Like it or not, the work we do defines us. Whether we serve food, design logos, or push products into a box to be shipped across the world, we structure our days and our lives around the things we do to make ends meet.
In the latest exhibition at Coop, The Family Business of Removing the Human Element, Korean-born artist Hyeon Jung Kim delves into complex issues addressing the repetitiveness, time, and tedium often associated with manual labor. Using a specific daily job as the framework, she brings in themes of working conditions, survival, and sacrifice—and draws a connection between the work and processes of artists to those of other manual laborers.
In her early teens, Kim immigrated to the United States from Korea with her family. They relocated, like many families have and continue to do, to pursue the American Dream. After starting several small businesses, her parents finally settled on a family-run dry-cleaning business.
The exhibit focuses on the family business, functioning simultaneously as a tribute and a socio-political critique of this kind of labor-intensive work. The show is pared-down and concise, consisting of 3 sculptures, 2 video installations and 2 unframed photographs. Like a great motto or a well-edited speech, the succinctness of exhibition only emphasizes and clarifies its message. In politically or socially charged art—be it a song, sculpture, or novel—less is more. The work does not need to preach to be heard.
An untitled 7-foot tall accumulation of multi-colored laundry tickets stands near the back of the gallery. The countless number of tickets seem to represent, more than anything, time spent. Hours, days, weeks, a lifetime’s worth of tickets are stacked like a monument to contemporary work life, or some kind of extremely unsettling totem pole.
The sculpture, along with the other works in the show, reminds us that labor and time are inextricably linked. Thus, when you talk about labor, you talk about the struggle of time itself—from our cultural fixation on efficiency, to long hours in tough working conditions, to the balance of work and personal life. Through this notion, Kim draws a connection between the work of a dry cleaner and that of an artist &mash; creative objects and consumer products are both manifestations of time, materials and processes.
In an installation titled “Cart and Video,” a yellow industrial laundry bin hangs from the ceiling on heavy chains. Inside the bin, a few white shirts surround a video monitor that faces toward the ceiling. A time lapse video shows two workers ironing and pressing clothes in a continuous loop. The workers’ quick movements result in their bodies being barely there. They become blurred, temporal, ghostly figures, whose humanness is reduced to streaming trails of arms and hands moving fluidly among large machines. As the faceless employees work so diligently and robotically to remove what Kim calls “the human element” from linen and clothing, you can’t help but wonder if the whole story is actually reversed – perhaps the repetitive tasks and long hours are slowly removing “the human element” from the employees.
Coop has had an excellent run of exhibitions over the last couple years, and continues to bring challenging artists to Nashville’s art scene. It is not surprising this show ranks among the most important solo shows we’ve seen this year.
The Family Business of Removing the Human Element runs through July 26. Coop is open on Saturdays, 11 A.M. — 3 P.M. and during the First Saturday Art Crawl at 75 Arcade