Keep the Door of My Lips. Exhibition Booklet. Opening Our Lips, Meeting Our Selves

Ours is an age of work.

We are told that universities and schools must educate students and pupils for the world of work and we are measured accordingly.

We are told there is lower unemployment than for decades and that’s a good thing.

We live in a culture of long hours and low pay at work, which we are told is damaging our health.

Many of us don’t have a choice.

But what exactly is ‘work’? How do we understand it today?

We can think of ‘work’ very generally as transforming something or someone through effort.

Parents work to bring up children just as a jeweller or miner transforms a mineral into something useful or beautiful.

An advertiser transforms a machine into an image that promises to save the purchaser labour costs (time and money), or a luxury into a necessity.

Domestic workers transform the homes of their employers into a status symbol. They operate like artists. As the Cleaner in Sally Potter’s 2004 film Yes puts it, cleaners might be called ‘cosmetic artists,’ or ‘dirt consultants.’

In what linguistics calls their ‘conative’ function, words and images, like music, architecture and social work, work to transform those who engage with them.

This exhibition suggests that ideas about work that the Victorians promoted through the mass media of the time – mainly magazines – are still with us, even if what we actually do on a day-to-day basis has changed dramatically.

There are as many silences in the Victorian magazines as there are statements, just as contemporary art, like all art, has to remain silent over some issues that the Victorians voiced.

In the exhibition, there probably isn’t much that we will recognise from our daily lives, but we may recognise many of the same relationships between machines and people, men and women, adults and children, employers and employees, between emotion and art, love, pain and loss, and the different kinds of work all these do.

Above all, we see the sacrifice that the work of transformation involves.

We aren’t talking just of terrible working conditions where Victorian children labour in noxious mines and factories surrounded by dangerous machinery. We know all that from school, visit to industrial heritage sites and many a television documentary.

Terrible working conditions may in many cases now be illegal but they haven’t gone away. The Voice of Domestic workers video tells us that employers go to some lengths to ensure their workers do not speak out about them – clearly, not always with success. That video, like Catherine Hoffman’s, shows us too that the cost of work and worklessness is not only financial. It can involve intense feeling and often suffering, both physical and emotional, for family members.

Work for the Victorians meant sacrifice in a very wide sense – sacrifice of time, sacrifice of identities, comfort and desires, and even sacrifice of lives. The Victorian images here valorise and heroise sacrifice; the contemporary art focusses on its cost. Is such a change of emphasis the main difference between then and now?

Suffering and remaining stoically silent – or better, converting that sacrifice and suffering to joy, ‘leaning in’ to the pain and learning from it to overcome it – was the ideal for the Victorians.

It has a precedence in the Christian martyrs whose closeness to God was signalled by their ecstatic embrace of suffering. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to be affected by this story, and one doesn’t have to be Victorian.

The image of the lifeboatman comes from the British Workman, a monthly temperance magazine that cost just a penny (less than half of 1p). It was in theory available to all. It was lavishly illustrated with prints like this. The very high quality of the prints (several of which you see in this exhibition) seemed to far outweigh the cost of the magazine.

The quality of the prints was a sign of how much work went into making them and the low cost was a mark that such labour was virtually being given away – sacrificed – to the greater good to us, for us, consumers.

The clear signs that the magazine took a lot of trouble to make such prints available to the public for so little validated the ideas of work and self-sacrifice the magazine promoted in its words.

To give more than you are paid was (and often still is) promoted as the highest form of work. The novelist (and civil servant) Anthony Trollope advised his male readers that such sacrifice lent status and dignity to their occupations – as long as they did not talk about it:

For every half-crown that you receive, be careful to give work to the value of three and sixpence, and then do not care a straw for any man … That you may obtain your object, ‑ that manly independence without which no profession can be pleasant, ‑ it is not necessary that all the world should know the amount of return you make.

Trollope, ‘The Civil Service as a Profession,’ Cornhill Magazine, February 1861, 214-28, p. 219.

The Manchester novelist Elizabeth Gaskell was all too aware of the class-based luxury of such an idea. In her 1854 novel North and South, the father of six children commits suicide when he is unable to find work: not only can he not give work above and beyond what he’s paid for (possible, of course, only for those who are not already stretched to the limit by what their job requires), but he can’t get a job at all. He has failed as a man. The shame kills him. His wife is left to bring up the children on her own. That is her work. Suicide is not an option for her.

Suicide is only an extreme form of the sacrifice such ideas demand. More usually we learn to merge our selves with machines, or at least adopt a persona that makes us fit into the mechanics of the work place. We must ‘keep the door of our lips.’

Catherine Hoffman wittily and bravely comments on this in terms of being accepted into a higher social class, and isn’t it the meaning of the curiously blank serving maid here? She seems a robot smoothly intent on her task. She seems to run on perfectly balanced casters not feet. The artist has repressed her walk – that progress based on imbalance leading to another imbalance. The artist has repressed her potential for imbalance, whether psychological, physical or social. She is rendered a machine. Obedient to the British Workwoman’s call for self-denial (see p. 29 below), the ideal domestic worker has sacrificed her difference from her role. She is her social role.

How far do we still believe that to work well in society (in all senses of that phrase) we must sacrifice our selves and welcome that sacrifice? How far do we think there is a pressure to believe this – and for whom? Unpaid interns of both sexes? Those on temporary or zero hours contracts? Domestic workers? Mothers and fathers?

The question the contemporary artists we have put in dialogue with the Victorian material all ask is whether we still think that, and, perhaps, whether we were ever able to think that at all. By colliding past and present, this exhibition offers a mirror to reflect on our thinking about work.

Andrew King