We have been called many names / Nils Staerk, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2017
Press release/ November 4 – December 16
A Language of Inversion
Capitalism was the first system to make the regimentation and mechanization of the body a key premise of the accumulation of wealth. Indeed, from its beginning to the present, one of capitalism’s main social tasks has been the transformation of our energies and corporeal powers into labour power.
Scattered around the gallery space are 28 plaster casts of the insides of hats, placed on simple wooden constructions so they form a group and become a formation of kinds of bodiless figures. The casts are all different as a result of the variety of hats they are made from and the tactility of the plaster surfaces tell stories about the specific types of hats, their material, age and how they have been used. Even slight traces of the person wearing the hat can be read in the inverted language of the cast. Runo Lagomarsino collected the hats in Los Angeles from people working as cleaners, gardeners, security personnel and other service job that remain in the margins of visibility. We have been called many names is the title Lagomarsino has given the piece as well as the exhibition. How can we understand this ‘we’?
A large piece of fabric separates the main gallery space from a smaller space. This fabric acts as a support for a black and white print of Guiseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s monumental painting of 1901, The Fourth Estate. The painting depicts a group of workers on strike moving towards the viewer. Lagomarsino has hung the image upside down. To reverse the position of conventional representations can destabilise the way we perceive them and reveal the construction behind naturalised concepts and world views. In his drawing América Invertida (1943), Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García turned the commonplace map of South America on its head, placing the Equator at the bottom and Uruguay at the centre, hereby reorganising dominant ideas of centre and periphery. A simple gesture of inversion like this, has the power to make visible that which was previously invisible.
The centre is what we, in our self-proclaimed centre, most commonly refer to as the ‘West’. Evidently, the West was not always the centre. In the Christian world Jerusalem was the centre and Europe, since it was located west of here, was merely the West. Europe only began to occupy the centre with the expansion into the Americas in the 16th century. The conquest of new land initiated the colonial system of domination and extinction and is closely linked to the advent of capitalist modernity. With this system of power, Western Europe became the point of observation and classification, it was from the West that the rest of the world was described, conceptualized and ranked.i
Indias Occidentales was the name the Spaniards gave to their newly claimed territory; other names given to the continent include America, Latin America and Anglo America. The act of assigning a name to a place, a collective or a social group is a crucial part of constructing an identity. A name also demarcates a border, a frontier for inclusion and exclusion, and the name Indias Occidentales indicates the location of America as part of the Occident, the West, yet placed at its periphery.ii
Naming the world has continued to be the privilege of the West throughout the 20th century. After World War II, the world was divided into three parts by the West with the West being the first, the communist bloc the second and the rest labelled the Third World. The implied hierarchy of this division is also implicit in the post-1989 term ‘the developing world’, which replaced the three-world system, and is used to name the nations that need to develop according to Western standards. The global South has been introduced to replace these terms, but is no less contested.
Sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues that the global South is not a geographical concept but rather a metaphor for the human suffering caused by capitalism and colonialism and we should understand that “it is a South that also exists in the geographic North, in the form of excluded, silenced and marginalised populations, such as undocumented immigrants, the unemployed, ethnic or religious minorities.”iii The historical conditions for the current economic divisions of the world into a global South and a global North are shaping the conditions for today’s marginalised labour forces in Western societies. In the global North, cheap labour is predominantly of immigrant background, which reflects the color line that also defines the global labour market. Additionally, many people working in the service sector are illegal immigrants, rendering them with no rights, no representation and to a large extent no visibility.
In Lagomarsino’s exhibition we meet the worker as a global figure, a figure whose identity is continuously transformed according to geo-political developments and the demands of capital. As the capitalist economy destroys ‘old’ industries and their workforces attracting ‘new’ workers from around the globe, the shape of work and workers changes.iv Lagomarsino employs a poetic language to portray the changing figure of the worker, one which renders abstract the specific cultural or geographical characteristics and opens up a space for considering these people beyond their identity as ‘worker’, ‘immigrants’, ‘Latinos’ or other. This way, it becomes possible for us to imagine them as individuals beyond their relation to labour and capital. A new people as in Volpedo’s painting.
In his work Lagomarsino seeks out the fractures of dominant narratives and teases out new understandings of the world. But rather than merely being an act of revealing the hidden structures of meaning, it is also a language with the power to reconfigure existing ideas and ways of conduct.
ii Ibid pp. 34
iii Boaventura de Sousa Santos: “Epistemologies of the South and the future” in From the European South 1, 2016 pp. 18-19
iv Michael Denning: “Representing Global Labor” in Work & Culture 2006/5, pp. 13-14