This exhibition takes exhaustion as its theme
January 22, 2016

A new group exhibition takes on the relentless working culture of the digital age, asking if we are burnt-out or newly productive with the advent of the internet

Contemporary working culture has become increasingly defined by endless connectivity and systematic exhaustion. Branded as flexible working, the 9 to 5 day is progressively being adapted to channel a greater level of productivity from a new generation. These workers are programmed to a non-stop network and do not remember life before the Internet. This exhaustive working culture is explored in a new group exhibition ‘Use/User/Used/’ at The Zabludowicz Collection. A diverse group of emerging artists and curators question what it means to exist and wear-out in an age where information is currency, identities are lost to work and the pressure for productivity lasts far beyond the regular working day.

Entering the doors of the Zabludowicz Collection’s main hall, a space littered with beaten and broken objects, the feeling of exhaustion is immediate. At the entrance to the space, a screen shows an animated man in smart office wear acts out broken, robotic movements. The shell of a battered car lies used and useless at the centre of the room. A plaster cast hangs on the wall in the shape of a delicate unfolded paper airplane, while a dead MacBook melts into a plinth and a worn-out coat hangs above. All the while, performers dressed in black sluggishly drag microphones across the walls and floors as if to wipe them clean, sweeping a dull hum across the space.


Branded as flexible working, the 9 to 5 day is progressively being adapted to channel a greater level of productivity from a new generation.


Put together as part of the gallery’s annual Testing Ground for Art and Education, a programme that provides a platform for emerging curators and artists, the exhibition has been curated by ten students of various London MA Curating courses. The show is made up of 22 different works, all responding conceptually to exhaustion as state of modern existence, and its ramifications. When home and office become so interchangeable, it is increasingly difficult to differentiate ourselves from the identity given to us by our jobs. Artie Vierkant references this commodification of the self compellingly with his screen work Antoine Office, Antoine Casual. From the two screens, Vierkant’s two ‘office’ and ‘casual’ characters face opposite ways, repeating the same stifled movements. As the movements become more frantic the characters become stretched and distorted, until the loop begins again.

Lucy Tomlin’s installation People today buy with their eyes takes the analogy of a stretched, robotic body and plays with it further. Two colourful vending machines with the words ‘Making Life Taste Better’ are filled with shelves of painted marble and plasticine moulded to look like sirloin steaks and wrapped tightly in clear film. The culture of processed food and mass production are overtly referenced, but the viewer and each nameless, unidentifiable body is also reflected within it. “We have the idea of autonomy running through the exhibition,” says co-curator Celine Roblin-Robson. “How we lose autonomy as we are adopted by other things and lose who we are. In a culture where everything is readily available and replicated, we become like these slabs of nothing, a formulated and reproduced identity to be chosen or discarded.”


When home and office become so interchangeable, it is increasingly difficult to differentiate ourselves from the identity given to us by our jobs. 


In Josh Kline’s Packing for Peanuts, these tensions are presented in the 3D-printed body parts of a FedEx worker, packed up within a FedEx box. ‘It is about how a person becomes a measurable, consumable unit’ says curator and Testing Grounds coordinator Kelly Large. “How someone can so easily reproduce an identity and a brand, and how corporations can claim someone’s identity and manage their time and social life.” Jack Strange explores identity as formed and distorted by our digital context with his installation Emily Callum, John, Grace, Elizabeth a set of five white MacBooks on pillars, looping the contents of five hard-drives belonging to the five names. In a time when so much of our identity lives outside of us and every user can be defined by their machines, the work can be read as five contemporary portraits, as well as a reference to the ubiquity of the MacBook as a space of work and leisure.


Throughout the room’s dual-level layout, exhausted bodies can be seen collapsing into exhausted objects. As in Tobias Madison’s The Holy Holies (Conflicted Copy & Fukishima Mon Barbour Jacket), where a bleached jacket hangs hopelessly on a chain, or in Lizzie Fitch’s Drop, in which a large print of a figure draped over a wooden structure cleverly distorts the body’s tired flesh. That these spent resources, and our defeated objects and bodies, might have another life when repurposed into art is a convincingly hopeful thread running through the show. The artists are playing or manipulating objects that are beaten and used, but which take on a new life within this space. They suggest that through art, the mind and body can rework its depleted resources to create something new. “It is the notion that art is perhaps a way of thinking through what happens with exhaustion beyond an end point,” says Large. “Whether it is an object or a body, something new happens in that state because you are moved somewhere else.”


They suggest that through art, the mind and body can rework its depleted resources to create something new.


Artist Alex Dordroy’s two exhibited works draw on this transition. Folded, Unfolded, Sunk and Scanned, a plaster sculpture shaped on an unfolded scrap paper airplane. A throwaway material is turned into something new. “It is an intimate and beautiful renewal of resources, and a portrayal of how we fold and unfold our lives,” says Roblin-Robson. These discarded and repurposed items, feature repeatedly in Dodroy’s work and are often transformed into sculptural relics. In Congsumer (MacBook Pro), Dodroy casts his old, broken MacBook within a Jesmonite plinth. With this transition, from a dead object into an artwork, Dodroy offers an escape from the destructive cycle. Again, with the work of Yngve Holen we are presented with a route of escape via conceptualised objects. Titled Extended Operations, it consists of a piece of fleshy marble positioned on the end of a of an airplane escape, depicting exhaustion in more abstract terms. Here the body is reduced to a piece of meat, solid and unmoving in a state of emergency. Holden’s piece is can be interpreted as both figurative and abstract, that is, as Large puts it, “an emergency trolley in a hospital transporting a slab of bodily meat, or a beautiful marble sculpture on a plinth.”

While the theme of exhaustion running throughout Use/User/Used/ captures a very real and dark reality to contemporary working culture, there is also an element of humour pushing us through. This is most explicit in Rachel Maclean’s, film ‘lolcats’, in which she assumes all roles played out on a dizzyingly animated green screen. Maclean’s body becomes a resource, used over and over again until the identity is lost, completely saturated and absorbed by popular culture. Yet the overall effect of the film is as comical as it is depressing. As Roblin-Robson concludes, “the ideas of exhaustion, redundancy and obsolescence reflect an anxiety that we are experiencing as a culture right now, but the way we have selected and brought them together are quite playful and light.” Exhaustion is a condition that we all know and share, which binds us as “a community exhausted.” We despair at our reality, and all the while it becomes part of the everyday. Yet, as the exhibition seems to suggest, art offers the opportunity to play with an alternative beyond a used and depleted end.


Use/User/Used/ is on show at the Zabludowicz Collection until 21st February 2016. 


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