“Work Ennobles but the Nobility does not Work,” and “Side Stories”
curated by Michèle Faguet May 21 — June 15. 2009
Work Ennobles but the Nobility does not Work
In a discussion about Asunción, a short film about a rebellious domestic employee that he produced with Carlos Mayolo in 1975, Luis Ospina stated that it had been their intention to create paranoia, as ‘domestic employees represent a class enemy under the very same roof.’ And yet this ‘enemy’ is an integral member of the family she serves and cares for and is simultaneously appreciated and exploited, loved and pitied. She, in turn, will inevitably reciprocate in this unhealthy, co-dependent relationship by developing strong emotional ties to her employers and their children while inevitably resentful of their class privilege and the social hierarchy that has relegated her to its lowest rung. Even within her own social class, the female domestic employee is more often than not a tragic figure — a single mother who must neglect her own children in pursuit of a better life for them, particularly for the daughters she hopes will not end up like her.
The saying ‘work ennobles’ (el trabajo ennoblece) has a complex etymology: although sometimes associated with popular resistance and revolutionary politics, this aphorism can also be tied to the teachings of the Catholic Church and even to the Third Reich, with its Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service), the function of which was to combat unemployment in Nazi Germany under the motto ‘Arbeit ardelt.’ A related phrase, “Arbeit macht frei” (Work Brings Freedom) was posted at the entrances to numerous concentration camps during WWII. And then there is the Dutch witticism that goes like this: ‘Arbeid adelt, maar adel arbeidt niet’ (Work ennobles but the nobility does not work), which is curious given that Holland is not a country one would generally associate with class conflict despite its status as an independent monarchy. (In fact, many artists, curators, and institutions in Latin America and other developing regions have benefitted from the generosity of this monarchy exercised through grants endowed by the Prince Claus Fund.)
The idea for this exhibition derived from a simple, but significant chance encounter between two very different works: Asunción, which I happened to be writing about at the time that I received images of Regina Galindo’s Angelina (2002), a work that is well known to a local public in Guatemala. Once I’d decided upon curating an exhibition with works dealing with the figure of the female domestic employee, I didn’t have to look very far to find additional works from a very diverse group of artists and filmmakers. In Judi Werthein’s This Functional Family (Familia (dis)functional), 2007 - a mock documentary about the Sonneveld House in Rotterdam — the aristocratic Sonneveld family is portrayed by black actors and possible descendants of colonial subjects upon whose exploitation the Sonneveld family’s wealth was based, while their domestic employees are played by two white, middle class young women. Phil Collin’s soy mi madre, 2008 is an exquisitely made telenovela, shot on location in Mexico City with several leading television stars and loosely based on Jean Genet’s The Maids, 1947. The film was conceived while Collins was pursuing an artist residence in Aspen, Colorado and responds to the presence of a massive workforce of domestic laborers from Mexico serving affluent families in the United States. Monica Ruzansky’s photographic series “Dicen que los perros se parecen sus dueños” (They Say that Dogs Resemble their Owners) consists of portraits of female domestic employees walking their employers’ dogs, usually expensive purebreds that typically function to assuage the racial anxieties of wealthy, ‘aristocratic’ Latin American families. Finally, Sebastian Silva’s La Nana (The Maid), 2008 — a film that won several awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival — is a subtle portrayal of the complicated emotional dynamics that exist between a long time domestic employee and the well-intentioned family that employs her.
Side Stories (video & film program)
Lately I’ve become interested in anecdotes. Perhaps it’s due to my gossipy nature: private lives are often so much more interesting than public ones and I don’t trust secrets or people who build walls around themselves because withholding information is so often about exercising power over others. Transparency, on the other hand, implies a sense of trust between individuals or institutions interacting with one another within a non-hierarchical, egalitarian system in which information is readily available and subject to public scrutiny.
But I think there’s also something to be said for the ability to simply tell a really good story. Anecdotes are so powerful because they entertain us while secretly and subtly imparting knowledge that is very often more significant than official narratives like those found in traditional (linear, patriarchal, Western Eurocentric) historiographies, media sources and, generally, the kind of writing that disguises the author’s intentions behind a disembodied and objective voice, which is a construction that we should know to be false but that we continue to adhere to. (The writing of a press release in the first person, for example, is barely acceptable).
According to an article in Wikipedia (with no cited references or sources, and thus presumably unreliable) a side story is ‘…a form of narrative that occurs alongside established stories… where it is possible to tell many stories from many points of view.’ It’s like a kind of anecdote, then, that quietly and insignificantly exists alongside the ‘bigger picture’ but that may challenge, contradict, and ultimately destroy the veracity of those stories that are ‘established’ simply because they have been told from a position of power and are louder and more visible.
List of works:
Javier Bosque’s The Splinter from the Tree (La astilla del arbol) 2007, is a video shot by the artist’s mother that shows a series of quirky conversations between Javier and his father on family related topics that all seem to perversely gravitate towards the theme of death and amnesia. The video begins with a warning to its viewers that states: ‘Due to its personal nature, the context of this video is irrelevant.’
Sunset Condor (Artistas amistosos de Neükolln) 2009, documents a bizarre and seedy ten-day art event held in a shipping container in Valparaiso, Chile. Valparaiso was once an affluent and majestic cosmopolitan center, known as ‘the Jewel of the Pacific,’ but quickly lost its cultural and economic prestige with the opening of the Panama Canal.
In La pieza ensayo (The Rehearsal Piece) 2008, Ana María Millán and Eduardo Carvajal have re-edited original casting and rehearsal footage from Carlos Mayolo’s 1985 short film Aquel 19, an adolescent love story that ends in suicide and that takes place in Cali, Colombia against the backdrop of the first national victory of the local football team América de Cali, a significant source of regional pride for a city marked by conflict and violence.
Sõprus - Дружба (Friendship) 2007, is the product of a collaboration between Anu Pennanen and a group of teenagers (of both Russian and Estonian background) in the capital city of Tallinn. Like the artist’s native Finland, Estonia has been subject to regional imperialism, including Swedish and Soviet occupation, and inhabits an ambiguous (cultural and economic) position between Eastern and Western Europe. Today Estonia has the most liberal economic system of all of the former Soviet republics.
In Folklore 1 (2006) and Folklore 2 (2008), Patricia Esquivias delivers a pair of informal lectures with anecdotes ranging from Spanish real-estate speculator and football team owner Jesús Gil to post-Francoist rave culture to parallels between King Felipe II and Julio Iglesias, all of which describe certain cultural and historical formations present in contemporary Spanish culture.
Thursday 21 May 2009/ 7pm
Friday 22 May/ 5pm Conversation between Emiliano Valdés (Visual Arts Director CCE/G) and Michèle Faguet
Saturday 23 May/ 6pm Screening of feature film La Nana
Directed by Sebastián Silva, Chile, 2008. 98 min.
Centro Cultural de España / Guatemala
Vía 5, 1–23 zona 4, 4° Norte, Ciudad de Guatemala, 01004