Monday, April 7, 2014

Working it Out: Simon Gush

A replica of the Mercedes-Benz that was gifted by the company's East London
Plant in the late nineties. pic by Masimba Sasa
Confirming South Africa’s supposed status as the “protest capital of the world” is a Wikipedia page dedicated to the culture of protest in post-apartheid South Africa. The physical, material, economic and political conditions that have prompted strikes in this era are well documented, but what of the psychic and cultural conditions?

At a very basic level, protests and strikes afford workers a form of visibility in the public realm that is usually denied to them. This theme of invisibility/visibility in relation to workers is articulated in Simon Gush’s 2013 filmic work Iseeyou, a survey of statues of miners around Joburg. Muscle-rippled arms of male workers (women are obviously excluded) reach towards the heavens, situating these figures as heroes. This is despite the fact that after 20 years of democracy workers and miners remain  to be perceived as disenfranchised and powerless, though violent and destructive post-apartheid protests have slightly muddied their “victim” status. The title of Gush’s work plays with their position; the public statue is an overstatement of visibility, despite workers’ supposed invisibility.

Despite Gush’s interest in workers and the cultural value of strikes in his latest exhibition, Red, at the Goethe-Institut gallery, his recent work has been focused on the absence of workers. Films such as After Hours, Sunday Light and the After the Work Stopped series, examine empty offices, façades of industrial buildings and city streets during the weekend, when most people are not working. In this way, Gush’s interest is directed towards the physical spaces where work takes place, which allows him to tease out what “work” might actually be, in a philosophical sense.

Paradoxically, this can only be done when people are not working – removing the activity itself to highlight its worth – hence he surveys vacated spaces, which seem so banal and meaningless without workers. Interestingly, this creates the impression that these anodyne interiors and exteriors exist for workers, rather than the popular perception that workers are dependent on these spaces to generate an income, find a sense of purpose, etcetera. These spaces also help demarcate and regulate when work takes place and the kind of personas people adopt inside and outside work – in other words, the spaces also regulate the vicissitudes of our identities. And in this country, they are the sites upon which we negotiate and test our citizenship. This is an important point, given his latest body of work, which directs our attention to positive and negative battles within the workplace.

Gush’s interest in quantifying work is part of an objective to discover where working and not-working might overlap. Not-working is obviously a key component of a strike, but this is also an interesting theme for an artist to discover – artists and society often embrace the illusion their work isn’t work; though it may be labour intensive, art is not considered regular work and it sometimes “undoes” our notion of work, challenges what work is, its role – Gush’s practice falls into this category.

In Red, Gush grapples to express what work is and isn’t in a more quantifiable way. Instead of presenting viewers with the absence of workers or the results of their work, he has exhibited an end-product of labour; a Mercedes-Benz that is partly disassembled; the body, the frame is intact; the bonnet and doors are displayed on adjacent walls.

This is an ordinary and extraordinary Mercedes-Benz as it is a replica of a 500SE model that was built as a gift for Mandela in the early 1990s by the staff at the company’s East London plant. In a documentary that is part of the display, senior union members at the plant explain how, following Madiba’s release, their members decided to approach management and negotiate a way to realise this gesture. Management eventually conceded and donated the parts, while the workers donated an hour of labour from their daily shifts to manufacture the car.
A speculative installation of the beds the workers
may have made during the sleep-in strike.
picture by Masimba Sasa

It is not unexpected that Gush is fixated by this gesture; for beyond its feel-good factor – warring workers and management “working” together for a common good – that echoes the late Madiba’s magnanimous and reconciliatory ethos, it shows workers employing their labour towards a symbolic gesture.

For all sense in purposes, in this instance they functioned as artists – artists are engaged in work that is geared towards making symbolic statements. This act also allowed, or allows us, to view their labour as something that can be “given” and shared rather than taken – it has abstract value.

In this way rather than the product, the car, being the object that is exchanged, the labour – the work – itself, is the commodity and it also, like the art object, can have symbolic (abstract) value, depending on its given objective. As such, Gush isn’t only interested in the space between work and non-work but the work/art dichotomy, prompting perennial questions about what art is – what is the art factor?

Can Gush’s display be considered art; when the end-product, the “work” being the Mercedes, was manufactured by other people?  The ‘art’ comes in the form of two sets of objects/installations that visually realise this murky space between life and art. These objects pertain to a prolonged strike that took place in the same factory in the same year that the red Mercedes was being produced for Madiba. During this strike, the workers inhabited the factory. An installation presents the makeshift “beds” from car seats that the workers might have used to sleep on and a collection of sculptural works by Mokotjo Mohulo, a fashion designer, stylist, artist (he works at boundaries), present workers’ outfits fashioned from materials used in the manufacture of cars.

It is unlikely the latter would ever have evolved in reality or in response to the conditions in the factory as the “garments” are unwearable – unfit for the human body. However, these objects are the most expressive in this exhibition, meaning they more closely reveal the “artist’s” hand and mode, though they are speculative end-products from a situation inside a factory that doesn’t produce art.

These two series of works, the makeshift beds and sculptural|garments, work at highlighting the cultural and political significance of strikes and how this form of protest automatically opens up this ambiguous territory between expression and labour. It is not so much that workers are forced to become creative in these situations, as was the case with the prolonged sleep-in strike at Mercedes, but rather that it is the space where workers reclaim their identity as citizens beyond the physical and ideological confines of “work” and their labour, which is withheld for the duration of a strike.

During a strike it is inevitable that their labour looms as this quantifiable property  – strikes are focused on numbers – but during this process it also becomes unquantifiable, abstract and intangible; emerging as something inseparable from them as people.

By refusing to work during a strike, workers enact the same act that Gush creates in his films of empty offices and streets. This sounds like a far-fetched idea but no more radical than presuming artists to be people on permanent strike – constantly negotiating their relationship to work and the world of work by stepping outside and inside of it - if you accept that the boundary between the two is hard. Importantly, Red prompts us to re-evaluate strikes or the frequency of them which, in relation to this exhibition, speak of a society that is renegotiating its identity, not only as workers but as citizens and individuals, asserting their place inside and outside “work”. - first published in The Sunday Independent, April 6, 2014

Red is showing at the Goethe-Institut Gallery in Joburg until May 16

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