Gush drives all these points home pretty strongly in the film Calvin and Holiday, a wry play on the Calvin and Hobbes comic, while referencing Calvinism and its opposite – holidaying. I’m not sure what Gush’s day-job is – I sense it is something he hates as his resistance to work and his observation in this film that most work is basically menial (is this true in the post-industrial age?) implies it is hugely unsatisfying. I suppose the only pleasure he can derive from engaging in work, is that by making work about work, turning it into art and something that can be sold, might be proof that he has subverted the system in which he finds himself quite thoroughly trapped. That is if you agree that art is not ‘work’ or is anti-work or, maybe in Gush’s instance – ‘meta-work’ – that is work centered on exposing the foibles of work. In this way Gush’s meditation on this topic almost always becomes the lens through which he attempts to discover what art is, or isn’t – sometimes its easier to find proof of its opposite.
Cheekily, he exploits his inability to be liberated from work as an essential part of his art and his exhibition at the Stevenson Joburg, Workplace, is basically a display of “work” he made while holidaying in Mozambique and Europe. Gush makes work on holiday not only because he loves the contradiction, but as is the case for many of us who are slaves to one entity during the day, at night we try to (re)claim the part of ourselves that is repressed, which is prevented from ‘breathing’ – call that your ‘art self’. Most of us keep our arty selves to ourselves – we make ashtrays in pottery classes or arrange vegetables artfully on a plate. Perhaps it is this kind of irrelevant creative expression that really isn’t work, because it isn’t sold and truly has no purpose other than pleasure.
Gush, however, squanders his free time luxuriating on the culture of work – which could only ever be a leisure activity really, because those who work for a living are seemingly unable to really pursue such a whimsical pursuit. It would be self-defeating and would take up time that would be unproductive. Or is exposing the artifice of our ingrained work ethic more important than work itself? In harnessing the political, social, economic and philosophical aspects tied to work, Gush gives his resistance to work, his leisure time meaning. If Gush was truly free from work – he would have no art to show us – his filmic works would consist of him lying on his bed staring at the ceiling, which might be preferable to the stark black and white films of banal city scenes with the noise of ‘work’ (drilling and such) going on in the background with overly determined phrases in between that eliminate any kind of ambiguity the images might offer. He does like to do the work for his viewers. Maybe he knows how lazy they are, when they step into galleries.
Thing is the real conversation about art and work isn’t really present in this show. Artists like to think they evade all the pressures us ordinary working folk confront – such as being persistently exploited. Most people are paid considerably less than their worth – that is how capitalism works. Some artists do quite obviously sidestep this, but they are very few and mostly dead. As someone quite succinctly phrased it the other day: “there is a reason why Ross Douglas has retired in France and I am still saving for a holiday in France.”
Gush believes he can work while rejecting the activity. He is clever at accruing meaning for his work and adding value to it by attaching it to fashionable discourses; invisible histories, exploitation, etc and then shaping it into slick artworks that make his work appear so monumental, collectable. Its all so tasteful and right, you can hardly fault it and that may be its weakness, if you know what I mean. There is fuck all risk. Its too clean and neat given he is so entangled in this work mess. Maybe this is because it is a Stevenson show, the fountain of controlled art chaos.
In his Yellow Jersey series of photographs he maps a journey from the borders of Mozambique to Maputo, tracing historical ones that relate to the relationship between our countries with a specific focus on the recruitment of labour for South African mines. This pattern was set as far back as the late 1800s when the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, Wenela, was established by South Africans to recruit labourers from that country and others on the continent. This isn’t an unknown phenomenon, though we might not have realised how far back it dates, but it is one well-worth taking an interest in, given the seemingly deep-rooted form of ‘Afrophobia’ that our society is trying to rid itself of, or even understand. You see: the show is über relevant.
While Gush is interested in the life and culture surrounding work and labour, he doesn’t depict people in these images. This has always been part of the strength of his work centered on work; he is interested in patterns not people per se and as such his projects are not about extracting our middle-class feigned sense of outrage or pity, empathy or problematic (over) identification with subjects.
There are a number of defining aspects to Gush’s off-beat Yellow Jersey series of images, which give it weight and evoke an inner friction. The first and most obvious being that it is quite irresistible. Seductive, mesmerising and tactile are some of the adjectives that come to mind and are a product of processing his photographs onto aluminum. These smooth, silver surfaces turn these images into objects. They are things rather than windows into the world – as photographs tend to be. The result of this is that the time and place in which these images were taken seem more immovable, have more significance though they depict fairly banal scenes of this journey – landscapes, buildings, facades of factories. He can't help himself luxuriating in the architectural features of buildings - does he not get a little lost in the aesthetics of industrialisation and perhaps are these images not tinged with a twisted nostalgia for this age?
Not only does the object-status of the photographs memorialise (and oversentimentalise) the journeys, of those who came before to Mozambique to secure cheap foreign labour, and his own in search of this narrative, story, but they function almost as a template that can be used to keep reproducing the images, the journeys. Work is, of course, always tied to reproduction and the machines or mechanisms that allow for this to occur are prized because they are viewed as the kind of fecund device from which everything flows. Particularly, now in this post-industrialised era where nostalgia has grown around these outmoded objects. I’m thinking here of the old printing-machine that is located in the reception at Independent newspapers, where it functions as an artwork, a sculpture of sorts.
Photography then isn’t a coincidental medium for Gush as it too is linked to reproduction as is film (can be played over and over). By transforming the images into objects could be read as a desire to both present the ‘original’ image – the outmoded source, which now, cannot reproduce itself – it has become a memorial to itself – like the old press in the lobby of our offices – and as such prevents further reproduction from occurring.
This has ramifications for the work as art objects and for the content. Presumably, the photographs can’t be editioned or are less likely to be, given the cost. This allows Gush to halt the reproduction of his work – and the way in which art has increasingly become subject to hyper-commodification – though in doing so the works due to their rarity then attract more value. But it is this value that in some way lends credibility to the subject-matter – the sociopolitical cause that beats at the heart of the work – it ensures that it is not a product like any other. Yet isn’t Gush cashing in on other people’s exploitation?
Does he counter this by memorializing these journeys and not depicting subjects? Or do these journeys really only belong to him and the narratives he creates around them. In other words, do these images only make concrete his own rather peculiar “work” as an artist – in his investigations into the notion of work, he never overlooks his own position and indeed in this exhibition it is no different as he also makes reference to it in one of the texts coupled with a series of images.
The work of an artist has no meaning without art products, especially in the context of a gallery and our consumerist culture. The inherent tactile quality of the images, their undeniable appeal, is in contradiction not only to the banal subject-matter but also this history of exploitation, which is evoked but never revealed, visually or through the texts. But these images do conform to this object-based obsessed world of ours, where we like to see the labour – hold it in our hands and weigh it so to speak.
Gush can’t really weigh in on work without touching on our history, not only to make his work relevant but there are topics that cannot be entered into without opening it up, particularly work, which is so tied to apartheid and its exploitative policies – it was the ideological tool of an extreme form of capitalism where securing cheap labour, and exploitation was tied to racial politics and prejudice. Foreign nationals perhaps suffered the most then (as they do now) – as they were paid less and on the receiving end of the worst of it.
This link between the liberation struggle, labour and politics is touched on through a suite of photographs that presumably refer to a text about Ruth First and how in exile in that country she worked at destroying these recruitment stations and policies by the South African industry.
This brings us to another defining feature of this body of work – the role of the text, the image, text pairings. The texts are much more than captions, they establish the body as a narrative, a journey, while also harnessing some of its poetic nature, and asking questions, leading us towards layers of meaning that are not readily accessible. Does this point towards a failing in the communicative function of the artworks, or is it just a mode of working where text and image complement and drive each other?
In the films they overstate the meaning and leave no loose ends. Has Gush overworked his material here – is there a line at which he should stop making sense of his own work, perhaps this fixation he has with work is rooted in his inability to surrender not only to work, but the peculiar form of work that we call art, which sometimes works better when it has no determined or known conclusion.