New York

“Today I Made Nothing”

Elizabeth Dee Gallery

For the past decade and a half, increasing numbers of artists have devoted themselves to considering the radically altered relationship between work and leisure in contemporary society, which makes a great deal of sense, given that art occupies a uniquely privileged, paradoxical position precisely at the point of overlap between these two spheres. Even so, too often people resort to an old, clichéd trope: The very possibility of art (as an object of contemplation, as a thing produced and circulated) exists only by virtue of leisure time. And yet such leisure time spent in making and looking at art subsequently becomes only another kind of work.

Of course, the real risk then run by any extended consideration of this conundrum is that “work” might become just another kind of leisure all over again. In other words, if work now often masquerades as something else, the opposite can also be true. And, indeed, this potential dilemma permeated, inadvertently or not, “Today I Made Nothing,” a group exhibition at Elizabeth Dee this summer, curated by the gallery’s Tim Saltarelli. Borrowing its title from a recent translation of early-twentieth-century writings by Russian absurdist author Daniil Kharms, the show attuned itself to a postindustrial context in which conventional oppositional techniques are presumably anemic. To paraphrase the press release, choosing to work less means little by itself when real productivity today actually happens outside the office or studio (when one is able to network, say, over lunch or at a gallery opening) and, in turn, different, novel tactics are required of anyone seeking some critical distance on the functioning of economic systems. In fact, the show proposes that, of the options at hand, doing and producing nothing—or making things that don’t function as the system expects them to—may be particularly appealing and productive to explore.

Such a proposition creates an interesting enough, smartly speculative backdrop for the works on view, in terms of suggesting ways in which artists arrive at approaches to artmaking befitting the moment. For instance, sculptures by Virginia Overton and Josef Strau can be seen afresh in terms of a bare minimum (as opposed to minimalism) in aesthetic execution, composed as they are mostly of simple light fixtures and stripped-down furniture. More overtly thematized is Mika Tajima’s Facility Based on Change, 2010, which creates the inaccessible (and therefore unusable) exterior of an office cubicle using Herman Miller partitions. Elsewhere, Alejandro Cesarco’s Why Work?, 2008, encapsulates a short history of deproduction as a critical model, consisting simply of a table of contents for a book featuring such essays as William Morris’s “Useless Work Versus Useless Toil,” Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness,” and Roland Barthes’s “Dare to Be Lazy.” (Notably, the show also included a small reading library with photocopies of texts such as Claire Fontaine’s “Ready-Made Artist and Human Strike: A Few Clarifications” and Gerald Raunig’s “Creative Industries as Mass Deception.”)

And yet, if Barthes’s essay, written in 1979, concludes with the thought that “the saintly form of modern laziness is, at the end, freedom,” one cannot help but wonder whether this exhibition is very tightly tethered to certain current expectations of art. For although Barthes was likely writing in an affectual register—he was, after all, an incredibly prolific writer, lending no small irony to his polemic—“Today I Made Nothing” seems to approach the question of work and leisure not only very seriously but also quite literally. And so, instead of flouting the question, the exhibition perpetuates it, underlining how today’s artistic context can thrive on the act of our doing nothing, as it were, while making nothing.

Tim Griffin