Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Unproductive Labour

by Connie Anthes

12 Jun 2012

When an artist completes a body of work, there is often a desire - no, a need - to take stock of where things have landed. In a way, exhibitions are a fiction that disrupts the flow of work that happens in the studio: the Art must be finished even when the ideas remain unfinished… after all, the show must go on.  As audiences who have no choice but to inhabit this fiction, we rarely glimpse the realities of art-making — the loose ends, dead ends, incomplete thoughts and the possibilities that are still waiting to be claimed. We were able to get a closer look at this interior world in Shrine Work, a quiet piece of process theatre by Sydney artist Kate Scardifield.

For 10 days, Scardifield turned the car park gallery at Alaska Projects into a studio-as-stage, with the aim of undertaking the unproductive work of examining several years’ worth of material discards, remnants and studio residue. No need to produce, no ‘exhibition’, no real outcomes. On Day 1, the room simply contained boxes of unsorted ephemera, alongside Scardifield’s weapons-of-choice: cutting table, overhead projector, pin wall, makeshift lightbox. For those familiar with the artist’s themes (grotesque anatomy, fashion that modifies the body, cutting as an act of discovery and disfigurement), this work could have taken a sinister turn. But the extreme care, time and gentle hands Scardifield applies to her subjects veils their darkness; instead we are moved by the artist’s materials, which include Victorian lacework, pins, appliqué, rope, thread and found imagery.

By Day 10, a shin-high ‘peg out’ of domestic efficiency had overtaken the room so that each artefact took its proper place in the mystical order. In a far corner, there were wreaths of woven rope and stands of wooden dowel; in another, stacks of 60’s magazines, paper cut-outs of brains, and piles of antique lacework.  What are we to make of all this stuff when it has no form, when nothing has been done with it? I sensed this was a question the artist felt just as keenly, and perhaps the gridding up was a deliberate move by Scardifield to democratise materials to which she is clearly attached.

Critically, this ritual occupation of the floor and wall space ensured that the ‘studio’ could no longer function as a site of making and the ‘gallery’ no longer permitted detailed viewing. I was reminded of photographs I’d seen of Marcel Duchamp’s workspace, where his readymades took over his home/studio to such an extent that there was no actual space to work anymore. He, like Scardifield, had been consciously avoiding productive labour and this was evidence of his success.[1] Duchamp also toyed with ideas of confounding the audience experience, with his Mile of String installation at the first major survey show of Surrealism in 1942.[2] In the same sense, Shrine Work ends up pitting both artist and the audience against the limits of space itself.

Scardifield has bravely offered up her creative viscera: the messy, emotional business of making objects, of shaping ideas. Perhaps if I’d watched her think instead of watching the floor fill up, I would have learnt more about Scardifield at her most unproductive. But I didn’t, so all I can do now is look at that floor and imagine a thousand new beginnings.

Kate Scardifield’s Shrine Work took place at Alaska Projects  from 21-31 May 2012


[1] Helen Molesworth published an article on Duchamp’s unproductive labour, which contains rare images of the artist’s home/studio. Molesworth, H. Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades. Art Journal, Vol 57, No. 4 (Winter 1998), pp50-61.

“[2] "First Papers of Surrealism” took place at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in midtown Manhattan in 1942.