Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmens
Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery
February 18 – April 16, 2016
Let’s try to imagine a unit of artistic labour, its relationship to time, skill, knowledge, and practice. Because certainly, it is labour—the artist produces that which is known as the work, which is sold and reported as income, as a good, as an infinitesimal portion of the production capacity of a region, of a nation. Like domestic labour, much of artistic production is invisible—developed as thought, failed attempts, or devalued as untenable or unsaleable. Artistic production has an uneasy relationship with leisure—what a “working” artist produces might correspond almost exactly with what a hobbyist does in their spare time. (It doesn’t help matters that a “working” artist may work as an artist between other labours—in effect, their spare time). Measuring artistic labour, then, coincides particularly with evaluation in the sense of value judgement: work worth measuring maps to work worth valuing; time spent working becomes worthwhile or wasted.
Work and time are not newly acquainted by any means, but attention to the acuteness of their relationship is relatively contemporary, as is their exemplification: the chart. Comprising data versus time versus time to apprehend data, the chart is a fugue of informational accumulation and presentation. Beginning with the dawn of the modern era, the chart has come to rule the way we analyze and value labour and time, an observation that is central to the practice of Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens, and one that has formed the basis of their ongoing project The Prophets (2013–), which made an appearance in the Montréal Biennale in 2014. Each Number Equals One Inhalation and One Exhalation (2016) takes up this same subject in the form of an even larger installation of hand-built sculptural interpretations of graphs and charts across history, particularly those concerned with the productivity of individuals and companies. These coy objects, assembled from roughly-hewn wood, wire, yarn, hot glue, and bamboo skewers, manage an arts-and-crafts naiveté while testifying to the very units of (artistic) production they measure. Each is labeled precisely with its subject, but stripped of x and y values. Though they can only gesture at the meaning of the original data, each marks the passage of some hours in Ibghy and Lemmens’ studio; taken as a whole, they represent months of artistic research and practice. Transmuted from one measurement into another, the diagrams escape their original productivity, only to find a new use—out of the frying pan, into the flame.
This theme—the peculiar quandary of making something into nothing, and vice versa, and the artists’ ambivalence toward production the production of value—tracks throughout the remaining works in the show. Is there anything left to be done at all? (2014–2016) collects documentation of (non-)actions undertaken at a residency at Trinity Square Video in Toronto with several others. In the videos, the artists and their “collaborators” wait, ponder, mark time, and read books, transforming a situation intended for artistic realization into a space of productive unproductivity. The catch 22, of course, is that in documenting the residency, they produce a record which, in the long shadow of conceptualism, suffices as well as anything at being the Work of Art, a fact likely not lost on the artists. Even were they to not document the residency—a tough ask for an artist-run centre, whose continued funding generally requires demonstration of the work presented—the knowledge of its happening is enough to render it a performance.
Likewise, Real failure needs no excuse (2012) creates an impossible-to-unrealize scenario. In the remnants of an office in Glasgow, Lemmens deliberately and continuously stacks the detritus of a failed business into provisional sculptural interventions. These invariably teeter and collapse, to be built again in a different configuration. The title of the work has the flavour of the kind of axioms found in business manuals—Fail fast! Endlessly innovate!—trite, and truthful after a fashion, but aggravatingly unhelpful. When Lemmens picks up the pieces and starts again, is she demonstrating the foolhardiness of a capitalist system that demands endless, mindless labour, or the paradoxicality of accomplishing nothing?
These questions are not problems of the works, I would argue, but the fruit of the rigorous experiments that Ibghy and Lemmens have undertaken and presented here. Labour and/or the lack thereof are the sources of some of the greatest human strife, and our greatest satisfaction. Is it reductive to consider human life, or even a single human life, solely from the perspective of our relative productivity? Certainly, absolutely, and without doubt. But neither can it be stripped away from a consideration of our humanity. If nothing else, Ibghy and Lemmens prove that our relationship with production may be radically ambivalent, but never indifferent.
Benjamin Bruneau is an artist and writer based in Montreal (Tiohtià:ke), on Mohawk and Abenaki land. He is the Reviews Editor of Magenta Magazine.