Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Overtime: The Art of Work looks back at life on the clock over the course of two centuries.
The second floor of Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery currently greets patrons with an empty conveyor belt moving through, and back around, a giant mirror.
"Contemporary capitalism trades in nonexistence," Agnieszka Kurant, the artist behind the piece, told ArtForum in 2013. "Seventy percent of money in this world is phantom—it exists virtually, on computers—but still produces physical consequences." Much the same tone is at play in Kurant's contribution to Overtime: The Art of Work, a new collection of artwork that examines the struggles of laborers across nations and eras.
From paintings of child workers in 18th century England to 3-D printed limbs of contract workers in 21st century America, the show is relentlessly engaging.
Curated by Cathleen Chaffee, Overtime includes work from a wide range of familiar names. There's the collage by the artist Robert Rauschenberg, commissioned by the AFL-CIO; there's the pre-abstract expressionism Jackson Pollock painting depicting 1930s cotton pickers in the South. But Overtime also includes an equally rewarding local touch.
Four prints by the late Milton Rogovin, a Buffalo optometrist who closed his practice in the 1950s after being outed as a Communist, are on display. His distinct portraits of blue collar workers can also be seen around town while getting a drink or waiting for a train. A sketch of a Luis Jimenez steelworker sculpture, commissioned by the region's transit authority, is also here. The actual sculpture never ended up in Buffalo as intended but editions of it now live in Boston and Birmingham.
Overtime covers over 200 years worth of work but its contemporary pieces are perhaps the most powerful. Josh Klein's 15-minute interview with a FedEx contractor offers a first-person tale of labor exploitation circa 2014, after the Great Recession. Situated in front of the screen is the same artist's stark display of 3-D printed limbs in fake shipping boxes.
Footsteps away from Mierle Laderman Ukeles's empowering depictions of New York City sanitation workers is a dark room filled with Li Xiaofei's 2012 films that switch on and off between silent laborers in China and their humming machines. "They start, stop, and monitor the machines," Li has previously said about this work, "but the machines are also their masters, dictating their movements and the rhythms of their days."
Hosting a show like this in a city with such a rich industrial history of its own makes a lot of sense. So does making a trip out to see it. Overtime is on exhibit through May 17.