Downstairs from the fruits of the Weiner Werkstätte is a show that continues, in a sense, from where Vienna left off. Those hints of doom that can be felt in some of the Viennese imagery proved warranted when all of Europe was engulfed in war and empires were demolished and truncated. This far less frivolous time after World War I and during the Great Depression is the subject of Describing Labor, but in an unconventional form. It comes in a solo show from artist Esther Shalev-Gerz, who had a 2011 residency at the Wolfsonian. She chose photographs, drawings and paintings from the collection that depicted labor, mostly in the form of muscled men working with machines and tools. This imagery was ubiquitous during the various Socialist-inspired art movements that spanned the globe during this era and focused on the glorification of the real working man.
Not only have those political movements fallen out of favor, so have the almost-quaint depictions of labor. As the artist started to digest during her time studying the Wolfsonian collection, “This was more or less the last time in our recent history that images of workers conveyed a sense of heroism,” she writes. “It made me think about how we do not know the faces of the people who create the things that surround us. We know other faces — politicians, celebrities, criminals — but not the worker.”
To give them a visual voice once again, she chose 41 works from the collection that showed the laborer, and then placed them in storage rooms in the museum that house the products of labor. Then she photographed them. So here is a black-and-white photo of a man at a wheel, in front of a decorative clock and bookshelf. In one outstanding piece, a black-and-white drawing of a metropolis reverberating to the jackhammers from construction workers is placed on an ornate, blue-and gold-gilded cabinet. She also videotaped some of the participants who helped her in the project, talking about labor and the storage-room settings.
On one wall, all the originals are hung — so we can put a name to some of those who made these 1930s oils, gelatin prints and drawings in Russia, the United States, Germany and Italy. The biggest and most somber work Shalev-Gerz chose is a gray painting from Italy, of a buff worker carrying a wounded colleague, called La Pieta Umana. It is so very sad. This work is photographed in front of metal shelves in a storage area.
These hero-workers in fact have very little humanity; they have become simply objects for production, with idealized bodies. But as the video points out, at this time much of Europe had lost so many of their men that hero-worshipping become inevitable.
On another wall, Shalev-Gerz, who lives in Paris and is a professor in Sweden, has made an installation entirely from her own hand. It consists of 21 glass hammers, attached to a metal canvas, with several in the middle painted black.
The pieces are good-looking and poignant, intermingling elements of design, furniture and fine art. Hers is an innovative approach to working with the Wolfsonian Collection, and to history.