Liat Berdugo, Chris Burden, Pak Sheung Chuen, Oskar Dawicki, The Debris Facility Pty Ltd, Zachary Formwalt, Kate Meakin, Ian Milliss, Elizabeth Newman and Mladen Stillnović.
Curated by Liang Luscombe and Patrice Sharkey.
West Space, Melbourne.
17 June – 9 July 2016
The Trouble with Remuneration explores the variety of ways in which artists and their work interact with capital: if we accept that artworks share the same conditions as contemporary capitalism, then what occurs when artists use these conditions as the very material of their artistic practice? The exhibition has been developed in response to a number of recent local events, namely the 2015 Federal Government’s decision to remove $60 million over 4 years from the Australia Council. As well as the boycott of the 2014 Sydney Biennale, which saw several exhibiting artists withdraw from participating in the exhibition in light of the major financial sponsor, Transfield’s involvement in the management and construction of Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres. These incidents speak more broadly to the shifting economic landscape, and the prevalence of and increasing reliance on private money in the arts – a phenomenon somewhat belatedly developing in Australia compared to more established global markets.
The Trouble with Remuneration uses this heightened moment to ask, what differing strategies of resistance, refusal, complicity, activism and entrepreneurship have been employed by artists in order to position their practice in an art world increasingly fixated on production and consumption?
Elizabeth Newman’s text-based paintings, which employ emphatic phrases such as ‘One less artist’ and ‘Please remove me from your mailing list’, not only highlight Newman’s own artistic fatigue but also acknowledge the increasing role that self-promotion plays in sustaining an artistic career. This contrary attitude also underlines much of Mladen Stillnović’s artistic practice; he reaffirms his position as an artist who operates as remedial to the surrounding reality, contrasting his experience of Yugoslav socialism to current neoliberal global capitalism. In Artist at work (1978) the artist is portrayed while sleeping, celebrating the act of laziness in artistic labour.
While Stilinović uses his own indifference as a political statement, Ian Millis’ practice has continually advocated for artistic practice to exist beyond the gallery and become more embedded in collective activism. So much so that Life in One Room (1971) – a floor drawing of a dystopian living arrangement with only the most basic amenities – was the last work Millis presented in a gallery context for the next twenty years, going on to found the Artworkers Union that same year and support the development of the Australia Council’s Art and Working Life Program, which saw artists placed in unions and non-for-profit organisations. The aim of the Working Life’s Program was to foster a creative force within working life and revitalise the cultural traditions of the labour movement.
The prevalence of cognitive or immaterial work in contemporary capitalism implies that the main source of surplus value is the ‘creative work’. Within this space of immaterial labour and corporate jargon, Debris Facility utilises corporate identity as a framework to augment their artistic identity as fluid and parasitic, having completed a ‘corporate takeover’ of their previous identity Dan Bell. As a formal marker of this takeover, the first Annual General Meeting of the Debris Facility was recently held for stakeholders, presenting their recent operations and calling for stakeholders to vote for committee members. Employing a comically high amount of complicated corporate ‘spin’ throughout the AGM, the event provided a critical and self-reflective framework to reflect upon the often glossed over artistic transactions and negotiations that dictate revenue making and exhibitions.
The continued abstraction of market activity is also the subject of Zachary Formwalt’s video essay In Place of Capital (2009) in which Formwalt examines William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1845 photographs of the Royal Exchange in London. What appears in these photographs is not only the edifice of a financial institution, but also photography’s inability to capture and clearly represent objects in movement. This becomes a starting point to explore the failure of this medium and visual culture in order to represent how capital became increasingly immaterial. In parallel, Liat Berdugo’s video The Original Zoom (2012) highlights and challenges the commodification of gesture surrounding digital technologies. Enacting the ‘zoom’ gesture used to operate a Apple Inc. tablet without the tablet itself, she challenges Apple Inc.’s patent upon this physical action, which was filed on the 25 January 2011.
Back in 1979, Chris Burden offered a simple solution to the question of how one might raise funds to support their artistic practice: for one hour, live on FM radio, he repeatedly asked listeners to, ‘consider the possibility of sending money directly to me, to Chris Burden, 823 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, California 90291’. Burden makes clear that he is not selling anything, nor is he a part of any charitable or religious organisation. As such, one of the most intriguing features of Send Me Your Money is the way in which it allows the listener to conceptualise what it would mean to hand over their money for nothing in return.
Burden’s appeal opens up the question of entrepreneurship in art, and how artists may choose to openly embrace the activities of the art market and other related industries. This includes, for example, posing in L’Uomo Vogue, the Italian edition of Men’s Vogue, which every two years publishes a special edition in honour of the Venice Biennale that features fashion spreads of contemporary artists who, by and large, are seen lounging in serious repose; enacting the lofty idea of the artist as someone who does not perform work in the traditional sense. Presented as a counterpoint to this posturing is a series of photographs by Kate Meakin, featuring items by fashion label H.B. Peace, which offer an exploration of the political potential (or lack thereof) that is contained in the imagery and language of high fashion.
Also included in the exhibition are stills from the TV drama Empire – a series that centres on a hip hop music company run by the Lyons, a wealthy African-American family. Given the family’s affluence, as well as the aspirational drive for power that plays out amongst the family members and propels the central story arc, the interior sets are consistently dripping with opulence. This has led to a fascinating meta-narrative around the paintings on display in these interiors. Carefully selected by the show’s set decorator Caroline Perzan, the artworks featured in Empire are mostly portraits by contemporary African-American artists that consciously address issues of race, identity and power. Becoming part of Empire’s decorative backdrop raises valuable questions around the context and circulation of an artwork: while museums and galleries are still traditionally seen as the best avenue to properly contextualise an artist’s work, being featured on Empire means engaging with a much larger audience, through a different layer of popular culture, and creates greater visibility for artists addressing the issue of invisibility of African-Americans in the US. It has also led to increased real-world interest from art collectors, and a push from commercial dealers for their artists’ work to be featured on the show.
To end at the beginning, the first work the audience encounters in the exhibition is the figure of the artist – sporting a glittering blue sequin jacket, presumably dressed for his exhibition opening – who weeps as he laments, ‘I’d like to apologise for the exhibition not being as good as it could be’. The artist is Oskar Dawiki performing I’m Sorry (2001), and his pre-emptive apology acknowledges how an artist can feel under great pressure to perform or produce. This apology felt like the most apt starting point for the exhibition, which presents the artist’s interaction with capital as a series of negotiations within a world that incessantly asks us to perform.
Liang Luscombe & Patrice Sharkey