Photographers' Gallery - The
Office: Group Show
Nov 03 18 Jan 04
Love it or loathe it, the office remains at the centre of working life for most people, even more so in our current culture of long working hours. This exhibition brings together the work of 11 artists, alongside historical photographs, to explore the changing dynamics of office life and culture. Some of the works record the universal anonymity of the work environment, while others reveal moments of chaos and the disruption of the clinical corporate space. Over the last 50 years, as Richard Sennett notes in his book The Corrosion of Character, there have been many changes in the workplace which have affected the contemporary worker. Today, when the average white-collar employee will have worked for over six different companies by the age of 30, ‘a job for life’ has become an anachronism. As seen in the videos and photographs in this show the worker has transformed over this time from automaton to actor, and the office has become the stage.
There is a dramatic element to both Michael Schmidt’s (b. 1945, Germany) and David Moore's (b. 1961, UK) depiction of the white-collar worker. Taken in the late seventies, Schmidt's works comprise of two portraits of the same person, one at home, the other at work. Shown alongside each other they reveal how individuals change persona in these different contexts. Moore's recent photographs have an almost cinematic quality. His subjects are caught in a space of physical and psychological suspension, brightly lit and shown against a black background. Moore captures body gestures at meetings, or the faces of workers shown at their computer terminals.
Tim Davis (b. 1969, USA) offers a personal response to office life in work he produced while employed at a publishing house in New York. Feeling ill at ease in this environment, Davis spent weekends placing office under the microscope of his camera lens. He gives mundane objects a sellotape dispenser, colour file-divider tags, rubber bands, shredded paper a sculptural quality.
For the two video artists in the show the workplace becomes a site for performance and is seen as less sinister and more fun. John Pilson (b. 1968, USA) challenges the assumption that people in suits are dull and grey; his office workers climb over cubicle partitions, throw tennis balls at colleagues and sing in corridors. Whereas Pilson recruits actual office workers to enact roles in his videos, Sofia Hultén (b. 1972, Sweden) performs in her video works herself. In Grey Area, 2001 Hultén wears a grey suit which she uses as a form of camouflage as she finds places to hide in an office: behind a plant, beneath a desk and even under a carpet.
Lars Tunbjörk's (b. 1956 Sweden) photographs, taken in large international firms in Europe, America and Japan, reveal the artist's ability to capture a sense of the absurd. Tunbjörk compares the clinical spaces of public access the lobbies and elevators with the behind-the-scenes chaos of cluttered desks and paper-strewn floors. In contrast, Jacqueline Hassink (b. 1966, The Netherlands) provides an almost anthropological study of offices, which reveal how the dynamics of power are conveyed through architecture and design. In Cubicles USA, 2001 Hassink depicts the workspaces of highly skilled software engineers alongside their favourite computer screen image. Despite attempts to personalise their workstations, there remains a pervasive sense of uniformity and constraint in the photographs.
Julia Knop (b. 1971, Germany) documents the workplace of similar engineers based in an area outside Bangalore, Southern India. The series Electronics City, 1997 98 illustrates the trend to outsource skilled work abroad. At first sight the interiors seem indiscernible from their western counterparts, yet at the corners the tropical climate and cultural differences seep in, with views of palm trees through windows and shrines to the Hindu god Ganesh.
Thomas Demand's (b. 1964, Germany) large-scale photographs, to which he has given starkly generic titles such as Büro (Office), 1995 and Ecke (Corner), 1996, depict anonymous, unpopulated interiors. Initially they seem unambiguous, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that each scene is an immaculate mock-up, painstakingly built from paper and cardboard, then photographed in Demand's studio. His constructions are based on found photographs of places, such as the apparently hastily abandoned offices of the Stasi headquarters or the desk where Bill Gates designed his first computer operating system.
Niall Blankley (b. 1965, UK) builds his workstations, which he then photographs, from obsolete office equipment found outside company buildings. Brought together into a cacophonous ensemble of objects, in part the work comments on the enormous waste produced by the machine of capitalism. Working as a studio photographer in Ghana, Philip Kwame Apagya (b. 1958, Ghana) constructs an office environment using a brightly painted canvas as the backdrop for his portraits. His clients act out the role of office executives to create humorous photographs to show friends and family. In the work the backdrop of an office becomes a pastiche of western corporate power and affluence.
Brought together for the first time in this exhibition the works reveal how the corporate environment continues to be a source of inspiration, not only for television dramatists and filmmakers, but also for contemporary artists.
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