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Installation view, How to Work

Peter Fischli and David Weiss’ large scale mural ‘How to Work Better’, 1991, was painted on to the facade of an office black outside Zürich, and comprised ten simple steps to achieve better performance. Mimicking the language of a Thai factory sign, the text has the crisp directness akin to the typography of Lawrence Weiner. Expanding on this appropriative kink, is Kunsthalle Basel’s latest exhibition.

The exhibition text cites Douglas Crimp’s influential exhibition, Pictures, 1977, that took place in Artists Space, New York, as a defining moment for a generation of artists whose use of quotation and appropriation dealt with the proliferation of mainstream media, and the increasing distance signifiers had from reality. How to Work doesn’t try to recreate the spirit of the 1977 show, but instead proposes a new generation of artists who have grown up with the internet and the development of the information age. When material becomes immaterial, when anything we want to know is available to us, when reproduction and dissemination are unlimited, what then, is the value of making or doing?

All this makes for heavyweight references that could flatten a lesser exhibition, yet these are shrugged off with the gangly determination of a teenager. There are two strands of work: those by artists who are happy to retreat to their studios where they make images of the world in a minimal and fetishistic fashion, and those who tackle the nature of work and commerce in globalised times.

Installation view, How to Work 
Installation view, How to Work

Among the latter is Adrian Melis who, in his native Cuba, set up an alternative economy that pays workers to construct elaborate excuses to explain why they cannot make it to work. Melis also set up a black market purchase of wood in order to construct a hut for the guard who has been selling the same timber he should be protecting.

Pratchaya Pinthong, meanwhile, manifests the conditions of cheap foreign labour in Europe, by working as a berry picker in Sweden when he was supposedly on residency in Paris. His display, ‘An Average Thai Berry Picker’s Income’, 2010, comprises the pitiful wages of the pickers as artistic product. Pinthong’s installation of Zimbabwean dollars in denominations from one to one hundred trillion, ‘What I learned I no longer know; the little I still know, I guessed’, 2009, echoes Carl Andre’s ‘Equivalent VIII’, 1966. The contemporary work is made of a block of worthless banknotes sourced through Parisian networks with connections to Zimbabwe and exchanged on the basis of trust so that the currency of an equivalent value, even if only for a moment, was returned for his euros.

Pilvi Takala’s work is at the end of service provision. A mock meeting room has been assembled to contain different parts of Takala’s 2008 work, ‘The Trainee’, for which she infiltrated the accounting and consulting giant Deloitte. After gaining some acceptance in the company, the artist avoided executing her job responsibilities, an action that proved profoundly disconcerting to her colleagues. In the business of producing ephemeral value, not being busy is taboo.

Alongside these works, Tobias Kaspar’s buttoned-up photographs, Tania Pérez Córdova’s self-referential investigations into the image-making process, and Juliette Blightman’s studio still life, seem like an indulgence and highlight Switzerland’s status as home of multinational at the creaming-off level of capitalism. But how has real life got to do with a gallery in the first place?

Pamela Rosenkranz’s ‘Death of Yves Klein’, 2011, couples with the disparate parts of the exhibition. Its blue screen is an imperfect imitation of Klein blue, but it pulls the viewer in, only to become immediately repellant when one hears a litany of health warnings cataloguing the chemicals Klein exposed himself to in the process of making art, as he dashed headlong towards untimely death.

Rosenkranz’s work combines the contradictions manifest in the exhibition, exposing the rarefied environment of the gallery and its protected populace to the outside world. This is not a simple exhibition, nor one that is easy to digest, but it goes some distance towards shining a light on the elephants in the gallery: what is this thing called ‘art’ and what makes it worth doing? What are the implications, or is there a quid pro quo, when an economy facilitates the art institution?

Aoife Rosenmeyer is a writer and curator based in Zurich