The notion of artistic labour cuts to the core of artistic activity. It deals with the reality of artistic endeavour and the economic weight it carries within society. While the problem of artistic labour came to the fore in post-World War II avant-garde art, the collapsing divide between art and life, work and play has continued to unfold, taking on new depth and dimensions in the practices of contemporary artists. Artists today go further by asserting themselves as workers within an increasingly globalised economy, bringing to bear artistic strategies first adopted by avant-garde artists who” managed, staged, mimicked, ridiculed, and challenged the cultural and societal anxieties around the shifting terrain and definitions of work.”
Performance art has been distinct in the way it embodies the changing definitions of labour by presenting art as a task performed. Assuming the role of manager and worker, the artist is often found both setting and completing task-like activities that adopt “strategies of efficient and productive labour in a parodic and deliberatively unproductive way.” Such performative work within contemporary practice has become increasingly self-aware of its historical underpinnings and more reflexive in its critique of artistic labour.
Kate Mitchell is a Sydney-based artist who is well aware of the historical and critical facets of performance and task-based art. Her live and video-based action works re-engage audiences with questions concerning the limitations of temporal perception, physical experience and the art/life continuum, following in the tradition of endurance and durational performance. Her whimsical approach to the honoured demands for resilience, strength and determination in endurance-based individual performance results in a subtle interplay between historical references and contemporary experience. Mitchell’s work 9 to 5 (2009), for instance, sees the artist enacting a sundial by standing in one spot and watching time pass by her own shadow, and in another work, Lost a Bet (2011), the artist physically carries a man from his home to his office. The contemporary flair and sincerity that her work brings to the everyday realities dealt with by performance art provides new entry points on the problem of artistic labour.
As the 21st century information age continues to redefine the parameters of work and leisure, a sense of ambivalence and humour in response to the changing reality of artistic labour has emerged within contemporary practice. Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, for example, calls into question the very definitions of work and leisure through an absurd scenario played out in his work Turista (1997). The artist literally aligns himself with manual labourers by standing in a line with several other men, each with a hand painted sign advertising their services for hire. While positioned alongside electricians and plumbers, Alÿs’s sign is labelled ‘tourist’ – a service low on the list of priorities for those looking to hire a manual labourer. In equating the work of a tourist with that of an artist, he raises the question: is being a tourist (or an artist) really work? In truth, both are exhausting and come with "highly prescribed forms of behaviour”.
Similarly, Mitchell’s work is heavily imbued with humour and absurdity; however, with the use cartoon and film codes and conventions, she has set herself apart from her contemporary counterparts. Her performed acts of ‘work’ and feats of hard labour take on comical dimensions with their direct references to familiar slapstick scenarios, which the artist refers to as the “cartoon impossible”. In her work, Mitchell finds herself in some challenging situations, such as sawing a plank of wood while sitting at one end of it, which directly references a Buster Keaton performance (In A Situation, 2011); repeatedly falling through a number of shop awnings (Fall Stack, 2012); and climbing a ladder through a hole in the floor that leads her back to where she started (Getting Through It, 2012). Mitchell’s use of video goes further than merely documenting the performance, as the video loop enables the artist to achieve infinite cyclic actions that only exist within the cinematic world. This approach not only elides the distinctions between performance, video documentation and time-based art, but also engages with cinema’s broad visual vernacular, recreating a “filmic reality” where these exaggerated actions can take form.
Regardless of the familiarity or predictability of the actions played out, Mitchell’s work builds audience anticipation, holding attention with both the absurdity and futility of the task at hand. The resulting effect is one that evokes the performative works of such artists as Bruce Nauman, where the “only possible resolution is the impossibility of imposing a resolution.” Similar to Nauman’s studio-based performance videos, the absurd act that is performed repeatedly in Mitchell’s work reflects something of the methodical and repetitive nature of manual work, and the dogged determination and optimism required of artists grappling with the challenges of artistic labour.
1 Helen Molesworth, Work Ethic (2003).
4 Robert C. Morgan, Bruce Nauman (2002).