Savage Garden, Melbourne
28.01 – 27.02 2022
Last year’s population and housing census, like the seventeen others that have come before it, sought to dispassionately analyse Australia by its households. The Australian Bureau of Statistics website tells us that census responses help to capture how the country is changing, though the questions put to residents to generate this data should also be regarded as important barometers of societal and economic temperaments. The question of employment and hours worked for pay was asked for the first time in 1966. In 2006, this was nuanced to include a section on voluntary work and hours spent doing unpaid domestic duties for their household, the ABS stating that this “data will help in understanding the way individuals and families balance paid work with other important aspects of their lives, such as family and community commitments.”1 By assessing the contribution of domestic labour to Australian society as a matter of public interest, these questions signal the growing widespread recognition that unpaid domestic labour has distinct implications on an individual’s life—and the country’s production and output—on par with vocational or remunerated work. Whilst unable to reflect the complex relational (namely gender-based) negotiations unpaid domestic work instigates between household members, this government-sanctioned proposition prompted a critical reassessment of domestic work, making public the often private debates surrounding its allocation and execution.
David Attwood has recently turned his focus to the reproductive labour at stake here, creatively vectorising the tools associated with this genre of work. In doing so, Attwood has set an intention to grapple firmly and fully with what these objects reveal about our relationship to work at large, his practice interrogating underlying ideological structures at the core of the current age of precarity and competition, and exploring how these principles are reflected in the functional artefacts of our era. As both a subject of theoretical and philosophical scrutiny and a physical routine embedded in the everyday, reproductive labour—the feminist articulation of unpaid domestic housework and caregiving—is an entity that continues to evolve in both intellectual and practical realms. Yet while feminist and Marxist theories aspire to fundamentally reframe and rebuild the conditions under which domestic work is apportioned and remunerated (for example, establishing cooperative housekeeping centres2 or guaranteeing a basic income for domestic workers3), the lived experience tells a vastly different story. A large proportion of products designed for domestic labour (and their marketing) continue to aid and abet the autonomous and largely invisible pursuit of this field of work. Individualist efficiency in reproductive labour continues to be privileged and mirrors the way that the idiom of work is rationalised, automated and instrumentalised across myriad facets of our lives.
In Attwood’s practice, this divergence of theory and praxis finds boundless expression in the found object. His work is a study in commodities, and has the capacity to communicate how our psyches are inculcated with branding, desire and the pursuit of productivity, via an economy of materials. Assemblages often comprise two or three specific elements that examine how these stimuli have been translated into apparatus affiliated with late-stage capitalism, for example the Nintendo Wii Fit Board that plays host to a pair of Nike Air Max sneakers of Wii MAX, 2019, or Cadre #1’s, 2021, Crashed Audi R8 Spyder Kids Ride-On Car stuffed with velveteen throw pillows. Such perceptive combinations allow contradictions and correlations between parts to materialise with a playful clarity.
As a contemporary invocation of the readymade, the found object maintains an inextricable link to labour, or more specifically, the refusal of it. As Helen Molesworth has written, the ur-readymade per Duchamp of the early 20th century emerged from a desire to disavow or stymie work: in particular, the streamlined, modular organisation of work promoted by the contemporaneously published Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Moreover, in so much as readymades were objects associated with the processes of maintenance—think the bottle rack, urinal and snow shovel—they offered a resistance to their intended or standardised use by way of their contextual and situationally-generated ludic qualities.4 Mitch Speed has expanded on this to reflect the present day obsession with entrepreneurialism and the moralistic connotations associated with work more broadly, observing that ‘[w]ithin a neoliberal culture that converts every waking moment into an opportunity to work—whether in freelance economies or in the tacit marketing of oneself through social media—to present found objects as art is to resist the imperative of labor’. 5
Attwood’s work explores possible futures of this legacy. The complementary motifs of ventilation and exhaustion are central to this exhibition, with Attwood analogising different iterations of a vacuum cleaner to the archetypal exhausted—or in current parlance, burnt out—worker. As an artist whose methodology is primarily clerical, involving acts of selection, modification and mediation rather than physical acts of crafting, building or constructing, his works actively invite rumination on the strata of labour involved in their realisation as well as the myriad performances and hybridisations of labour they articulate.
On one wall, a grey, domestic leaf blower rests atop a vertical vitrine housing a pair of neon lights. Discursive and material allusions to Jeff Koons’ The New series of brand new domestic vacuum cleaners are purposefully made, Attwood delivering the third act in Koons’ seemingly unfinished triumvirate of Pre New and The New, with the work Post New Ryobi RESV2200T. Post New Ryobi is at face value a reproduction of its progenitors, the one critical difference being that its central object is, in a denouement of its title’s linguistic trickery, used. Marked, scratched and likely harbouring remnants of the matter it was designed to disperse, the ossified contours of its design possess, as the author Jennifer Gabrys has observed of the life cycle of electronics, ‘‘a materiality that is often only apparent once electronics become waste”.6
As a quasi-robotic extension to the human arm, a leaf blower recalls the sort of Futurist ideation Filippo Marinetti shared of the (male) human body in his manifestos of the early 20th century. Its tangible coupling of machine and human emulates the emphasis Marinetti placed on obliterating traditional distinctions between the organic and the inorganic, between sentient beings and the physical and constructed world. Its portability and relatively unmediated mode of operation exemplifies the annexing of the power of machines that he and the Futurists proselytised for; a merger that could catalyse a “chiasmic exchange of properties and attributes”.7
However, in its decommissioned and nostalgically backlit state, a reading of this object as an accessory of the actively idle, house-proud hobbyist—a vestige of excess—sits in relief. Continuing with the above Futurist framework, Marinetti’s 1916 collage-poem Premier Record (First Record) illustrates the surfeit at the core of such an interpretation. Its prose tells of a superhuman who zealously breaks a series of world records in land and air speed, achieving such feats as appearing simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic and ‘conquering’ the North Pole via plane, train and car travel. In valorising record breaking as an end in itself, the energy expended to achieve these goals is sheer surplus and, like Duchamp’s readymades, works against the ideals of efficient expenditure, predictability and standardisation of the science of work (Taylorism) that began its dissemination in this same era. Post New Ryobi’s capricious over-deployment of resources is emphasised further by its installation in a paved inner city courtyard: the work a knowing rejoinder to Savage Garden’s almost-alfresco exhibition space. In this context, Post New Ryobi equally encompasses an excess or gamification of labour as it does the freedom from purely utilitarian productivity.
An alternate enactment of reproductive labour is seen in the adjoining Dust Blaster, a hand held device designed to blow crumbs and dust off computers. Powered by a USB cord and an industrial-length 30 metre extension cable, Dust Blaster remains plugged in and operational during gallery opening hours in a sort of perpetual exhale. Power is supplied by the USB port of the gallerist’s home computer located in the house adjacent. It is an acute demonstration of the now familiar collapsing of boundaries between home and work life and the tether many feel to psychological spaces of labour. By facilitating a unit of maintenance work to take place at the symbolic site of intellectual work (the computer), Dust Blaster fuses the traditional binary that organises these two spheres. The spatial and temporal separation between these two zones and the type of work associated with each have been dissolved, replicating the confused logic of recent work from home orders and acting as a salient reminder of the ambient but exigent maintenance that entrepreneurialism demands of its subjects.
The particularities of Savage Garden and the work undertaken by its owner/administrator are directly implicated in the circuit Dust Blaster creates between these spaces, bringing into focus the hybridisation of work and home that has brought this gallery into being. The creative reuse of a courtyard, attached to a residence, that operates as a semi-public gallery space, unpacks like a Russian doll of literal and figurative spaces, each which carry with them a different set of operational demands. Facilitated in part by the hole drilled into the gallery wall through which the USB cord is fed, incursions occur fluidly, one sphere of labour encroaching on another in dynamic and responsive ways.
With this mapping of work in mind, Dust Blaster registers differently to the indulgence in work encouraged by Post New Ryobi. Instead, it reifies the Fordist assembly line within intellectual and domestic realms. Once dust has been displaced from the computer, it will then need to be removed from a tabletop, floor or some other surface, demonstrating Ellen Lupton’s observation that in the domestic economy of ‘labour saving’ devices, work saved on one task often transfers to another.8 The same can be said of the impetus many workers feel to be constantly producing, improving or progressing: Attwood acknowledging this burden by allowing Dust Blaster to incessantly expel into empty space, its toil rendered at once siteless and omnipresent.
A recalibration to the distortions and conflations of labour present in Ryobi and Dust Blaster is found in Lung, the name given to the wall-mounted filter extracted from Attwood’s personal Dyson vacuum cleaner. Sweetly abject in its tufted filthiness, Lung is every bit the spent organ. Its substrate of synthetic alveoli is imbued with all manner of detritus that disperses freely throughout a home: an unmediated display of domestic dirt that presents as a veritable sedimentary record of reproductive labour. As is custom in Attwood’s practice, the precision with which he identifies the materials of this assemblage provides important interpretive cues. Dyson, a company that purports the values of simplicity, luxury and innovation, markets itself towards the design-conscious consumer who wants to invest their domestic life with these same qualities. But identification of the self through commodities is not a new phenomenon. Since the first half of the twentieth century, this psychological incentive has sat in tandem with continually rising standards in domestic duty, perpetuated by corporate deployment of technological advances throughout the home to alleviate the purported Sispephian drudgery of housework. To this day, domestic appliances still fulfil a dual role as both hard working tools and glamourous objects of desire.
With Lung, Attwood positions household dirt as both the object and subject of aesthetic experience. This recalls the Dyson vacuum’s transparent dust collecting cylinder, one of the brand’s most distinctive design elements. Making a spectacle of cleaning was not their innovation, however: this was a key feature of the first iteration of the domestic vacuum cleaner patented by English engineer Hubert Cecil Booth at the end of the 19th century. Housed in a distinctive red and gold horse-drawn carriage, Booth’s vacuum was available for hire, but a service affordable only for the very wealthy (reportedly costing the same as the annual wages of a junior maid). After berthing at the front of the residence, a team of uniformed operators would feed long hoses through the windows, the petrol-powered motor was started and air was drawn by suction from the hose and nozzles through a filter. A glass window on the side of the unit allowed passers-by to observe detritus from their neighbours’ abodes collecting in the machine’s central chamber. The whole process was a simple but effective marketing tactic, with such occurrences—definitively public affairs—known as ‘vacuum tea parties’. Restrictive cost aside, this outsourced and collective operation bears a strong resemblance to Marxist theorist Angela Y Davis’ idea to radically transform the nature of domestic work, converting it from an autonomous task to one involving “teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling, engineering technologically advanced cleaning machinery”.9
With much of the country confined to their homes throughout the last 18 months, domestic labour emerged as an activity that could provide a sense of satisfaction (or merely sustained distraction) in the midst of a period defined by widespread inertia and uncertainty. As such, Lung redraws the remit of the readymade to, in Moleworth’s words, “allow a time and space of not working”, and a space for being “outside oneself” by curtailing functionality.10 In its classification as a product of luxury and desire, thanks in large part to its absent exterior of vividly coloured aluminium and sculpted polycarbonate, Lung inverts Molseworth’s theory through its promise of a transcendent experience achieved through its intended use. By choosing an object made from premium materials, optimised to make the task at hand not only more efficient but a pleasure to complete, individuals can synchronise and encode domestic maintenance with the values that drive other, subjectively more dominant, aspects of their lives. Like the absent exterior, however, this promise remains mnemonic rather than actualised, with Lung’s oversubscribed innards casting visceral doubt on the holistic consolidation of home and work life, personal aesthetics and aspirations. Lung excises us from this ideal, confronting us with the toll of the many distinctions of work that permeate the everyday. Repeated under its indistinct layer of gunk is the line-drawn symbol of a tap that indicates the filter itself can be washed and put back to use: a fitting visual metaphor for the cyclical and compounded nature of lived labour.
Within Attwood’s triangulation of working objects, the spectre of the user remains a conspicuously open-ended proposition. These tools assume the role of wayfinders, helping this unidentified, but archetypal, user/worker to navigate this epoch’s obsession with working faster, more seamlessly and ‘better’. They also invite deep-seated somatic responses, much like the latent tactility and sensations borne of a phantom limb. We can almost feel the pneumatic alchemy of synthetically generated wind coursing through our forearm; our hand can recall the standardised but satisfyingly ergonomic grooves of a handle; our breath might catch with the innate desire to prevent the decrepitude of our own body’s lungs whilst we consider their exhausted industrial counterpart. Certainly, these are not neutral nor wholly aestheticised entities. In the tradition of the readymade Attwood has plumbed the paradoxical and revelatory allure of these objects with energies that belie the burden of their own labour, his works a series of thought experiments that provide active respite from, and the room to contemplate, the requirement of work itself.
1 https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/2901.0Chapter58002011, accessed 10 October 2021 2 Dolores Hayden, Grand Domestic Revolution: History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighbourhoods and Cities, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996, p. 10
3 Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Post-work Imaginaries, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
4 Helen Molesworth, “Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades”, Art Journal, Winter, 1998, Vol. 57, no. 4, 1998, p. 53
5 https://www.moussemagazine.it/magazine/notes-on-the-found-object-mitch-speed-2018/, accessed 20 August 2021
6 Jennifer Gabrys, Digital Rubbish: a natural history of electronics, Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press, 2011, p. iv.
7 Christine Poggi, “Metallised Flesh: Futurism and the masculine body”, Modernism/modernity, vol. 4, no. 3, 1997, p. 20
8 Ellen Lupton, Mechanical Brides: Women and machines from home to office, New York: Cooper Hewitt National Museum of Design | Smithsonian Institution and Princeton Architectural Press, 1993, p. 15
9 https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/davis-angela/housework.htm, accessed 2 October 2021
10 Molesworth, p. 58
All photos by Christo Crocker