Art

Bodies of Work, a fascinating exhibition at Bus Projects, encompasses different generations of artists who examine the inequality faced by women at work, whether in or out of the home. By Rosemary Forde.

Bodies of Work

The Bodies of Work exhibition at Bus Projects in Collingwood.
Credit: Christo Crocker

Bodies of Work eases us in to the front gallery of Bus Projects with a series of drawings. They are of loaded dishwashers. In each, the dishwasher door is open, the racks full. It is unclear whether these are clean dishes waiting to be unloaded or dirty dishes waiting for someone to shut the door and switch on the machine. The relentless nature of this semi-mechanised chore is emphasised in the repetition of five drawings made from the same point of view: five days of dirty dishes. Yet the tone is more cheerful than melancholy. By London-based Austrian artist Manuela Gernedel, these drawings in pencil, graphite and coloured pen are charming and jaunty in their familiar dishevelment.

This homely elevation of the domestic chore is quickly undercut by a flat-screen television on the gallery floor, on which scenes from a brothel play out. Not just any brothel, but one staffed by dolls. Maintenancer (2018) takes us behind the scenes of brothel work in the early stages of automatisation in the sex industry. The short documentary, by artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen and filmmaker Therese Henningsen, follows brothel owner Evelyn and her anonymous assistant at work, where we find their labour now largely revolves around maintenance of sex dolls.

A slow scene plays out: the rubber-gloved assistant cleans and sanitises “Angel” after use by a customer. Special attention is paid to the – its, her – holes. Of course, Angel has to be dry inside for the next client. The worker reapplies the doll’s make-up, not only redoing the face but also recolouring the nipples and vulva. Lastly, the assistant struggles to get Angel’s clothes back on, white lace stretching awkwardly over the silicone body. In a voiceover we hear Evelyn, who expresses her hope that the dolls will generate enough income once she’s over 50 and past working with clients herself.

And so it is that loaded dishwashers and a brothel of sex dolls set the ground for entry to this exhibition. Within Bus Projects’ galleries, in Melbourne’s inner-east suburb of Collingwood, we find more collisions of tasks, of labour, of women’s lives and of vastly different contexts. The exhibition brings together 10 artists and collectives, including younger generations of women as well as those who were influential in the feminist labour activism movement of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – the Hackney Flashers, the Berwick Street Film Collective, filmmaker Sandra Lahire and artist-writer Ursula Biemann.

Organised by independent curator Benison Kilby, the exhibition addresses women’s work both inside and outside the home, paid and unpaid. By putting these artists alongside one another, Kilby builds an argument connecting women’s experience of unpaid work in the domestic realm with broader crises in the contemporary workforce – especially the phenomenon of increasingly low-waged, precarious, “feminised” labour. The exhibition picks up on what Kilby calls “a resurgence of interest in the topic of women’s labour by younger artists both in Australia and overseas”, which she was looking to contextualise in relation to key historical precedents.

Documentary and experimental film are both prevalent throughout the exhibition, lending themselves well to the spirit of protest and the privileging of lived experience. One such work is the feature-length film Nightcleaners Part 1 (1975) by the Berwick Street Film Collective, which documents the daily work of poorly paid women cleaning London offices at night, and their struggle to unionise and protest their conditions.

A pair of short films by Sandra Lahire (Uranium Hex, 1987, and Serpent River, 1989) blend footage of women at work in Canadian uranium mines with images of children playing at nursery school. Degrading and saturating effects are applied to the films, with industrial and abstracted incidental sound playing beneath. Worrying images of chest X-rays give these works a sinister tone. Through these films the viewer is able to connect the exploitation of the women miners, who have been employed with little thought for the toll on their health, to the exploitation of the earth’s resources.

Bodies of Work is an exhibition of curatorial ambition and restraint. It would be showing at a museum, were it not for its budget and scale. If it were given the resources, one could imagine an expanded version of the exhibition’s thesis that might include a broader range of historical work, such as that of Martha Rosler, Suzanne Lacy and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. A larger exhibition might also find a place for Australian projects such as the magazines Ripple and Lip and the collectives that organised around them in the 1970s and ’80s.

Nevertheless, the 10 artists and collectives included in Bodies of Work are thoroughly researched and thoughtfully installed. The exhibition spans all the galleries of Bus Projects, which often hosts up to five smaller shows at a time. Gallery director Channon Goodwin points to this and other recent curated exhibitions, such as this year’s Queer Economies, which Bus has been able to support to develop over a longer period of time, as statements of intention – signals of “the palette of shows” the organisation will be more able to invest in once it moves to a new home within the Collingwood Arts Precinct (CAP) in 2020.

Moving to CAP will mean a reduction in rent for Bus, and the gallery intends to pass this on by removing rental fees currently paid by artists and curators to exhibit in Bus’s program. The pay-to-play model is common across Melbourne’s artist-run gallery sector, but organisations have been under increasing pressure to find other ways to fund their programs.

The art industry is an exemplar of, and was perhaps a precursor to, the kind of precarious and underpaid work of the so-called gig economy that Kilby’s exhibition brings to public awareness. Women are disproportionately affected in the gig economy. Indeed, Kilby’s own position as an “independent curator”, a title that sounds liberating but can be often accurately read as “unpaid” or “unemployed”, has in this case entailed two years of research and development, creative and intellectual labour, for a very small fee.

The creative woman’s experience and labour is represented in Bodies of Work through Eugenia Lim’s digital print Woman’s Work (Timmah in the library) (2017). It is part of an ongoing series, of which five were first exhibited in 2017 at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in the exhibition Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism. Lim’s work pairs a photographic portrait of writer Timmah Ball with a first-person narrative text describing Ball’s relationship to writing and work, feminism and Aboriginality. Both Lim and Kilby wished to foreground an Indigenous Australian perspective within their respective projects on women and labour – particularly, as Kilby states, “considering that Indigenous women were historically forced into domestic work in Australia for which wages were low-paid or rarely paid”.

Lim’s Woman’s Work series grew out of an earlier project, Sunfade: A room of one’s own (2012), and focuses on the state of work, financial independence and creative independence for contemporary Australian women. In her portrait of Ball, the subject is seated, holding open Roxane Gay’s book Bad Feminist, in State Library Victoria’s recognisable domed reading room, a place where Ball often goes to write. In the accompanying text, drawn from a transcribed conversation with Lim, Ball describes her reluctance to identify writing as a career for fear of professional or creative failure. Yet she persists.

As do all the women included and represented in Bodies of Work. From the Hackney Flashers’ 1980 slide archive of their campaign around women’s unpaid domestic labour and childcare, and the Berwick Street Film Collective’s 1975 film about unionising women in the workplace, the exhibition expands to embrace a broad church of lived experience. Somehow Kilby accommodates different – and notoriously antagonistic – factions and waves of feminism. The exhibition does so without flattening out the variety of experiences of a sex worker, an artist, a miner or a woman at the Mexican–United States border. Rather, by foregrounding first-person narrative, collectivism and experimental documentary, Bodies of Work gives voice to each of these situations and exposes the cause of the exploitation and inequality that they have in common. (Spoiler alert: capitalism.)

 

Arts Diary

DANCE  Burrbgaja Yalirra / Dancing Forwards

Carriageworks, Sydney, May 30-June 1

MULTIMEDIA Perceptions of Time

GOMA, Brisbane, until June 28

VISUAL ART Pulse Perspectives

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until July 22

SCULPTURE Terracotta Warriors & Cai Guo-Qiang

NGV International, Melbourne, until October 13

VISUAL ART  Synergy

Jam Factory, Adelaide, until July 14

Last chance

VIDEO ART  Jasper Maxwell O’Brien: Mirrored City

Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, until June 1

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Labour pains". Subscribe here.

Rosemary Forde
is a curator and an academic.