Industrial Portraits, the monographic exhibition of the Los Angeles based artist Walead Beshty hosted at MAST Bologna, showcased 364 portraits divided into seven categories of 52 photographs each – artists, collectors, curators, gallery owners, technicians, directors of museums and other art-industry professionals. Beshty’s work was presented as a part of a larger exhibition curated by Urs Stahel: Uniform: into the work / out of the work – a collective display of the works of 44 photographers showcasing over 600 pieces of clothing and uniforms, worn by workers in different historical, social, and professional contexts. By displaying the uniform in all of its symbolic and functional facets, Uniform: into the work / out of the work. investigated the duality of these garments, designed on one hand to convey a sense of belonging, whilst on the other hand serving as a symbol of classification, singling out an individual or group from the rest of the community.
Beshsty’s objective is not to represent the character of the person being photographed, but rather to represent people in their function and professional role in the art world. Today, with workplace and work in general being very much in the spotlight, with new rules in terms of work environment and work practices, the creative industry can be seen as an example of fusion between work-life and private-life/leisure. Not necessarily for better or worse, simply an example of changing times. “I think the uniform of the art industry is essentially the uniform of late capitalist flexible labor, which differs from the industrial work aesthetic in that the signaling of position or authority are less overt – explains Beshty – By and large a certain type of self-aware casual wear dominates the art industry, and the coding is more akin to street wear. The uniform of late capitalism (post-Fordism), in all its variability, also underscores the evaporation of the division between work and life; that one is always dressed for work and could be expected to work at almost any time. The art world, and creative industries in general, present a vision of life as work, or at least the expectation of it, further collapsing the aesthetic signifiers of work and leisure into one, more or less, hybrid form. These conventions have become increasingly ubiquitous, especially since the creative industries have increasingly become fetishized by traditional corporations – like the implementation of open office spaces, cafés, entertainment, and so on, within the work environment. It encourages its workers to locate more and more of their lives and identities within the working environment, rather than their homes and communities.”
The system of economic production, consumption, and associated socio-economic phenomena in most industrialized countries since the late 20th century, is known as Post-Fordism. It is contrasted with Fordism, the system formulated in Henry Ford’s automotive factories, in which workers work on a production line, performing specialized tasks repetitively, and organized through Taylorist scientific management. Post-Fordism is characterized by the following: small-batch production, economies of scope, specialized products and jobs, new information technologies, emphasis on types of consumers in contrast to previous emphasis on social class, the rise of the service and the white-collar worker, the feminisation of the work force.
Merely a few weeks ago, (well, months) the latest fashion collections were being showcased in the world’s fashion capitals, proclaiming workwear staples such as boiler suits and coveralls newly appointed fashion trends. All of a sudden people felt the need to wear a uniform, with the privilege of designing their own, although their workplace did not require one. In times in which the correlation between one’s profession and one’s identity is being once again discussed, this highlights an inner contrast – especially since the demand mostly comes from the upper-class, who has never really worn an uniform and most likely would not be happy to have to wear one if the order came from an employer instead of a fashion designer. “I believe the creative classes started to think of the uniform with disdain because it was deindividualizing, rejecting this sort of dress signaled that they were engaged in mental labor, and outside of corporate culture – says Beshty. Uniforms give workers greater anonymity and emphasize their interchangeability, while this creative class of worker marketed their uniqueness. Over time, the behavior of the creative classes were emulated more and more within the corporate environment, ‘flexible labor’ was used to remove the guarantees that corporations once gave their wage laborers. The problem for the higher paid worker is different: in the post-Fordist moment work permeates life, and workwear, seen in a contemporary light, affirms the distinction between work and life – it makes explicit that there is a moment at the end of the day when the uniform is removed and your time is your own. So, my sense is that the use of the uniform in high fashion is a form of nostalgia, a romanticization of the past. Of course, only a privileged class, one who can consume fashion, would be attracted to the fantasy of wage labor or grueling factory work as something liberatory. The irony is that the clothes are made in factories, transported, packed, and unpacked by workers wearing uniforms, where they are sold in stores populated by clerks, so that someone with means can appreciate a refined aesthetics of labor; I doubt those workers would share the same fascination for factory aesthetics.”
The subjects of Beshty’s portraits are all people with whom he has a some kind of professional relationship, and the pictures are all taken in the process of working. The result is a rather intimate depiction of both the people portrayed and the artist’s perception of the industry.“The portraits grow from a desire to document all the relationships that develop out of the collective endeavor to produce aesthetic experiences. Every human endeavor is dependent on collective effort and art, like any other industry, is the result of the intelligence and efforts of the many. Which is to also say that the work I make is not solely in my control but is produced through an agreement among a number of contributors, and I try to emphasize that interdependency in all the work I do. The portraits have a particular personal resonance as they specifically relate to the course my practice has taken, but they also serve a broader sociological end, presenting a selection of individuals and locations chosen by circumstance, who are all related to a particular field.” In terms of uniforms, Beshty’s works highlight the protagonists’ resistance to the uniformity of professional clothing. However, this negative idea of uniformity (or perhpas conformity), sometimes risks leading to another form of standardization – despite the efforts made by each individual portrayed to show a unique, personal, and original image, the protagonists seem to remain dependent on the context, prisoners of their individualistic attitude.
MAST stands for manifattura, arte, sperimentazione e teconologia – manufacture, art, experimentation and technology. The MAST Foundation is an international cultural and philanthropic institution that focuses on art, technology and innovation. It was founded in Bologna in 2013 by Coesia Holding (global leaders in industrial and packaging solutions) and Isabella Seràgnoli Foundation (an independent non-profit organization) as a place to celebrate culture and its workers. The winners of a competition launched in 2005, created MAST by transforming a run-down industrial area into a series of spaces designed by Labics architectural studio of Maria Claudia Clemente and Francesco Isidori – an example of sleek, minimalist architecture. MAST is located next to the Coesia’s headquarters – a multi-functional complex designed for company collaborators but also open to the community. It represents an experiment of integration between industry and society, combining corporate welfare services – including a company restaurant, a nursery and a wellness center – with a programme of cultural activities open to the public such as photographic exhibitions, conferences, film screenings, musical events and educational workshops for children.
The gardens and green spaces designed by landscape architect Paolo Pejrone are integral elements of the architecture and host contemporary artworks such as the site-specific sculpture Reach by Anish Kapoor. Inside the building there are other permanent works of art on display, by artists such as Julian Opie, Olafur Eliasson and Arnaldo Pomodoro.
Walead Beshty (1976, London, UK) is an artist and writer working in Los Angeles. His work is held in permanent museum collections worldwide, including the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the MoMA, New York; the Tate, London; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.
Mast is planning on a reopening of the exhibition Uniform: into the work / out of the work that will run until September.