Zhang Huan, To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997. Courtesy of the artist and 21c Museum Hotels

Haunting Photos Depict the Hardships of Global Labor

Marina Garcia-Vasquez

The 'Labor & Materials' multimedia exhibition incriminates our growing reliance on computers and technology.

Zhang Huan, To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997. Courtesy of the artist and 21c Museum Hotels

With powerful images of workers from around the world, the exhibition Labor & Materials explores the evolution of work and industry in the 21st century. In art ranging from collage to photographs, the show examines how the scale and speed of technology impacts the production of goods and services. Its goal is to lift the veil on the inequalities that exist around the world in the production of modern conveniences like smartphones and computers.

The art featured in this multimedia exhibition hint at the contradictions of modernity and its expected efficiencies. And they raise the question, “At whose expense?”

Pieter Hugo, Abdulai Yahaya, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, 2010.

Through Labor & Materials, we see an intimate view of the living and working conditions captured by 15 international photographers. Among the diverse works are images by South Africa–based Pieter Hugo and Zanele Muholi, who offer photos that showcase the lives of workers who are often obscured or ignored. Additionally, Alejandro Cartagena’s photos hone in on the lack of a proper public transportation system in Monterrey, Mexico, with overhead pictures of carpoolers in the beds of pickup trucks. Pierre Gonnord focuses his lens on the miners from the Asturias region of Spain. And famed Beijing photographer Zhang Huan captures rural laborers in a poetic take on employment and the number of bodies that power an industry.

Pierre Gonnord, Miroslaw, 2009

Labor & Materials is on display at the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas—the home base of Walmart. The show’s focus on global mass industries raises questions as to what our future workforce might look like and implicates our very own consumption habits. Through email, we asked the curator, Alice Gray Stites, about the vision and timeliness of the show.

VICE: How did you select the photographers in the show?
Alice Gray Stites: The photographers featured in Labor & Materials, as with all the artists included in this exhibition, were selected because they are engaged in addressing the evolution of industry, technology, and working conditions today, during a time of rapid and profound global change.

Many of the works on display are iconic. Can you speak to the photos of Zhang Huan and Zanele Muholi in particular?
Zhang Huan, who left his rural home to pursue an education in Beijing, has gained international recognition for his demanding performance art that connects contemporary notions of identity with nature, history, politics, and labor. In To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond, performers connect intimately with the landscape, and engage in an ephemeral labor—adding enough bodies to a fish pond to raise the water level by one meter—that alludes to the time and effort needed to enact meaningful change.

In her Massa and Minah series, Zanele Muholi turns the camera on herself and her family history: “The project is based on the life and story of my mother. I draw from my own memories and pay tribute to her domesticated role as a worker for the same family for 42 years. The series is meant to acknowledge all domestic workers around the globe who continue to labor with dignity, while often facing physical, financial, and emotional abuses in their places of work.” Muholi’s series historicizes the labor of her mother and the labor of the many black women who were and continue to be trapped within a system that controls black female labor.

What makes this exhibit timely?
The imminent automation of the workforce worldwide is a topic of increasingly frequent discussion, as are concerns about access to jobs, goods, and services during a time of widening socioeconomic inequity. The scale, scope, and speed of technological innovation today heralds unprecedented changes in what, how, where, and by whom goods and services are produced and provided. Economists describe the explosion of radically new platforms and products emerging in the digital age—robots and other forms of automated labor, self-driving cars, three-dimensional printing, the explosion of bits and pixels transmitted across the internet, and the growing global network of trade driven by the shipping container—as an inflection point: a time in human history when how we live and work is utterly transformed. What does an inflection point look like? How will the widespread transformation of commerce and consumption affect access to goods and jobs, to information and infrastructure?

Zanele Muholi, Massa and Minah II, 2008

Zanele Muholi, Massa and Minah I, 2008

Alejandro Cartagena, Car Poolers #14, 2011–2012
Alejandro Cartagena, Car Poolers #26, 2011–2012
Purdy Eaton, American Habitat 2, 2009.
Purdy Eaton, American Habitat 2, 2009

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