Text by Catherine Ailsa Jones
The phrase Zero Hours is most commonly associated with the Zero Hour Contract, a type of contract used by employers whereby workers have no guaranteed hours and agree to be potentially available for work. These two words can also be understood to refer to the time scheduled for a particular event or operation to commence, or refer to a critical and important moment in time. It is also the title of Art Sheffield 2013, a festival of contemporary art that brings together new exhibitions, commissions and events across the city.
The focal point of the festival occupies a room on the top floor of the city’s library in the Graves Gallery. Joseph Beuys’ sculpture Economic Values, 1980 consists of a steel modular shelving unit upon which foodstuffs such as flour, butter and honey are arranged, all of which were purchased from outlets in Eastern Germany pre-unification. Before the shelves lies a crumbling block of plaster, its cracks and missing pieces healed and made complete with chunks of fat. Hanging on the walls are paintings from the city’s art gallery, all framed in lavish gold gilt and painted during the lifetime of Karl Marx.
Place a load of foodstuffs on a shelf for over thirty years and they will alter state, change colour, disintegrate – the packaging will most probably outlive the contents. This is precisely the point – Economic Values is about change. The context of this sculpture is specific, these goods are the products of an anti-capitalist economy hence their simple no-fuss packaging, and the contrast between the paintings on the walls and the stripped back functionality of the modular steel shelving unit is blatant. But the message is universal and equipped to serve the ever-changing locations and times of Economic Value – first and foremost a human being needs to produce ‘spiritual goods’ through the form of ideas, education and art, and not via the commodities we think we need.
It would be easy to think of Economic Values as a sort of shamanistic museum piece documenting the more bizarre aspects of life in the Eastern Bloc, but instead it is intended that we view the sculpture as a sort of symbolic tableau. Honey brings us ideas of productivity; fat is comfort and warmth; the crumbling plaster is entropy and the paintings are a way of pointing a finger at Bourgeoisie taste.
Over at S1 Artspace Katja Strunz explores time and entropy in a different and less symbolic manner. Displaced clock faces hang on the gallery wall as dubious relics of another time and space. The two clock faces, which have been relieved of their duty as functional objects and stripped back to being mere shapes and forms, remind me of tools for measurement. The Berlin-based artist exhibits a series of sculptures that make me think about time as a construct that exists only to measure space. An assortment of sheet metal cubes cascade down the wall from the ceiling to the floor. Walter Benjamin said that “The origin stands in the flow of becoming”. The past is re-configuring itself to meet the present – I think this is the main idea behind Strunz’s sculptures. The surfaces of the metal boxes are slightly rusty. This is not seen as a negative aspect of the material but is acknowledged merely as change – time is no longer linear but crystallized, a beautiful full stop for us to inhabit. Strunz’s objects occupy a Zero Hours of their own.
Down the road at Site Gallery Mikhail Karikis’ film Children of the Unquiet is playing and as the title suggests, it is not quiet. As I walk along a darkened corridor and into a deep rectangular room I am struck by what I hear long before I am struck by what I see. It is a confrontation of shots of the gurgling Tuscan landscape and the ominously named Devil’s Valley – the inspiration for Dante’s Inferno and home to one the world’s largest geothermal factories. A recent technological error devastated the surrounding communities; Modernist villages stand eerily empty as the gas under the earth gargles and groans. This is an exploration into the aftermath of a man-made disaster. Karikis collaborated with children from the community who explore and test the potentiality of their birthplace in what the artist describes as a ‘take over’. The result is a sonorous feast: children play in the scorched wasteland, read aloud from works of philosophy about love and bio-politics and mimic the sounds of geysers – the whistling of steam erupting from the earth and the incessant hum of industrial drones.
That canny tactic of foiling the innocent and playful state of childhood with the more sinister effects of man-made industry is orchestrated beautifully. However, unlike those adverts using children to conjure up a type of sympathy in the audience, this film is not sad and it does not lure us into a false sense of purpose. The landscape becomes a character in its own right, a playmate for the children. And it is not one to be pitied as it hisses back – abundant, energetic and autonomous. It is we humans that are left behind and powerless.
In the film one of the children reads aloud from a philosophical text. We are told about the pollination ritual of the Hammer Orchid, a species that has come to be solely pollinated by wasps in a deceitful, non-mutualistic method. We learn about the false pretences under which the wasp approaches the orchid – the male wasp is tricked into carrying out the orchid’s work and there is no payment in return, the wasp continues to be tricked over and over again. Walking through Sheffield’s post-industrial landscape it is difficult to escape the metaphor of the wasp and the orchid – under what and under who do we labour?
Zero Hours is about the physical changes of materials and the city of Sheffield is itself the main exhibit. As the city turns towards digital industries for economic resurgence the old industrial buildings are relinquished to the landscape of the seven hills. But it’s also a call to action. Zero Hours prompts many questions that I don’t know the answer to, but I am generating ideas and thinking about these questions. Isn’t this the type of education that Beuys called for and isn’t this why art festivals such as this are so important?
Zero Hours is on display at Furnace Park, CADS, Bloc Project Billboard, Tram Depot Billboard, SIA Gallery II, Dada, Graves Gallery, Site Gallery, Bloc Projects and S1 Artspace until 14th December 2013.