At Your Service lifts lid on labour industries at David Roberts Art Foundation

By Mark Sheerin | 27 April 2009
A picture of a silver medallion with the work working etched on it against a black background

(Above) Manuela Ribadeneira, Working / Not Working (2003-2009). Picture courtesy the artist, © Cristina Flies

Exhibition review: At Your Service, David Roberts Art Foundation, London, until June 27 2009

At the launch of this exhibition, Raúl Ortega Ayala cooked a five-course meal for 13 members of the public, recreating the Last Supper with crockery and a table of his own making. He even washed these strangers' feet.

The empty banquet table now takes centre stage at the David Roberts Art Foundation. Scraps of lamb rest on plates amid crumbs of matzo bread and fruit which is beginning to rot. Recipes are available, so you too can try marror, made from horseradish, thyme, rosemary and chopped coriander, just as it was in 33AD.

Last Supper kicked off a show which explores the role of art in relation to the service industries. Curator Cylena Simonds has made visible not just the work artists do, but also the endeavours of cooks, cleaners, carers, garment manufacturers and those we most often take for granted.

"The labour aspect behind rituals of service is one of the things I wanted to come across through the show," she says. "When service labour is going well it's invisible. You only notice it when it's going wrong."

One of the most impactful works is by Susan Collis, who manages to comment on both artistic and manual labour. Sweat comprises five box-like checked bags of the kind used by migrants, each sculpted in paper and patterned with biro and pencil. They took 30 volunteers six weeks to create in a workshop, not a factory. The result is a labour of love – skilled and meticulous, but hardly grueling. The title feels ironic.

In choosing these pieces, Simonds doesn't want to dictate what the viewer thinks or make them feel guilty. "Does a work have to be serious in a particular kind of way in an exhibition like this?" she asks, citing humour as "a really important strategy."

But is art real work? Not compared with the slavery echoed by the many rag dolls which make up Being Mammy by Harold Offeh, nor the physical graft in evidence in the kitchen soundscapes of Green Flash by Gayle Chong Kwan.

Yet art can make us think more than, say, a takeaway meal. In addition to the Last Supper, Ayala served up cheese made from human milk (including crackers) at the opening in a piece named after mother Alejandra Ortiz-Reynoso. It puts all of the art here and the industries commented upon within a maternal context.

"I was going to try it," muses Simonds, herself heavily pregnant. "But it was gone before I had a chance."

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