Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Daniel Fogarty's Totem: Work, leisure and the art of being useful

In March 2011, during the Merz Man festival that celebrated all things Kurt Schwitters and related, dance professor Valerie Preston-Dunlop led a walk down Manchester's Oxford Road reminiscing about running away from home to study under Rudolf Laban, who developed a new form of dance notation called Labanotation, which she described as being like a 'grammar' for dance1. She recounted how Laban helped factories apply his theories of movement to mass production – an example of how the arts can overlap with and be useful to industry. By teaching workers how to co-ordinate themselves in the most effective ways, and making the most of their repeated movements, he could help maximise production in the factories and enable the workers to be productive for longer, at the same time as humanising their labour. She said that workers could also be taught to move in a certain way to do things they might not be used to doing – for example, women could unload heavy goods from containers on the ship canal.

The artwork of Daniel Fogarty is preoccupied with repetition and prolonging production. He applies multiple processes in the creation of one work, carrying on adding layers and corrupting the original until what started as one thing becomes something else and takes on an entirely new medium and existence. Among the works on show at Totem, Fogarty's first solo show in Manchester at Bureau gallery, is 'Cottage industry', a photographic print of an unfocused computer screen displaying a digital drawing. Another, 'and... and... and...', is a print of a photograph of a set of pinned up photocopies of a blow up digital drawing. 'Stammer' is a series inspired by digestive systems which started as sculptures made of unfired clay, which have been photographed and then painted over. Any one of the digestive systems series could be viewed as three works in one – each has elements of sculpture, but also photography and painting. More work is created for the artist, who keeps producing after what could have been taken as a finished product has been created – and, just like the constant, efficient churning of the digestive system, this reworking could keep on going indefinitely. However many times you repeat something, there are endless variations.
However, repetition has not bred perfection. All, rather than achieving a smooth, sleek finish, are roughly done and imprecise. Sometimes, roughness or a lack of precision is seen as a mark of a product being underfinished or carelessly made. In Fogarty's work, it's the opposite: it's the result of a work of being overfinished, or laboured over beyond the call of duty. Several of the works in Totem are made of concrete, including 'Plant Plant Plant Plant', a series of sculptures made by pouring concrete into moulds created using bricks, which were inspired by the patterns of suburban lawn edging and borders. Concrete, which is commonly associated with building work undertaken on an industrial scale, is generally a material that is valued more for its usefulness – its ability to be hardwearing outdoors in public places – than its decorative properties or suitability for craftmanship on a small scale. A concrete plant pot that was produced during Fogarty's residency at Bureau in summer 2011, part of the 'Helmet/shelter' series, is an object that is both beautiful and useful and has a function within and outside the gallery.

Laban tried to standardise ways of moving, or find a way to teach a common way of performing certain movements, despite movements being highly individual and differing naturally from person to person. One of Fogarty's interests is the imposition of standardisation through subtle graphical languages, especially motorway planting and the language of motorways. For example, before standardisation was imposed through road signage, silver birch trees were planted near junctions as a psychological reminder to the car driver that they were approaching a turning point in the road. We're surrounded by these hidden markers and symbols.

Even though Fogarty's works are created using moulds, or repetition of movements, actions and labour – methods typically used for mass production – he has corrupted any standardisation that might be expected to result from these processes and the marks of the artist have slipped through, visible in the finish of the artworks (just as the stammer is a highly individual movement, an involuntary utterance that slips into controlled movements of speech and language). Whatever material is used, whether paint, concrete or clay, there's always some kind of human presence visible, from the artist's brushstrokes to the pinching of clay. Unlike mass production, in which the efforts of the individual are subservient to the whole and are not visible in the final outcome seen by the consumer, the gestures and actions which have led up to Fogarty's artworks are a part of the finished product.

The theme of work (explicitly referred to in the title of the set 'Cottage Industry, Leisure Industry, Modern Industry'), and utility and usefulness, recurs throughout Totem, along with the tension between work and leisure (in cottage industries, this is the fact that production in cottage industries took place in people's homes, thereby blurring the distinction between leisure/living spaces and places of work and labour). In the set of gardening-inspired concrete sculptures 'Plant Plant Plant Plant', similarly, there's a clear crossover between work/utility and leisure (as well as an overlap between the decorative and the useful).

Typically, gardening is an activity associated those who spend a lot of time at home, for example retired people, as they have the time to devote to what can be quite a labour-intensive hobby, or weekend gardeners keeping busy on their days off. At what point does a gardener's labour cross over the fine line between work and leisure and start to become pleasure rather than toil? Production such as gardening is only defined as 'work' or 'leisure' depending on its context. The term 'gardening leave' is used to refer to a time of not-quite employment (it usually means an employee has left their employment but is still being paid by the previous employers for a period to prohibit the former employee taking up new employment), implying that gardening is the next most productive way of keeping busy to employment. Perhaps this is also why gardening appeals to retired people – it must be hard going from being productive eight hours a day, five days a week, for most of your working life, to not being expected to be useful for the best part of the day and not being watched over to ensure a certain level of production is maintained. As with Laban's factory workers, whose movements were made to conform to patterns and certain ways of doing things, work is a form of control and conditioning through repetition and routine.

If the meaning of 'totem' is taken as an emblem or symbol upheld as epitomising the values of a society, work could be seen as a totem of our society. Whatever right-wing scaremongers say about 'benefit scroungers', we are still a society built around the cult of work: a person's social worth, status, and often self-hood, is defined in terms of their employment, productive output and salary, rather than their hobbies, interests or leisure activities (think about how often you're asked what you 'do', and how you go about answering). Indeed, leisure and spare has become an industry in itself, including exercise. Whereas people would once have gone for a walk or a cycle ride (or been engaged in physical work throughout the day), we are now sold gym membership and personal trainers, an example of how work and 'doing something useful' is encroaching into our increasingly regimented leisure hours (going to the gym is commonly a chore or a duty rather than a pleasure).

For many young artists, art is something they are forced to fit into their spare time. Young people often find it difficult to make a career out of being an artist and artistic production has to be squeezed around the pattern of day jobs. In the context of the current economic and political climate, and cuts to the arts, it's time to look again at the value of artists and the arts. It's interesting to look at programmes such as the Federal Art Project, a depression era government scheme in the United States. Artists were employed as part of the New Deal to work painting murals in public buildings such as schools and post offices. The project, part of a wider scheme called the Works Progress Administration, provided accessible, inexpensive entertainment. It also acknowledged the value of artists, recognising professions such as 'artist' (along with 'playwright', 'musician' and 'writer', pursuits supported by parallel projects) as viable career paths, and the potential uses for art and culture to boost morale and be a force for public good.

Totem previews at Bureau, 60 Port Street, Manchester, on Friday February 10 from 6pm-8pm. The exhibition continues from February 11-March 17, opening Wednesdays to Fridays from 12pm-6pm and Saturdays from 12pm-5pm.

For more information visit www.bureaugallery.com.


This text was written concurrently with an exhibition text comprising an exchange between the writer and the artist that took place in January 2012. This exchange will be available at the exhibition and online.

1Laban and Schwitters were both refugees from the Nazis and, in the 1940s, discussed collaborating on a Modern Dance Opera.

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