Rebecca Clarke: Chisenhale gallery gives staff a month off work in the name of art

Chisenhale_Gallery
German artist Maria Eichhorn has closed a London gallery and sent all its staff home.

On April 23rd, following a day-long busy convention in the practically empty Chisenhale Gallery in London, German artist Maria Eichhorn sent all of the Chisenhale staff home, closed and locked the gates of the London gallery and affixed an astute sign to the railings.

The sign stipulates that the galleries staff will not be working until the 29 May, hints lightly on the exploration of contemporary labour conditions, and pushes the reader to find out more on the gallery’s website.

The result of this concise brief is Maria Eichhorn’s exhibition ‘5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours’. For the entire stated duration of the work, visitors will be presented with an closed and unoccupied gallery.The staff, including director Polly Staple, will be on free, fully paid time, until the end of May. Phones will not be answered, emails to gallery addresses will be deleted, except for a dedicated account that will be checked every Wednesday. 

Signing off ... Maria Eichhorn’s 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours (2016).
 
Signing off … Maria Eichhorn’s 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours (2016). Photograph: Andy Keate/Chisenhale Gallery /Courtesy of the artist

It has also been specified Chisenhale should not be used for other purposes during its closure – not rented for profit or otherwise capitalised, nor turned over for socially engaged works. In a statement on Chisendales website, the gallery states:

In order to realise Eichhorn’s proposal and not compromise the ongoing operations of the organisation, Chisenhale Gallery’s staff are required to carefully unravel their working structure and address important issues relating to responsibility, accountability and commitment – from the financial security of the organisation to the distinction between ‘working’ and ‘personal’ lives within the artistic sphere.

Eichhorn’s project is, ultimately, a consideration of how we assign value to time. She explores this by questioning how capital shapes life through labour, but also through a critique of the notion of free time and the binaries of work and leisure.

Her request to the gallery’s staff  to withdraw their labour for the remaining five weeks of the exhibition, hails to the importance of questioning work, and asking why work in synonymous with production within our current political context. She goes as far as to question whether work can also consist of doing nothing. 

In today’s age, unpaid hours are filled with networking events, emailing, social media marketing, and the efforts of constructing work-related online identities and boosting our professional affiliations. As we tend to the professional relationships that end up substituting for friendships, our lives become ever more hijacked by employers, and a sense of vulnerability and guilt about our productivity, leading to the ever topical HR issues of presenteeism and absenteesim and the increase of concern for health at work.

We must always be ‘on’, even when we are off. The core of Eichhorn’s latest work is the idea that she is gifting the galleries staff some time. The interviews on the Chisenhale’s website indicate that the staff of the gallery largely enjoy their work and are highly committed to it. What would happen if the same idea was applied to a company where many of the employees were not engaged?

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