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Work / Art

What does it mean to work in the arts? One Berlin-based artist shuts a gallery for five weeks to find out…

Contemporary art has long been (unfairly) the butt of “emperor’s new clothes” jibes. Are we being duped into thinking an unmade bed is art? Is a diamond-studded skull more than just a blingy diamond-studded skull? While these arguments have become so common that they’re incredibly dull, a new work looks to ignite the flame once again: a gallery commission where the artist has simply closed the institution for the entire duration of her show.

The artist in question is Maria Eichborn, whose new show at east London’s Chisenhale Gallery, 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours, sees the artist enforce the gallery and its office’s closure for five weeks, during which all Chisenhale staff will withdraw their labour. No work will be made or carried out either by Maria or the gallery staff, aiming to examine whether “work” can mean inactivity as well as production.

It’s a highly conceptual gesture that feels to be as much about politics and philosophy as it is about art. It surely can’t be seen to be “visual art” at all, as there is nothing to see; but it’s cemented as a piece of conceptual art simply by its initiation by an artist, and around a gallery framework. For all its nothing, and its absences, it’s a hell of a lot to take in.

Reinforcing the work’s academic and art historical foundations, the show opened with a one-day symposium of lectures and discussions around the work, placing Maria’s piece in the context of ideas around neo-liberal labour conditions and within the framework of academics like Jacques Derrida.

The piece’s genesis began when Maria visited the gallery in July last year. She interviewed members of staff at the space, and used responses to shape her wider mediations on what it means to “work,” particularly in the cultural sector, and how we judge the “value” of time and how we use it.

“The work is constituted not in the empty gallery but in the time given to the staff and what they choose to do with it. This commission presents multiple opportunities for audience engagement, from attending the lecture and seminar programme to contributing to conversations that will develop around the work,” says Chisenhale Gallery. “Eichhorn’s project directly confronts audience expectations of the artist, the artwork and the gallery. It is an artwork that exists as an idea in the public sphere, operating by generating discourse, rather than through objects or images.”

Maria Eichborn’s 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours continues until 29 May 2016