Laura Bielau’s Arbeit 2016-2019 (Spector Books, 2021) is a stripped-back and minimal series of investigations that regards the environmental working effects and detritus of art labor in 2021. Though the aims are not overtly class-oriented or political, they function as a personal case study between the artist and the alien consumer objects that become part of her practice and studio. Seemingly insignificant items, from rubber bands to pieces of paper and Amazon packaging take on a monumental form when scrutinized by Bielau in her studio. The effects are isolated and magnified by the artist’s interests in photographing the seemingly banal. In between the studio’s accouterments of debris are images of the artist’s body.
These images emphasize pieces of the artist’s body that carry her weight or aid in delivering her work such as feet. There are also studies of limbs and hands which are regarded as the tools needed for the completion of producing art. These images are surprisingly acute as the body is presented in various small acts of contortion suggesting a metaphor for the mental calisthenics needed to conceptualize and think through the production of contemporary art with all of its theoretical notations and baggage that the physical vessel carries out to completion. There is also interesting cooperation between images of the artist’s mouth and foodstuffs in the studio. Here, the history of the still life in the studio makes a full circle between its use as sustenance for the body and sustenance for producing art. A photograph of a slice of bread reminds one of Kenneth Josephson and his bread book, and perhaps in a vein more comedic, a picture of an unpeeled banana creates a comedic interlude to Maurizio Cattelan’s recent attempts to highlight the improbability of contemporary art and its markets.
The work feels unusually anxiety-ridden in places. The spartan nature of the photographs ask questions about reduction, line, and the place of the artist’s body within the larger context of Post-Fordist complexities of production and consumption at a moment when we are questioning the value of labor, desire, and objects with an emphasis on impending ideological and ecological catastrophe based on disposable lifestyles that permeate through to our art. Our “art record”, our visual objects, and marks are now equated with an epoch of mass distraction and mass destruction. Our bodies tread the environment in an alienable and objectionable contra-intuit to the cavalcade of history as we have known it, however flawed. That we are able to exist in an economy of art seems like a strange place given the shifting nature of labor towards the automated industry. Perhaps Biealu is questioning the synthesis between her own production and the mass of effects in her studio that exemplify this burgeoning trend-Amazon packaging once held by robotized hands shoveled onto shelves is now delivered to the artist for her to re-envision as part of her creative process.
Stylistically, I am reminded of Michael Snow’s photographic work in its sparse arrangments of people and objects held close to the lens and also perhaps Michael Schmidt’s emphasis on labor and agro-economies as seen in his swan song Lebensmittel. Laura’s reduction of image and relative non-cluster of the frame also reminds me of Renger-Patszch and perhaps some of the Bauhaus and other inter-war movements of the 20th Century, which is now rearing its 100th-year mark. It would also probably not be remiss of me to mention that I was reminded of Florence Henri’s tabletop studies, her arrangments of objects on a horizontal scale photographed from above the shoulder.
For me, Biealu’s book hits home as it navigates the territory regarding art, commerce, and labor at a moment when I am also examining what my own personal effort means regarding this thing we call art. I think that she is asking all the right questions while also navigating, at first glance, obtuse strategies for the production of minimal photographic images, which allowed to ferment, blossom into a cornucopia of potential conversations. It is one of my favorite publications of the year. As remarked previously, it is a somewhat prophetic book that you will wish you had purchased now as opposed to in the future. Highest Recommendation.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @Laura Bielau.)