Thorsten Streichardt: Mehr Wachstum, 2005.
Büromöbel, Installationsansicht Kunsthaus Dresden
(c) Thorsten Streichardt

So many exhibition and research projects in recent years have devoted themselves to the “work issue” that one might well believe little more of any real value is to be expected of them, especially considering that some have inadvertently reproduced the problem they were describing, i.e., the growing precariousness of immaterial work. Unlike comparable themed shows, the “ARBEITSHAUS:einatmen.ausatmen” (WORKHOUSE:inhale.exhale) project at Kunsthaus Dresden aimed less at addressing the model of “culturepreneurs” as the “pros of the nation”(1) for labor-market reform, for example, or at attempting a new interpretation of the well-known facts in this field. Instead, it approached the problem of work and unemployment, which in the direct context of the city of Dresden is only too obvious, with a special focus on the psychological states currently observable as effects of neoliberal labor policy. To ensure this did not merely throw up a set of pathologies, however, the peculiar tensions and uncanny displacement activities in the state of unemployment were descriptively and structurally rendered in a number of artistic works. In addition, a new kind of permeable relationship was established between inside and outside the institution. In this context, the first work to mention is the installation by Thorsten Streichardt in the lobby of the Kunsthaus: between piles of dismantled, stacked, and battered office furniture, a room that was clearly visible and accessible from the street was equipped with two desks that were used during the exhibition’s opening hours by Kunsthaus staff—hired for the project as a job-creation measure—for PR and communications work. It was no coincidence that the curators Christiane Mennicke and Annette Weisser placed this “messy” installation in a room with a window onto the city of Dresden, where a traditional understanding of culture holds sway.

This kind of actual and symbolic “opening” towards the city is a core aspect of the program of the Kunsthaus, which has undergone a fundamental redefinition in institutional terms since it was taken over in 2003 by Christiane Mennicke, whose unparalleled commitment has lead to the invitation of an almost excessive number of artists and curators focusing on critiques of urbanism, sociological issues, and context-specific projects.

As part of this overwhelmingly complex restructuring process, Kunsthaus Dresden has now founded the STAFETA initiative, a pilot project offering young, recently graduated artists the chance to add their own works and curatorial approaches to the international exhibition program.

And “WORKHOUSE” represents an exemplary implementation of this practice, calling for critical assessment. With 21 works by contemporary artists and five loans from the Saxony Folk Art Museum, the exhibition formed the core of the extensive “WORKHOUSE” project, which is not a contained Kunsthaus event but one initiated by Dresden’s Council on Unemployment and developed in cooperation with six other partner organizations. Symposia, readings, theater performances, concerts, and the exhibition itself confronted visitors with a specific aspect of the current state of affairs within society concerning work: the focus of the project was on the individual and on individual experience of failure to fulfill society’s standards, the collapse of life models and life plans. In all of this, what was made very clear was the institution’s wish to open itself to the outside and to strictly reject cut and dried distinctions between cultural and political practices.

In a certain sense, the Shiva-like logo used on flyers and posters for the show acted as a talisman in the face of a difficult theme. But the application of Hindu consciousness expanding to the conditions of Western society’s strict employment/unemployment duality seemed more than a little overloaded. The “inhale.exhale” subtitle reinforced the association with yoga, which has of course become a little-reflected zero grade of spiritual praxis (especially in the art world): but as a metaphor for a situation affecting society as a whole, it seemed too “arty” to be taken seriously.

In a situation characterized by circular debates and a restorative climate of separation between artistic and social practices, it should be noted, however, that the Kunsthaus’s conceptual structure based on participation, networking, and interaction provided a forum for an amalgam of experimentation, discussion, and questioning of art’s immanent “timelessness” whose thematic density revealed the limits of both cultural production and political activism. The “WORKHOUSE” project was often dominated by doubts over alternative production models, for example when the “decorative hermit” Marc Flossmann, a graduate of Dresden’s art academy, delivered his parodic commentary on the “Me Inc.”(2) model in the vaulted cellar of the Kunsthaus. His installation consisting of a slide projection, letters, and an expanded polystyrene casing came across as a reactivated replica of a cabinet of curiosities. Among others, Flossmann had written to the office of the Federal President in Berlin, officially requesting permission to perform his representative duties as a hermit in Bellevue Park (the garden of the President’s official residence)—a request that was refused. This was a reference to a bizarre tradition in English landscape gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries, when aristocrats housed hermits in decorative dwellings for their edification and purification.

At five places—in the staircase and around the rest of the winding exhibition rooms—there were historical mine models made between 1865 and 1998, selected from the collection of the Saxony Folk Art Museum. In this way, the curators created a complex frame of reference including both a critical view of history and the appropriation and representability of (workplace) reality. The carved miniature mines, some of them mechanically animated, acted as a reminder that the history of paid work has always been shaped by structural and individual crises: in times when mines were closed or when wages stopped due to injury or illness, the sale of such amateur carvings provided a welcome source of extra income. According to its label, the oldest and largest exhibit on loan, a so-called “Buckelbergwerk” (hunchback mine), was carved by an anonymous mining invalid and displayed at funfairs. In dozens of individual scenes, this microcosm links the black, subterranean world of the miners with the colorful world of early capitalist society above, represented by the church, school, marching band, and a pair of lovers, all set in repetitive motion by a crank handle linking the different levels via a system of cogs. This curiosity-like “Mona Lisa of the Folk Art Museum” was juxtaposed with a video installation by Aernout Mik: typically for Mik’s staged film scenarios, “Park” showed a gathering of people who follow an irrational logic in establishing a “social order”: one group sits reading and playing cards in the foreground, the other dances trance-like to inaudible rhythms. In a similar mood of weariness and folly that ran through the whole show, Julien Prévieux went into great detail in his “Lettres de Non-Motivation” about why he feels specific job advertisements are unacceptable outrages that should be removed from his sight forthwith. The reactions from the human resources officers in question ranged from worried to amused. Next to this was Eleanor Antin’s brilliant mail art project “100 Boots” (1971-73) that was presented as a series of black and white photographs and which Antin says tells the “story of her generation.” The hundred work boots arranged with defiant comedy in a succession of situations was created at a time when the idea of modern industrial society was transforming cities like Detroit into segregated social structures. A little further on, the “patience bottle”—a miniature mine placed in a bottle like a ship—conducted an aggravated dialog with the ominous video installation “Autoportrait contre nature” by Michel Francois. The video shows a bird’s eye view of a man smoking a cigarette who by chance happens not to be hit by falling empty bottles. Touching here would mean injury. In the context of this exhibition, the impact of Santiago Sierra’s calculatedly radical performance photographs, of which three were shown as large-format prints, reinforced their intended social and institutional critique. Rather than relating to the individualized situation, this work seemed to be about the phenomenological forms of worldwide alienated labor. The black and white photographs were contrasted with the smallest exhibit from the Folk Art Museum: two tiny painted miners under a bell jar, each carved out of the wood of a single match.

Overall, by relating directly to the “outside world” via an involvement in many Dresden projects—and in spite of the sometimes imprecise organization—the exhibition succeeded in making a strong case for the relevance of discussions on work. “Touching is inflaming,” an intertitle in one of the five video presentations by the Hamburger artist group “Rekolonisation,” whose situationist theater miniatures in urban space address extreme individual and social situations, fittingly describes both a current atmosphere of panic and a reactivation of the kind of discussions to which this exhibition supplied a first contribution.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

The author would like to thank Clemens Krümmel for his many contributions to this text.

Published in German (Berührung und Entzündung) in: Texte zur Kunst, Issue 59, Institutional Critique, Berlin 2005, p. 227–230

(1) “Profis der Nation” (Pros of the Nation) is a scheme devised in 2002 by Peter Hartz and used by the German government to call on six million politicians, labor office staff, businesspeople, teachers, artists, clerics, journalists, etc. to “take the fight against joblessness into their own hands.”
(2) “Ich AG” (Me Inc.), also part of Germany’s recent labor market reforms, is a program offering financial support to individuals wishing to set up their own one-person business.

ARBEITSHAUS einatmen. ausatmen.
Ausstellung, Symposien, Filme, Lesungen, Gespräche, Theater
Kunsthaus Dresden, Städtische Galerie für Gegenwartskunst in Dresden
1. Mai bis 17. Juli 2005