This essay accompaied the exhibiton More than mere jelly at the Hessel Museum of Art, curated by Amelia Wallin. A digital copy of the publication, deisgned by Maria Smit, can be downloaded as a PDF.
ISBN 978-0-646-98644-9

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If every object and event is irreducible in its materiality, then part of learning to touch it is to come to love its particularity, its strangeness, its precious and inimitable place in the world.
[1]

The term “the second shift” refers to the labors of care, recuperation, and sustenance that occur after the close of a waged working day. The phrase refers to the work we all do and receive—to varying degrees, for ourselves and others—in order to keep on working.[2] It is also called the double burden.[3] When my eyes first tracked this phrase on my computer screen I read it as “burden burden”, a blunt expression of the incessant labor of care. Hours of work continuously leak beyond their assigned container of eight, nine, ten hours. This leakage can be attributed to the fracture that underscores our current experiences of work. We labor under the illusion that work is contained within a shift, and the hours within this shift equates to a wage, when such equivalences of value are never fully commensurable.[4]The wage, with its promise of equal and adequate remuneration, obfuscates society's reliance on unpaid labor. As Karl Marx argued, unpaid labor is a structural necessity of capitalism, upon which all cycles of value and profit depend. Feminist scholars call this care work, or social reproduction, and have observed how the gendering of this work reproduces inequitable social relations under capitalism.[5]

The concept of “abstract value-exchange” names the process by which commodities accrue value through the incorporation of living human labor, as the activating ingredient that makes commodities profitable. Abstraction makes labor and product indistinguishable, and therefore able to be infinitely exchanged. Marx refers to the remnants of this process of abstraction as “mere jelly” in Das Kapital. This so-called “jelly” is the congealed material birthed from the irreversible incorporation of time and labor. The material and visceral jelly, serves to mark “all commodities with the trace of resemblance.”[6]The jelly is a trace of itself that attests to a former process of abstraction which left it behind. [7]

This exhibition looks to the jelly, that “ineffaceable excess” which precedes and exceeds the assembled works of art by Frances Barrett, Nina Canell, and Alex Martinis Roe. The artworks respond to a multitude of ever-changing conditions, from the museological protocols that determined their display, to the durational pressures of gravity, and the affects that move between them. These works of art intervene within the soft infrastructures of collections, archives, negotiation, pedagogy, and friendship; those relations of care that constitute so much of the affective labor of artistic production.[8] When seen through the translucent sheen of the jelly, they collapse and run together like dye.

For this exhibition, Frances Barrett (born in 1983, Australia) created a new video work that records her encounter with works from the Marieluise Hessel Collection at the Hessel Museum of Art. Handle (2018) begins with the proposition of touching artworks within the museum’s collection, and navigates the layers of institutional negotiation required to document the feeling, moving, handling, and fondling of a selection of artworks. The video follows the passage of Barrett, the install team, museum director, registrar, and curator through the strata of the museum, moving from the storage facilities to arrive at the exhibition space characterized by its white painted walls, concrete floors, and finite configurations of moveable walls.

Conservators and curators alike remind us that touching an art object is what ultimately leads to its destruction. The moisture and chemicals inherent to our skin accelerate the material degradation of artworks. There is a perversity of care then, in Barrett’s touch. As an artist who works with performance and endurance, Barrett has previously positioned curators and collaborators as complicit in her care to question her artistic agency and interdependence within the structures and conditions of art. She has explored the boundaries of submission by taking sleeping pills in a public gallery, competed in a wrestling match with a curator for her artist fee, been a BDSM submissive in a public space, and crawled on her hands and knees for twelve hours. Making her body vulnerable to the determinations of external forces, Barrett’s performances of endurance echo previous works of performance art, particularly those early tests of culpability and bodily limits by artists such as Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic.

In Handle, it is the endurance of objects, rather than the body, that i­s tested. Artist and curator arrived at a selection of four works to be touched: Tom Burr’s Black Railing for Thomas (2009), Rosemarie Trockel’s Menopause (2005), Vito Acconci’s Pryings (1971), and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’“Untitled”(1992). As witnesses to the intimate procedures of unwrapping and installing these works of art, Handle illuminates the exhibition in its processes of becoming.[9] The video focuses on those who care for objects, foregrounding the tasks of musicological maintenance performed by the staff. The video also shows Barrett circumambulating the final display of the exhibition, touching each work with her bare hands. Her performative touch disrupts existing practices of handling art that are based on the preservation and sanctification of objects. The contrast of these two different effects of touch “elevates the performativity inherent to the roles of artist, curator and institution.”[10]

Vito Acconci’s (born in 1940, United States) video work Pryingscaptures the artist’s aggressive attempts to pry open the closed eyes and mouth of poet and artist Kathy Dillon.[11]This was projected—and touched by Barrett—during the installation period before being returned to storage, the work viewable only in the documentation of Handle. Also absent in the final exhibition is“Untitled” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (born 1957, Cuba).[12]Untitled” is a black-and-white photograph of a hand, marked with pencil along the lines of the palm believed by chiromancers to be the lifeline. The two gold hooks upon which it hung during the production of Barrett’s Handle, remain in the exhibition space as testimony to its former placement, evoking its ghostly presence.

Rosemarie Trockel (born in 1952, West Germany) is renowned for her large scale knitted paintings. Trockel’s Menopause (2005), is one of a small collection of works from this series that are hand-knitted rather than industrially-produced. Monochromatic and oversized in scale, Menopause is a framed expanse of mauve wool, turned inside out and supported by canvas stretched over a wooden frame. The stitches produced by the skilled hands of the knitter are irregular and inconsistent, recalling the handmade tactility of their production. Wool carries the connotations of feminized care in its fibers, however Menopause references the color field paintings of high modernism, and in doing so produces abstract painting through a process often perceived as craft or women’s work. The cessation of ovulation referred to as ‘menopause’ lends this artwork its title. Trockel references a further dimension of feminized productivity (and its lack): that of fertility and reproductive capacity.

In Tom Burr’s (born in 1963, United States) sculpture, Black Railings for Thomas, three freestanding balustrades occupy the floor of the gallery. A throw of black felt is draped over one, and a postcard is pinned to another. Reflective black plexiglass cut into rectangular and circular shapes puddle the surrounding floor or lean against each other. The railings evoke support, function, confinement, and decoration all at once. This work was created, and originally exhibited, in dialogue with a series of iconic black-and-white portraits taken by Robert Mapplethorpe of a sitter known as Thomas.Thomas in a Box (1986), Thomas in a Circle (1987), Thomas (1986), Thomas and Woman In Hat (1986), and Chest (1986) are six of Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Thomas that are held within the Marieluise Hessel collection. Burr recalls, “I discovered Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs through postcards that were stacked in racks in all the shops up and down Commercial Street, and I would buy the early flower and penis imagery in equal measure.”[13] For art historian George Baker, Burr’s work offers a camp approach to minimalism: “Camp removes Minimalism from its dominant place in the canon, or in our culture, and links it instead to subcultural authors, mass cultural characters, illicit desires and interdictions.”[14]Burr revises the legacies of minimalism and conceptualism with biographical and autobiographical elements, in his words, “I’m continually retracting from and returning to the moment when certain hard forms or movements or gestures or attitudes become ‘soft.’”[15]

Nina Canell (born in 1977, Sweden) is invested in surplus and the invisible, from the subterranean web of cables that support our digital existence, to the invisible forces of electricity and time that structure our lives. More than mere jelly displays two of Canell’s gum shelves, which are cast from a substance derived from pistachio nuts, via the same process for making cotton candy. Originally the same size and volume, the gum shelves droop and sag over the course of their display, their shape and form visually diverging even as their material constitution essentially remains the same. This gum retains its associations with food, even though its pale peach flesh color is an artificial addition. The work is brittle to touch, like toffee. An audience member at The Artist’s Institute, where these works were first cast and displayed, asked what would happen if he were to sit on them. The allure of this work is strong and evokes an embodied response, which is gratuitously granted when Barrett touches them in Handle.

Books, writing, and the paraphernalia of administration feature throughout the practice of Alex Martinis Roe (born in 1982, Australia). In her artworks, she offers text in the same way a friend or influential teacher offers a reading list, bringing the viewer onto the same page.[16] For More than mere jelly, in the work A Box of Vertical Relations (2018), Martinis Roe presents a stack of 24 books on temporary loan from the libraries at the Center for Curatorial Studies and Stevenson Library, Bard College. The books are arranged according to textual and interpersonal relationships that exist between the female-identified authors. Martinis Roe situates her work in “the genealogy of my own feminist formation – the ideas, books, and people who have shaped my knowledge and methods”.[17]The books follow a relational method of categorization, distinct from the Library of Congress classification system typically favored by academic institutions, or the Dewey Decimal System. Martinis Roe’s work is multidirectional, extending from the gallery into the adjacent Center for Curatorial Studies Library, where the absence of the loaned books are placemarked with a form tucked into the library shelves. In this work, Martinis Roe explores the effects of interpersonal and inter-relational knowledge by way of how documents, records, and people come into contact with each other and generate new relations.

More than mere jelly looks to the institution, and the surplus and subterranean labor contained within it. Into this amorphous terrain of abstracted work and immaterial labor, of leaky time and sticky hours, the enduring refrain, “the labor of love,” is used to mop up all those unremunerated hours. The artworks respond to the conditions of their presentation, drawing their resources from inside the museum, library and borrowing from other institutions. In this way, nothing accumulates or depletes, and a steady state is maintained.[18]

The color of Trockel’s Menopause lends itself to the pages of this publication. Mauve is chromatically inconsistent. Discovered by accident by a teenage chemist, it is the first fully synthetic color. What we have come to call mauve is actually a residue: the result of dye that wouldn't stick. Originally a saturated, deep purple hue, the contemporary conception of mauve is the capture of a color as it recedes. That which remains, recedes and resides can be seen throughout this exhibition and these pages, as evidence of the labor that continues unseen. Without due recognition of this labor, we understand only a pallid version of our current conditions.




[1] Laura Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Durham: Duke University Press, 2000
[2]“The second shift” was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book of the same name. See The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, London: Judy Piatkus, 1989. In another book, The Managed Heart, Hochschild is credited with coining the phrase emotional labor as a means to quantify those imperceptible yet significant tasks so often demanded of women and low-income workers (also described by her as “pink collar workers”) to resolve interpersonal problems. This complex form of labor is rarely valued or even recognized. See Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization Of Human Feeling, Berkeley: University Of California Press, 2012.
[3] Wikipedia lists double burden as a synonym of the second shift. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_burden, accessed February 20, 2018.
[4] Even in our post-Fordist moment where flexibility and around-the-clock availability is demanded of the contemporary worker, we are deceived into thinking that work “ends” and that what happens at home is surplus.
[5] Silvia Federici, in the 1975 Wages Against Housework treatise, writes: “the wage, rather than paying for the work you do, hides all the unpaid work that goes into profit. But the wage at least recognises that you are a worker, and you can bargain and struggle around and against the terms and the quantity of that wage, the terms and the quantity of that work. To have a wage means to be part of a social contract, and there is no doubt concerning its meaning: you work, not because you like it, or because it comes naturally to you, but because it is the only condition under which you are allowed to live.” Wages Against Housework, London: Power Of Women Collective, 1975
[6] Thomas Keenan. “The Point is to (Ex) Change It: Reading ‘Capital’ Rhetorically.” Fables of Responsibility. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Celine Condorelli writes on the productive labor of friendship as both a desirable set-up for working and as a dimension of production in her book The Company She Keeps, London: Book Works, 2014.
[9] In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, London: Bloomsbury, 2015, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write of “smooth space” — an environment like sand or snow that must be navigated tactically, and haptically, and moved through with constant awareness of the immediate surroundings. For Deleuze and Guattari, smooth space provokes a sensual or tactical response. In Handle, the contemporary museum is a similarly smooth space, encountered haptically by the artists and the team of installers. Their careful touch indicates the value ascribed to these art objects and their associated materials.
[10] Email correspondence with the author, October 2017
[11] Kathy Dillion was a poet and artist, and was Acconci’s partner at the time of this performance.
[12] Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” is displayed in the exhibition So long ago it feels like a memory of someone else, curated by Andrew Hibbard, at the Hessel Museum, April 8 to May 27, 2018.
[13] Tom Burr ‘Thoughts on a given name’, Rachel Harrison: Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, ed. Tom Eccles, Annandale-on-Hudson, Center for Curatorial Studies, 2009.
[14] George Baker, “The Other Side of the Wall,” October120, Spring, 2007.
[15] Alan Ruiz, ‘Tom Burr by Alan Ruiz’, Bomb, 2015 https://bombmagazine.org/articles/tom-burr accessed March 10 2018
[16] In her introduction to the volume of writing on art and motherhood, The Mother Reader, Moyra Davey speaks of the treasure hunt like experience of discovering sources in the footnotes, citations, and introductions of texts. She writes: “what emerges is a sense of a community of writers speaking to and about each other and an assumed lineage of authors and texts”. Moyra Davey ‘Introduction’,  The Mother Reader, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001.
[17] AQNB. “‘Solidarity-In-Difference’ and the Politics of Transgenerational Feminism: A Conversation with Alex Martinis Roe.” AQNB, May 8, 2017. URL:
http://www.aqnb.com/2017/05/08/solidarity-in-difference-and-the-politics-oftransgenerational-feminism-a-conversation-with-alex-martinis-roe/
[18] A steady-state economy recognizes that growth cannot be used boundlessly without devastating consequences. As Daly writes, “production and consumption are in no way circular. They are based on a linear throughput beginning with depletion and ending with pollution.” Herman Daly, A Steady State, New York: Pocket Institute, 2016.