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Part of the
exhibition

In the Presence of Absence proposals for the museum collection

5 Sep 2020 until 31 Jan 2021

Artist Page — 2 Sep 2020

In the Presence of Absence, the bi-annual show of proposals for the museum collection, presents 23 artists (collectives). This artist page includes a text on the work and an artist contribution.

Werker 2—A Gestural History of the Young Worker (2019) takes a critical look at the visualization and presentation of the body of the laborer. Werker Collective joined forces for this project with Kyrgyzstani LGBTQI+ activist and curator Georgy Mamedov. Drawing inspiration from the Worker Photography Movement of the 1920s, which saw photographers collaborating with workers and trade unions to visualize societal and political conditions from a working-class perspective, Werker Collective considers the relationship between labor and its photographic representation—in the past and in the present. The themes explored include gender, feminism, and queerness.

Werker 2—A Gestural History of the Young Worker takes as its departure point the representation of the working body in the former Soviet Union (USSR), where workers were depicted with strong, athletic bodies, and resolute expressions on their faces. The USSR was also one of the countries in which the Worker Photography Movement originated. Werker 2—A Gestural History of the Young Worker combines imagery from Soviet magazines, propaganda, and archives, with documents from the Werker Archief in Amsterdam. The project interrogates the normative visualization and glorification of the worker’s body, and the associated oppression of non-normative bodies.

Illustration by Haitham Haddad after Werker Collective’s “Werker 2 – A Gestural History of the Young Worker,” 2019.
Illustration by Haitham Haddad after Werker Collective’s “Werker 2 – A Gestural History of the Young Worker,” 2019.

The installation is bathed in red light, in a simultaneous reference to gay cruising clubs and to photographic darkrooms in which analog film is developed and printed. Werker 2—A Gestural History of the Young Worker uses the history of the oppressed body to show that the time has come for new critical examinations of normative archetypes. Last year, Werker 2—A Gestural History of the Young Worker was exhibited at the 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art in Yekaterinburg, Russia. The country’s 2013 “gay propaganda law” meant the project could only be displayed with an over-18 age warning—and even then, six images had to be removed from the installation and publication. The version of Werker 2—A Gestural History of the Young Worker exhibited at the Stedelijk is uncensored. 

Werker Collective was founded by Marc Roig Blesa and Rogier Delfos in Amsterdam, 2009. It operates as an open platform for addressing subjects such as neoliberalism, the patriarchy, and other dominant power structures. Work by Werker Collective has been exhibited at Foam in Amsterdam, and The Showroom and Tate Modern in London.

Artist Contribution

Smychka of Work and Desire    

Werker Collective compiled this publication during an art residency in the Urals – the Soviet industrial heartland – where the strong, athletic bodies of workers with severe and determined faces, and firm and coordinated gestures, were once celebrated in painting, sculpture, and photography. The Soviet visual glorification of the worker and labor rested upon the Marxist dialectical imperative to overcome alienation between different elements of social structure, namely the gap between physical and intellectual labor. In early Soviet political vocabulary, the word smychka indicated this drive towards collaboration and union in society. Soviet visual culture came up with different representations of smychka. During the industrialization of the 1920s and early 1930s, artists adopted a workers’ ethos of collectivity through organizing artistic brigades that developed their artistic work on construction sites and factory floors. Soviet painting of the 1960s romanticized the idea of smychka by visually blurring the boundaries between physical and intellectual labor. The worker was portrayed as a thinker.

(4) De Wereld in Beeld. De Groote Indische Cultures. Door Lr. L.J.M. Feber. Nijmegen 1931. (5) Ein Bilder-Lese-Buch über Schule und Alltag Berliner Arbeiterkinder. Von der Armenschule zur Gesamtschule. 1827 bis Heute. Berlin 1981.
(4) De Wereld in Beeld. De Groote Indische Cultures. Door Lr. L.J.M. Feber. Nijmegen 1931. (5) Ein Bilder-Lese-Buch über Schule und Alltag Berliner Arbeiterkinder. Von der Armenschule zur Gesamtschule. 1827 bis Heute. Berlin 1981.
(20) Arbeiterfotografie, No 18, Juni. Hamburg, 1979. (21) A Matter of Colour. Documentary of the Struggle for Racial Equality in the USA. Penguin Books. New York 1965.
(20) Arbeiterfotografie, No 18, Juni. Hamburg, 1979. (21) A Matter of Colour. Documentary of the Struggle for Racial Equality in the USA. Penguin Books. New York 1965.

Gestures are primary manifestations of bodies in social space, as they precede words in expressing desire, pain, excitement, fear, relaxation, and anxiety. Gestural expression is especially relevant for marginalized and outcast bodies. Bodies whose capacity to speak is restricted by the environment in which they live develop a vocabulary beyond the spoken word. Moving hips, a winking eye, a firm handshake, or a soft touch of shoulders form the visual lexicon of resistance against (hetero)normative assimilation of queered bodies and their desires. Gestures live short lives. They are hard to document and they tend to disappear. Gestures are always circumstantial and open to interpretation. 

(30) קיבוץ מרחביה, חודש ניסן תשס״ד, אפריל 2004. (31) Films and Filming. Condemned and Possessed. Marin Denis and Christian de Wulf. London, May 1978.
(30) קיבוץ מרחביה, חודש ניסן תשס״ד, אפריל 2004. (31) Films and Filming. Condemned and Possessed. Marin Denis and Christian de Wulf. London, May 1978.
(57) Искусство и Рабочий Класс. Е. В. Николаева. Ленинград «Художник РСФСР» 1983. (58) What Can a Woman do With a Camera? Photography for Women. Edited by Jo Spence and Joan Solomon. Scarlett Press. London, 1995.
(57) Искусство и Рабочий Класс. Е. В. Николаева. Ленинград «Художник РСФСР» 1983. (58) What Can a Woman do With a Camera? Photography for Women. Edited by Jo Spence and Joan Solomon. Scarlett Press. London, 1995.

So is an attempt to (re)construct histories of the oppressed, the silenced, and the outcast. In this respect, publishing a visual history of gesture is a gesture in itself: playful and painful, horny and reserved, tender and aggressive, liberating and oppressive, clandestine and up-front. A Gestural History of the Young Worker is a montage of anti-normative looks, moves, poses, smiles, and tears that stresses the dialectical character of the gesture of work which is often exploitative, enslaving, and abusive, yet which also contains the potential for becoming emancipatory.

Montage is a combination of two gestures: cutting and assembling. To cut off documents from their original context is a motion of communication that opens space for seeking justice to a past that was repressed. Disconnected and reassembled – according to the method of montage – these reworked documents not only reveal hidden histories but also shed light on possible futures. A futurity that is lurking in this selection of documents is not a blueprint of a new society. It reveals the mere possibility of it, as an ephemeral hint towards solidarity between all bodies in pain, their shared desire for bodily mutuality, and their collective struggle, and that of work as a creative, fulfilling, and cumulative process. 

Workers are no longer heroes; queers have never been depicted as such. Workers are queer. This is both a critical and a futuristic proposal. Throughout history, workers and queers have been pitted against each other. Right-wing regimes and politicians worldwide appeal to workers as a beacon of stability and tradition while depicting queers as a threat to traditional values. Opposing workers’ interests with the interests of LGBTQ+ and feminist movements has been a remarkable characteristic of the international Left as well. Werker Collective, simultaneously inspired by emancipatory politics of the international labor movement and by the body liberationist politics of the radical queers and feminists, offers yet another kind of smychka, that is a utopian synthesis of work and desire.

 (63) МИЕ. (64) Pigalle. Rosita Hecke. Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König. Köln, 2007.
(63) МИЕ. (64) Pigalle. Rosita Hecke. Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König. Köln, 2007.
  • “Werker 2 – A Gestural History of the Young Worker,” installation detail, 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Yekaterinburg, 2019.
    “Werker 2 – A Gestural History of the Young Worker,” installation detail, 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Yekaterinburg, 2019.
  • “Werker 2 – A Gestural History of the Young Worker,” installation detail, 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Yekaterinburg, 2019.
    “Werker 2 – A Gestural History of the Young Worker,” installation detail, 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Yekaterinburg, 2019.
  • “Werker 2 – A Gestural History of the Young Worker,” installation detail, 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Yekaterinburg, 2019.
    “Werker 2 – A Gestural History of the Young Worker,” installation detail, 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Yekaterinburg, 2019.