Keep the Door of My Lips: Exhibition Booklet Introduction

Work, working conditions, the effects of work, escape from work, being without work, gender and work, ethnicity and work, class and work are standing items on the news media agenda. The workplace and the structures of work are the foundation of hit shows from The Office to Casualty, from Star Trek to Killing Eve and Lucifer. Work is embedded in the story of our lives.

We talk about work endlessly. But what is ‘work’? Where do our ideas about it come from?

This exhibition – by turns beautiful, heroic, shocking, comforting, unsettling – wants to get us to think about what work means for us by colliding images from Victorian periodicals with powerful and provocative art by four contemporary women: Catherine Hoffman, Emmanuelle Loiselle, Sarm Miccichè & ‘Home is not My Home’ by Dr Joyce Jiang, Tassia Kobylinska & The Voice of Domestic Workers.

The title ‘Keep the Door of my Lips’ comes from an illustration in the British Workwoman, a Victorian women’s temperance periodical which Deborah Canavan writes about below. It struck the curator Connie Gallagher and me that it summed up what we wanted to do: by highlighting our guarded silences about our ideas of work and their history the title enables us to open discussion of their effects on us.

The idea is the result of a decade of research into the history of trade and professional periodicals which, despite their ubiquity, had never really been researched before. It is part of a project I set up called BLT19 – Nineteenth-Century Business, Labour, Trade and Temperance periodicals – aimed at helping us understand the history of our thinking about work.

Working and speaking with young people today I see a very powerful return to Victorian conceptions of work, not least in the casualisation of the relationship between employer and employee, and in ideas of self-worth and practical possibility more generally. Victoria Tunn, a recent graduate from Greenwich, became very aware of this while working as an intern on Utilitarian conceptions of education aimed to manufacture good workers now dominate at every level, as John Morton points out in his essay below. Deborah Canavan, meanwhile, raises the still important question of gender: how far have our conceptions of different work for men and women really changed?  This latter question is closely bound to an anxiety about other kinds of work often not formally recognised as ‘work’ – the work of transforming others through parenthood and the labour of transforming oneself to actualise some idea of potential perfect happiness.

By colliding the hope and promises that the Victorian images suggest with the visceral outcries of today’s artists we want to make audible what each does not say, as well as lend an ear to what they do. Through encouraging seeing and listening, we want to remove the guard of our lips so we begin to share thoughtfully our stories about work, its costs and its pleasures.

Andrew King

The booklet continues here with “Opening or Lips: Meeting Our Selves”

or you can continue in any order to the following:

Deborah Canavan, Educating Women in Work?

John Morton, Working on Employment/ Facilitating Potential? Employability and British Universities in 2019

Victorian Tunn, The Millenial in the Media: “Buy your own House”

Victoria Tunn, Work, Money and Drinking