Dead Labor Day
534 W 21st Street
NEW YORK—“Dead Labor Day,” an exhibition of new works by Sam Durant, will open at Paula Cooper Gallery, 534 W 21st Street, on March 13 and remain on view through April 17, 2010.
The title of the exhibition refers to Karl Marx’s description of surplus value as the “dead labor” of capitalist production.
“Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the laborer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has purchased from him.”1
The show will include a large sculpture based on the scaffold used to hang the famous Chicago anarchists known as the Haymarket Martyrs (shown in the image above). Monument-like in scale, the sculpture is not an exact reproduction of the gallows but rather an outline of the structure that doubles as a worker’s break room. Viewers can access the platform using an industrial steel staircase, and once on top get a drink from a water dispenser.
The “Haymarket Martyrs” (August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, and Louis Lingg who committed suicide in prison before he could be hung) were labor activists and anarchists. They were arrested following an ambiguous bombing and subsequent shoot-out involving police officers on May 4, 1886 known as the Haymarket Riot, which had begun peacefully as a labor rally in support of the 8-hour workday. Though there was no credible evidence linking the rally organizers to the bombing, they were sentenced to death and executed publicly on November 11, 1887. The case sparked outrage and gained the labor movement worldwide attention. The 8-hour day was finally enacted into law over 20 years later. The five Anarchists became martyrs to both the founding of International May Day (May 1st), a day of celebrating labor, and the 8-hour workday.
This exhibition partly grows out of Durant’s recent work on capital punishment comprised of small-scaled architectural models of historically significant gallows and drawings with statistical imagery. However, it also addresses issues of labor history and its relevance to today’s economic conditions. According to the artist, historical accounts of the economic conditions in which the Haymarket affair took place reveal striking similarities to today’s relationship between labor and capital, especially with respect to the weakening of labor laws and worker unions’ loss of leveraging power.
Durant’s work explores the political dimensions of contemporary culture by weaving relationships between defining historical and cultural events of the recent and less recent past. He has focused on such pivotal periods as the civil-rights era, the 1968 student riots, and the last century’s struggle between Native Americans and European settlers. He started exhibiting in the 1990s and has had one-person exhibitions at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Kunstverein Düsseldorf; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston. His work has been included in numerous group exhibitions such as the 2004 Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, New York; the 2002 Venice Biennale, Italy; and Out of Place: Contemporary Art and the Architectural Uncanny at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
In Beaud, Michel, A History of Capitalism, Monthly Review Press (2001) ↩