After three months at an artist residency in Leipzig, I am now back in the Vermont woods. With temperatures plummeting, another storm now on the horizon, I keep thinking of my last days in Leipzig. Since I visited this city for the first time in the winter of 2018, I have fallen for it. There is no other way to describe my affection for a place unlike any other I know. Its long tradition of print and book culture, music, and the visual arts, paired with a free-spirited people, makes this city a unique destination which has, by and large, stayed under the radar. For much of the time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has been overshadowed by places like Dresden to the east and Berlin to the north. It is only a question of time until Leipzig becomes a new cultural hotspot on a global scale. Leipzig is already the fastest growing city in Germany. And with capital and talent pouring into the city, the rising cost of living and gentrification are starting to take hold of its neighborhoods. This is impacting low-income households and artists living there. My hope is that Leipzig and its people can maintain their fierce independence, sense of agency and creative problem-solving in determining the future of their city.
There is a lot of painting there: various manifestations of what painting is today, not only figurative, but also conceptual and anything in between, no matter if it is an installation, sculpture or a two-dimensional surface. You want it, Leipzig has it. But instead of deciding what paintings to discuss, I kept going back to a video that I saw as part of the film festival called DOK, which takes place every year in Leipzig and is one of the longest-running documentary festivals in the world. Part of the programming for DOK includes a selection of films and videos that are closer to video art and art film pieces than to documentary film. This exhibition is titled ‘Paradoks’ and featured several works, among them a two-channel video by Leipzig artist Paula Ábalos. Her 30-minute piece Diarios de Trabajos (Work Diaries) from 2019 is exactly what the title describes: a video diary of various odd jobs Ábalos held over the past five years in order to finance her artistic practice. These jobs included working in retail, as a kitchen assistant, preparing sausages in a stadium, and working in a package distribution center (where she was the only woman among her co-workers). Ábalos explains how the project started when she did not have enough time to make work because of her supermarket job. She “decided to transform the space of her job into her studio” and by doing so, the video diaries “became a way of recovering lost time in which the author [Ábalos] rents her body to companies, trying to reappropriate those hours, so they don’t vanish.”
Paula Ábalos’ video is remarkable because of how it ties together various aspects that govern the lives of most artists: a dysfunctional labor market which relies on cheap labor, capitalism which happily partakes in buying and reselling art but ignores the economic strains which dictate artists’ ability to produce work, and lastly, the double-role of artists who deliver products meant for consumption – either working in retail, in the service industry, etc., or by producing art. Ábalos touches on all of these layered and interconnected aspects. We witness a version of Charlie Chaplin’s worker in Modern Times with the exception that there is very little comic relief in Paula Ábalos routine. Similar to Chaplin’s worker, Ábalos is absorbed by the mechanisms she is trying to describe, represent and critique. Her work relies on her odd jobs and the jobs she performs have long become part of her artwork. Her matter-of-tone voiceover only adds to the repetitive and detached activities we see her carrying out in her work diaries. There is no pleasure or attachment to any of the performed acts. It is pure necessity and survival. As a painter myself, I would be the last person to point at contemporary painting and question the impact it can have on how we see the world we live in. But works like Paula Ábalos’ Diarios de Trabajos are more successful at dissecting the internal structures of our time and by doing so, it makes me hopeful. There are still artists who are not looking away, who take notice and reclaim agency over a system that wishes they did not exist in the first place.
Volume 34 no 3 January – February 2020 pp 12-13