Workwear between functionality and simbolic value / UNIFORM into the work / Out of the work
Curated by Urs Stahel
by Alice Zucca
I wore a uniform for 8 years of my life, when I attended school at an institute of Dominican nuns. I was 4 years old when I entered and I left when I was 11. In that context it was all a matter of uniforms, from the various ones of the religious environment to the one that was intended for us students. And for the students there wasn’t just the classic uniform that was used to identify us, but more different ones of different colors, at times aimed to indicate specific varieties of possible behaviors – positive and negative – to identify us not only in our social framework among other students but even as a type of person. I haven’t had to wait a long time to understand that uniforms are a matter of identity. It is certainly peculiar in this context to notice that in Italian, to indicate the uniform, there are two words “uniforme” (from the Latin uniformis meaning to have one form) and “divisa” (from the Latin dividere, to divide, to separate). The first highlights the unifying aspect, the second a dividing element: terms that reveal inclusion and exclusion as two connected actions, and indeed, in this sense, they are.
The concept of identity concerns, on one hand, the way in which the individual considers himself as a member of certain groups and, on the other hand, the way in which the codes of those groups allow each individual to think, move, place oneself and relate to oneself in relation to others, to the group itself to which they belong and to other groups, intended, perceived and classified as external. The process of the formation of the identity can therefore certainly be distinguished in these two components of identification, recognition and exclusion.
From homogenization to individual identity, uniforms communicate information and levels of belonging, of importance and credibility, they orchestrate social relations becoming over time a reference for fashion and mass production in the clothing industry. The uniform speaks to the others, the other and the individual self and has such an intrinsic quantity of encoded information that makes it able to develop an identity. I remember myself, being eleven years old, resting in the courtyard of that school, waiting for Christ to walk on the water of the fountain of the institute, while my shadow and my gaze, among the buildings, climbed up into the sky. But, as to Aleksandr Blok in Majakovsky’s A Cloud in Trousers, Christ decided not to appear to me. And from there, I am what I am now.
Olivier Silva is a young French boy who is followed by Rineke Dijkstra when he decides to enlist in the Foreign Legion and then during his 36-month training. The result is the impressive photographs, on display in the new exhibition at MAST, which show us in a brutal way how the time spent in the army, wearing the uniform, has changed the character of the young man.
The event is actually the union of two exhibitions, both investigating the aspects of being and appearing through “the uniform”, whether it is an official one or otherwise, UNIFORM INTO THE WORK / OUT OF THE WORK includes WORKWEAR IN THE IMAGES OF 44 PHOTOGRAPHERS an artistic itinerary that presents 44 shots by famous protagonists of the history of photography and a monograph of WALEAD BESHTY “INDUSTRIAL PORTRAITS”, which is a collection of hundreds of portraits of professionals in the Art industry, who he met during his career and for whom clothing is a silent code, an anti-uniform, but also, professionally, a personal distinctive trait.
WORKWEAR IN THE IMAGES OF 44 PHOTOGRAPHERS
The group exhibition “Workwear in the images of 44 photographers” staged in the PhotoGallery brings together photographs by 44 artists, including Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Walker Evans, Arno Fischer, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, August Sander and contemporary photographers like Paola Agosti, Sonja Braas, Song Chao, Clegg & Guttmann, Hans Danuser, Barbara Davatz, Roland Fischer, André Gelpke, Helga Paris, Tobias Kaspar, Herlinde Koelbl, Paolo Pellegrin, Timm Rautert, Oliver Sieber, Sebastião Salgado, images from albums of unknown collectors and eight videos by Marianne Mueller. Today we still distinguish between “blue collar” and “white collar” workers, two expressions that have become established in many languages of industrialised society. Inspired by workwear, a distinction is made between different forms and professional and social categories: on one hand the blue tunic or coverall of factory workers, on the other the white collar as a symbol of the suit jacket, white shirt and tie of those who perform administrative and managerial functions.
The exhibition is an excursion through uniforms, calling for a reflection on being and appearing: the work tunics photographed by Graciela Iturbide, the aprons worn in the “small trades” – as Irving Penn calls them – of the fishmonger and the butcher, the coveralls of the coal dock workers in the port of Havana portrayed by Walker Evans, the clothes of the farmers in Albrecht Tübke‘s colour shots, the workers’ coveralls in Fiat’s assembly plants in Turin in the photographs of Paola Agosti.
In Barbara Davatz‘s pictures, the work clothes of the employees of a small factory in Switzerland are compared with the uniforms of the apprentices of the largest food retailer “Migros” photographed by Marianne Mueller, while the white collars photographed by Florian Van Roekel are a counterpoint to the black coveralls of the miners in the photos of the Chinese Song Chao and the workers of a clothing factory photographed by Helga Paris. Workwear also includes protective clothing, which is the central point of the images of the Mexican Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Hitoshi Tsukiji who focuses on Toshiba’s safety gloves, and Sonja Braas, Hans Danuser and Doug Menuez who concentrate on coveralls.
Clothing doesn’t just reflect the different occupations, nor does it exclusively obey the function of the work, but it also indicates a distinction of class and status as shown in the great group portrait of the multinational Clegg & Guttmann‘s company executives, where the light illuminates only the faces, the hands and the dazzling triangles formed by the lapels, white shirts and ties. In the nine portraits by August Sander, considered one of the most famous portrait photographers of the 20th century, the symbiosis between person, profession and social role emerges more than the essence of the individuals themselves. In fact, the photographer’s focus is on the social function rather than the aesthetics of photography, with the intention of building a faithful image of the era.
The exhibition takes us from work clothes to uniforms with the seven imposing portraits of the soldier “Olivier” by Rineke Dijkstra, the civilian uniforms from the series by Timm Rautert, the clothes of the monk and the nun photographed by Roland Fischer, and the portraits of Angela Merkel in the nine photographs by Herlinde Koelbl, the famous German artist who dedicated a multi-year project called “Traces of Power” to year-by-year portray some of Germany’s leading political leaders, starting in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell.
Sebastião Salgado immortalises the moment of rest of an employee of the Safety Boss Company in Kuwait who was engaged in the operations of extinguishing oil wells set on fire by Iraqis in 1991 during the Gulf War.
The works of Olivier Sieber, André Gelpke, Andri Pol, Paolo Pellegrin, Herb Ritts and Weronika Gęsicka describe the progressive transformation of workwear and uniforms into style and fashion together with Barbara Davatz‘s “Beauty lies within” series, which depicts some of H&M’s shop assistants outside the workplace.
Tobias Kaspar‘s photographs of embroideries taken from the archives of a Swiss textile manufacturer close the exhibition.
On large monitors eight security staff in service uniforms, the protagonists of eight videos by Marianne Mueller, “watch” the visitors.
WALEAD BESHTY “INDUSTRIAL PORTRAITS”
The monographic exhibition of the American photographer WALEAD BESHTY “INDUSTRIAL PORTRAITS” staged in the Gallery/Foyer brings together 364 portraits divided into seven groups of 52 photographs each: artists, collectors, curators, gallery owners, technicians, other professionals, directors and operators of museums. The photographs portray people the artist came into contact with in his working environment, while making his art or preparing exhibitions. Over the past 12 years Walead Beshty has photographed around 1,400 people with a small camera and 36 mm analogue film, mostly in black and white. From all the pictures taken the photographer selected one portrait for each subject, and 364 were selected for the exhibition at MAST.
Inspired by the early 20th century work of portrait artist August Sander, Walead Beshsty’s goal is not to express the appearance, character or nature of the person being photographed – objectives that studio portraiture has pursued since the dawn of photography – but rather to represent people in their working environment (which is also his own), their function and the professional role they play in the art world and market. Hence the title of his work “Industrial Portraits”. “On the one hand in this title we can see the reflection of a technique that is in some ways standardised, on the other hand we can say that the portraits in the exhibition and the series as a whole (1400-1500 elements that continue to increase) are in turn a sort of ‘portrait’ of a specific industrial reality, i.e. the art industry as a whole. In this sense, the ‘Industrial Portraits’ make visible and shine a spotlight on the actors who move in this sector, which tends to be free of hierarchical structures”, explains the exhibition’s curator Urs Stahel.
Beshty’s 364 portraits highlight the protagonists’ resistance to the uniformity of professional clothing. They don’t want to look like the others, standardised, mass produced. However, there is a risk that this negative definition will once again prove to be a uniform and standardised attitude for all the actors operating in that environment. Despite the effort made by each individual portrayed to show a unique, personal and original presence and image, the protagonists seem to remain dependent on the context, prisoners of their individualistic attitude.