Describing Labor

 

Describing Labor

 

Describing Labor is a thought-provoking, emotionally-charged art exhibition commissioned by The Wolfsonian-Florida International University in Miami Beach Florida, created by artist Esther Shalev-Gerz.

 

Occupying the entire seventh floor of the museum, the project actually begins in the elevator; with the background voice of museum founder Mitchell Wolfson contributing to the experience of “describing labor.”

 

The exhibition is brilliantly constructed, creating direct and relevant contemporary content that links to the heritage of the museum as well as to the historical place of manual labor around the globe- from the period of 1885 to 1945.

 

Shalev-Gerz theorizes that this period of time, roughly beginning with the industrial revolution and ending after the Second World War, was the last time that laborers were conveyed and depicted as prominent subjects of art, and with the emotion of “heroism.”

 

At the core of the exhibition are art objects relating to the figure of laborers during that stretch of time.  Approximately forty pieces of art –ranging from paintings and prints to sculptures and photographs (mostly belonging to the private collection of the Wolfsonian), were carefully selected by Shalev-Gerz as the integral layer for the exhibition.  She then recruited twenty-four people from the art industry as participants.  These artists, curators and professors were each asked to choose one of the pieces, based on their personal connection and artistic bias.

 

Subsequently, the participants were asked to locate a place to photograph their selection within the massive archives of the museum, which stores over 100,000 objects.  The final photograph of each art work renders each piece indelibly connected to its surrounding framework, and to its unique curator- creating a link of the historical art work and depiction of labor with the present.  These twenty-four photographs, shot with depth and detail, in predominantly dark setting, create the next layer of the exhibition.  The individual works are also presented as an ensemble, on one wall within the museum. The contrast between the framed images in a free-form collage displayed a stark white wall and each image ensconced in a powerful photographic dark frame is one of the brilliant aspects of the exhibition.

 

As alluded to in the title of the exhibition, the project contains layers and subtle messages formatting the depiction of the theme.  Each of the twenty four participants is individually interviewed and discusses the theme of labor as well as the reason for the selection of their piece.  The interviews are shot at close range with a black background, and run in a video loop side-by-side with another image scanning in detail their individually selected work of art.  The juxtaposition of the voice and expression of the individual participant with the intentionally discordant view of the art work perhaps reiterates the idea that “describing labor” is not merely a simple answer derived from the presence of its objects.

 

 

 

 

 

Each resulting tableau depicts an entire story about the participants’ interpretation of the theme – choosing different aspects and emotions connected to labor.  Social injustice and disparity, subjugation, heroism, monotony, stoicism, solemnity, power and strength are just some of the emotions evoked in the exhibition.  The observer may reflect on how and why the concept and practice of labor have shifted so dramatically over time.  A Shalev-Gerz points out, we are now visually flooded with the faces of politicians, celebrities and athletes, but the visualization of those who create objects has all but disappeared from art and from prominent media.

 

Museum Director, Cathy Leff muses, “Describing Labor insists that the luster of things does not lie hidden beneath the patina of time; rather, the patina itself holds latent meanings awaiting activation.”

 

The relationship between words and images is integral to the exhibition.  In discussing the work with assistant curator Matthew Abbess, he draws attention to the concept of art “speaking to us.”  How and why different people see art in a certain light, and respond viscerally from their own experiences and historical perspective is often what connects us to history, or a physical object or image.

 

Describing Labor shares with the viewers a panoply of ideas, strong visual images, and with intellectual stimulation and exploration of the theme of labor, it challenges the audience to consider the changing role and voice of labor over time, and how people today relate to the past.

 

The exhibition which debuted during the week of Art Basel Miami Beach on December 3, 2012 will remain open to the public through April 7, 2013.

Art in Public Places – A Venerable Public Treasure Chest

 

Throughout civilization, works of art and architecture have been commissioned and created that memorialize both a time in history and a style and taste of local cultures.  Italy is an astounding example of a country deeply infused with centuries of public art. From the art of Ancient Rome that proliferated from 750 BC to approximately 400 AD, to such works as Michelangelo’s  David  and the Trevi Fountain, Italy is indelibly enriched.   David, created between 1501 and 1504 and originally commissioned for a different purpose, which was ultimately installed in a public square in Florence; and the Trevi Fountain in Rome (1732-1762, commissioned by Pope Urban Vlll), both exemplify the visual treasure chest of Italy.

 

Miami Beach is a city that is highly committed to art and its future, as demonstrated through its “Art in Public Places” program.  Officially established in 1984, there were already several important works of art on display in the city.  Mermaid, created in 1979 by Roy Lichtenstein (yes, “that Lichtenstein “), is a highly visible and recognizable work of art located at Washington and 17th Street.  Today, there are nineteen unique and original works of art dotting the city like jewels of a crown.

 

The Resources for Public Art

 

In general, public art is installed with the authorization and collaboration of the government. In different municipalities, the government actively encourages the creation of public art by implementing a policy based on a percentage of different funds, often hovering around 1% of given real estate development costs.

 

The City of Miami Art in Public Places Ordinance, has established, 1.5 percent of the cost of city-owned construction projects is set aside for “works of art in public places other than museums which enrich the public environment.” Additionally, the 1.5 percents funding also included renovations of City building requiring compliance with the Florida Building Code fifty percent (50%) rule or, renovation having a value equal to or greater than $500,000, or addition to any city-owned building, facility, or other city-owned property. The definition of city construction project is also deemed to include construction projects that are developed by persons or entities other than the city, but which require the participation of the city as a party to a development agreement or ground lease. Additionally, Construction cost means “hard costs” associated with construction of a city construction project.  .

 

The Selection Process

 

The Art in Public Places program is under the direction of Max Sklar, Director of Tourism and Cultural Development and Dennis Leyva, the Art in Public Places Coordinator for City of Miami Beach.

 

Max Sklar, a Miami-Dade County native, is a graduate of The American University and Florida International University, Business School. He is highly regarded for his direction of the tourist and cultural initiatives of the city, including “Sleepless Nights” held annually on the first week of November.

 

Dennis Leyva, born Cuba and raised in Miami, is a graduate of University of Miami. Some of the most exciting projects of the Art in Public Places program have been completed in the past four years, under the supervision of Mr. Leyva.  They include Urban Deco, 2008, by Garren Owens; Morris’, 2009, by Dan Graham; Tempest, 2010, by Brian Tolle;  Liquid Measures, by Wendy Wischer, 2010; and most recently obstinate lighthouse, by Tobias Rehberger, 2011.

 

In addition to the City of Miami Beach staff resources, seven Miami Beach residents are appointed by the City commission to the Art in Public Places Committee. Each of these individuals is selected based on their competence and experiences in art history, architectural history, sculpture, painting, artistic structure design and other areas of specialization. The current members of the Committee are: Chairperson, Megan Riley; Vice-Chair, Elizabeth Resnick; Lisa Austin; James Lloyd; Rhonda Mitrani; Lisette Olemberg-Goldstein; and Janda Wetherington.

 

Educating the Miami Beach Students – ARTventure

 

Students and teachers throughout Miami Beach now have access to a program that is helping to bring Art in Public Places into the classroom.  As part of the Education Compact, the City has developed the Backyard ARTventure program designed to enhance awareness and appreciation for public artwork throughout the City.  A map and interactive brochure highlight the locations and information on each work of public art throughout Miami Beach (a downloadable version is available on the City of Miami Beach website http://www.miamibeachfl.gov/tcd/aipp).

 

The Future Looks Golden

 

The most recent addition to the portfolio of art work in this program was unveiled during Art Basel  Miami Beach, December 1, 2011.  This project bears indication of continued great works for the program’s future.  Not only is the obstinate lighthouse a monumental, fifty-five feet tall art work, a stunning addition to the pristine South Park, but the caliber of the artist is world class, and highly regarded by critics across the globe.  The winner of the 2009 Venice Biennale’s highest honor, the Golden Lion, Tobias Rehberger and his obstinate lighthouse represents Miami Beach’s serious commitment to significant public art – as is so well deserved for our beautiful city.