On a wall in the showroom for Describing Labor there is a series of glass hammers and gloves. The pieces were designed by Esther Shalev-Gerz and produced by artisans at the Glass Pavilion in the Toledo Museum of Art. They are a symbolic gesture, reflecting the tools of labor, but incapable of functioning in a utilitarian manner. The gloves cannot be worn and the hammers would shatter if pounded even slightly.
The crux of the exhibition is a series of twenty-four collaborative large-scale photographs taken by Shalev-Gerz. The contents of each image were arranged by the invited participants, who are all local members of the creative milieu of Miami, some from the Wolfsonian itself, and others from fields as disparate as poetry and hair styling. The effect is stunning, and walking in the gallery reveals an artfully arranged splendor of artifacts, a sort of archival ikebana.
These artifacts come from the Wolfsonian’s collection, which houses a variety of objects and ephemera from 1851-1945. It is a vast collection, consisting of over 150,000 pieces, some of which depict men and women ensconced in the various drudgeries of production, whether for the glory of the people and their discovery of interchangeable parts, or mobilization for war. Through these objects, labor becomes the recurring visual reference in the photographic series.
Esther Shalev-Gerz, "Describing Labor - USSR in Construction and Photograph (untitled)", 2012, Installation shot; Courtesy the Wolfsonian Institute.
The participants were called upon to choose one object from forty-one representations of labor. The depictions spanned a variety of mediums from illustration to photography, oil painting and sculpture. Participants were then asked to describe the selected piece, whilst staring at it. This exercise was filmed and the video played in a continuous loop in the exhibition hall. Afterwards, Shalev-Gerz's collaborators were brought two floors down to the large object storage room where they placed their chosen piece amongst other items from the collection.
Shalev-Gerz did not move the objects; she simply photographed them. Sometimes striking, and sometimes beautiful in their banality, they stand representative of each participant’s decisions. And through their verbal explanations the pieces themselves become a conduit for description.
What is interesting to consider is that actual work must be done for full appreciation of Describing Labor. Confusion for the uninitiated lies in experiencing the show without the patience to delve deeper. It helps to move through the process of one of the photographs to truly grasp what Shalev-Gerz is striving for.
Describing Labor – USSR in Construction and Photograph (untitled), 2012, is one of the few instances in which two pictures were chosen by the collaborator. In this case it was Ruth Sackner, a famous collector of concrete and visual poetry, who explains that she chose the photo on the left when she noticed it showed a woman doing heavy industrial work typically reserved for men. Sackner goes on to say that women doing war work is “timeless and still meaningful to us today.” She tells the camera that one of the women in the opposite picture, taken from a Soviet periodical, reminds her of her paternal grandmother. This admission makes the experience hugely personal.
What is most fascinating about the process is that all of the participants, without specific prompting, offer up reasons for their selections. This highlights a general pattern in which people relate to the artifacts of labor, and to artifacts in general. Consequentially, the main focal point of Describing Labor becomes the act of description rather than labor or the objects that depict it. These elements, the photographs and their explanations, make each piece in Describing Labor a cohesive whole.
(Image on top: Esther Shalev-Gerz, "Describing Labor - Man with Drill", 2012, Installation shot; Courtesy Wolfsonian Institute.)