EAST OF EDEN
Since the dawn of industrialization, people have been ashamed of their own labor. They hide it from the gaze of others, just as Adam and Eve hid their nakedness after being expelled from Paradise. They suppress it because for them it is a reminder of their impotence and dependency. For the fact is they could not survive on their own strength alone, with the work of their own hands – without capital, in other words. So instead they allow their labor to be exploited, fully cognizant that the capital will increase all the more as a result. But they also allow their status, their social identity, to be defined through their work. As if without work they would be nothing.
The shameful aspect of work is reflected in the fact that unemployment is industrial society’s greatest taboo. It is also reflected in the fact that since industrialization, depictions of work in art have been all but outlawed. After all, images of toiling laborers would be bound to expose industrialization’s scandalous roots in exploitation. Thus, work can be represented only as heroic or pathological and hence degraded to mere spectacle. Tourists all over the world – tourists being people temporarily suspended from work – generally derive great pleasure from watching craftsmen plying their trades. And how many of us[EFY1] , returning home from work in the evening, pause in front of a construction site to savor the sight, say, of bricklayers building a wall, brick by brick. Not only that, but visiting museums in our free time we share in the sublimation of work. We marvel at the ‘creations’ resulting from this work, [EFY2] as if they belong to a realm that is somehow detached from the prevailing economy. Seeing such creations we may feel a twinge of envy, aware that such incredibly valuable works of art are far beyond our financial means. Yet we probably also have an inkling that the majority of artists cannot live solely from the works they produce – which is perhaps a consolation, of sorts.
Jan De Cock’s Everything For You, Herford addresses just this dilemma. Especially moving for me is the photograph of the artist’s assistant building a wall. It shows him kneeling in front of the half-finished result of his handiwork – his employer’s creation – and staring into the camera, proud and at the same time somewhat embarrassed, as if caught red-handed. The scene is quite obviously posed and is illuminated like a stage set. While at first glance we cannot be sure whether what we are looking at is indoors or out, the ornamental tree with its red fruits indicates that it must be the latter. It is December, and therefore cold. The streetlamp is not shining, so the shot must have been taken before dusk.
The figure kneeling in front of the bricks is clearly no ordinary bricklayer. His coat is blue – identifying him as a blue-collar, not white-collar worker – but it is not tatty or covered in stains the way most builders’ overalls are. Nor is he wearing a helmet. The assistant has taken off his right glove and is posing with his hand on the edge of the mortar bucket, as if he were about to reload his trowel or mix some new mortar. But he might just as well be a painter, pausing for a moment before dipping his brush into the paint bucket – or a sculptor, for that matter.
The work, consisting of two low walls running along the border between a gravel bed for plantings and the tarmac driveway, seems only partially finished. There are still some bricks lying around, but it is difficult to determine whether they are part of the composition or are waiting to be built into the wall. There are some timber structures, too, although these have a makeshift, temporary look. Presumably it is the artist himself who decides on the definitive arrangement, but his assistant who actually executes it. Whether or not the work is based on a sketch is not immediately clear. But there are certainly no plans in sight, nor is there any sign of a plumb line or spirit level. So it cannot really be a construction site; it is rather an artist’s studio that has been temporarily installed outdoors. The low walls might even be defined as the pedestal on which the timber elements are mounted.
The language of forms recalls the abstract sculpture of the second and third decades of the twentieth century[AB3] , such as the Constructivist sculptures and buildings that were created in the Soviet Union after the revolution. This is the language of forms that celebrated the triumph of the proletariat and the emancipation of the working class, if you will, and that informed the utopian visions of Vladimir Tatlin, the architectons of Kazimir Malevich, and the projects of Konstantin Melnikov that were actually realized. The assistant in the photograph allows the viewer to have a share in this tradition. He is not just an actor but also a mediator, rather like the staffage figures in the paintings of old masters, whose purpose was to mediate between the viewer and the subject of the painting. He traces an arc back to the heyday of the Moscow Workers’ Club that continues to resonate in architectural discourse to this day, in part because it articulates the theme of work that is so notoriously difficult to depict.
Jan De Cock’s works of art are always site-specific; Everything for You, Herford is thus a blatant allusion to the architecture of Frank Gehry in the city of the title. The bricks used by De Cock evoke the age of industrial architecture, on top of whose ruins such post-industrial museums as MARTa Herford now stand. Gehry’s experimental approach, which in the 1970s and 1980s was described through recourse to terms such as ‘deconstruction’ and ‘neo-avant-garde’, has its roots in the revolutionary architecture of the 1920s, when the boundaries between art and architecture fell, at least for a while. He became famous in the 1970s when he began creating bricolage-like, ‘do-it-yourself’ compositions of unusual materials, including for his own house in Santa Monica. Paradoxically, however, it is the architecture of Gehry, of all people, that is now contributing to the demise of traditional craftsmanship. Thanks to computer programs modeled on those of the aviation industry developed in the 1990s by Gehry’s firm, complex forms can now be machine-made at affordable prices without the need of craftsmen. What other sectors of industry underwent back in the 1960s and 1970s – automation, in other words – is now affecting the construction industry, too, thanks to Gehry’s own firm. The so-called ‘Bilbao Effect’ of his principle work, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao completed in 1997, is being imitated the world over. Essentially, it is an attempt to reactivate peripheral cities devastated by deindustrialization by planting spectacular museums in their midst.
MARTa Herford is one of many museums around the globe that has learned from the Bilbao Effect and that thanks to Gehry’s own personal stardom as an architect is guaranteed a place on the cultural map. It is a mimesis of Bilbao, so to speak. De Cock, meanwhile, has imitated the façade of the building by using the same material, while at the same time critically undermining the institution behind it; for unlike the Guggenheim Bilbao, where Richard Serra’s sculptures have become part of the inner fabric, Everything For You, Herford is open to everyone, all the time, free of charge.
Not by chance did the artist choose the bed for plantings as his context. Just as people continue to evoke the Paradise from which we were expelled both as idea and image, and just as industrialization displaces work as a motif while at the same time retaining it, if only as an aesthetically framed spectacle, so too it frames the ‘nature’ that it has displaced in the form of ‘parks’ and green spaces. This structure [AB4] made of bricks and mortar, timber and paint, erected by the artist’s assistant formally approaches the materials of the façade – and not just formally either; it can also be interpreted as a homage to the ornamental tree planted not long before. And in much the same way as the roots of a tree can split apart a tarmac cover, so too the fragmentary nature of Everything For You, Herford seems to penetrate and invade the hermetically sealed surfaces of architecture. It is thus a metaphoric image for the autonomy of art, which can never be completely contained but which still needs protection, which no one can keep for himself, and which speaks to all.
- [EFY1]Wher Saunders says us, Ursprung is consistently speaking of a „them“: people behaving like tourists. I’m fine with “us”; just wonder if that is indeed better in English?
- [EFY2]In german: „They (/We) marvel at the „creations“ resulting from this work, as if…“
- [AB3]or 20th?
- [AB4]Since we can't say construction....