Untitled (Vulture in the Studio) by Joao Onofre. Photo: Warwick Arts Centre

Diary of a Mead Gallery Steward

As a head steward at the Mead Gallery, I often find all sorts of people approaching and offering me their opinions on the gallery’s latest exhibit. Like the collection of people that approach me, their responses are varied. Some of the comments are grumbled disdainfully; some are insightful; some are unproductive, but all of them are unique.

This term in particular however, I have been interested in peoples’ responses to the exhibition Workplace. When I look back on last term, I remember that I already had a lot of preconceptions about this particular exhibition. The Aeneas Wilder piece, a wooden structure built without any fixings and relying on gravity, had been very popular, and when I glanced over the brief for the next exhibition I suddenly became nervous. A vulture in a studio? Men pretending to be in Star Wars? Some crazy woman sitting in a chair all day? I doubted the popularity of the forthcoming exhibition with our visitors.

Bright and early, on a miserable Wednesday at the beginning of January, I began my first shift for the new exhibition, and was really surprised at what I found – a captivating and creative exploration of the idea of work space that had the potential to interest those little interested in art.

The video installations alone cover a wide range of material. Wood and Harrison’s 10 x 10 most compares to a comedy sketch. It shows a camera pan a fictional 100-storey building, peeking into office space where employees sit only wasting time. The Trainee displays a social experiment, where artist Pilvi Takala spent a month in a marketing office simply sitting doing nothing except pretending to be busy (an occurrence many tired employees can relate to.) Secret video recording tell of her colleagues reaction – an entertaining watch.

Seeing some visitors walking in to the video installation rooms with disgruntled expressions on their faces and wrinkled noses has suggested to me that many visitors came with the same preconceptions I did. But interestingly, not one person I have met has walked out of the exhibition looking more bored than when they walked in, nor have any muttered anything to the same effect.

I enjoy working in a place, where people come ready to share their thoughts on what they see. A one couple came to be with their opposing interpretations looking for someone to validate their thoughts, or settle their heated exchange. The man insisted that the purpose of 10 x 10 was to show how people are able to have fun at work, but his wife was convinced that the protagonist was bored to the point of tears. Others simply want to share with me their favourite pieces and find out mine.

The work I describe is Untitled (Vulture in the Studio), which I favour for the contrasting reactions it provokes. Many people find the video uncomfortable or frightening – some anxious of animal cruelty, others thinking of the office space to which the vulture has been let lose into. Opposing there are some who like the concept of seeing a bird investigate a space, which is so familiar to us and yet unknown to a wild animal. It forces the audience to consider the workplace with new eyes.

An unusual aspect of the exhibition is that you can do more than simply walk in, look at the artwork, and then leave. The gallery space has also been made into a ‘workplace’ of its own, with furniture put in to be used for lectures and seminars, computers at desks which can be booked for use, and comfortable sofas where people are invited to eat their lunch.
I have witnessed people come into the gallery simply for a gossip over their sandwiches, to do some serious dissertation research and even, during one dynamic meeting, to make structures using piles of chairs. Not only are people visiting the gallery to see different interpretations of work spaces, but are creating their own interpretations of the one that has been given to them.

When I sit back for a moment and consider that the Mead is my workplace, I realise that I am having my own ideas about a working environment, and about art itself, redefined.

Workplace is on at the Mead Gallery in the Arts Centre until Saturday 9 March.

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