March 31 is the last day to view Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection. Just three weeks later, Esther Shalev Gerz’s Describing Labor closes, on April 21. Both exhibitions are rich, layered, and provocative, with Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte providing an intriguing glimpse of the lost world of turn-of-the-century Vienna and Describing Labor challenging us to consider—and then reconsider—what we think of when we think of the worker and labor. Organized by the Neue Galerie New York, Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte features approximately three hundred and fifty vibrant postcards, complemented by Wiener Werkstätte holdings from The Wolfsonian’s collection, including textiles, decorative arts, and printed materials.
The postcards, intended as miniature works of art, are for the contemporary viewer small windows into another time and place. In combination with the highly patterned textiles, ceramics, glass, and other items, and showcased in a stunning exhibition design modeled on the first Wiener Werkstätte exhibition, the show is a celebration of art, design, color, and, of course, Vienna. Desicribing Labor is also organized around historical images but rather than providing a window to the past, it functions more as a mirror. The exhibition asks us to take a close look at our society through a nuanced presentation and investigation of images of labor and workers. For the exhibition, artist Esther Shalev-Gerz gathered forty-one objects from the museum’s collection that depict the figure of the laborer and invited twenty-four participants to choose an item and describe it while she filmed them. The participants then placed the selected object in a spot of their choosing in the museum’s storage racks, and it was photographed in context with other museum objects surrounding it.
As Shalev-Gerz explains, when she first explored the museum’s collection she was struck by the many images of workers and labor, a theme that has since fallen out of favor as a subject for the arts. “It made me think about how we do not know the faces of the people who create the things that surround us,” she says. The two resulting long-form videos in the exhibition are captivating—one shows participants speaking about the object they chose while on the video next to it, the camera slowly scans the item. The words of the participants are powerful and moving. Here, a selection (a preview of sorts, to encourage readers to visit the exhibition and view the videos in their entirety): “I chose the one of the worker with the mallet because my great-grandfather worked in a stone quarry…And I only know two things about him. I know, one, that he worked in the quarry…And then, also, he died in the quarry. He was crushed by a rock and that was how he died…It’s interesting how they appear filthy and weary and yet not defeated in any way.” “…many of these, most of these, are from after World War I, when so many men perished and there was such a loss. The whole world was feeling it…And so the idea of really celebrating the strong, healthy man was an idea that probably had a lot of impact…people needed to see strong, healthy men after seeing so much death.” “So if there’s a machine that’s made by another machine that’s made by another machine, at the end of the day there is always somebody who makes the first machine…to me the human spirit is very visible. It’s right there…On the other hand, it’s not the turbine that’s the object, but the person behind it.” “The workers seem to be an extension of the things they’re working on. So in a way, it’s like they’re the tools that are maintaining the machines…there is also a sense of purpose in the worker…It reminds me of the freedom that you can gain from being focused on a task in a job. But then, there is also the dual nature of that, like you’re trapped in this job that maybe you hate and love at the same time.”
Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte is sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels. Describing Labor is made possible by Gary L. Wasserman with additional support from the Adam Sender Charitable Trust and The Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Foundation.