What Kind of Work Is This? Performance and Materialisms in the Gallery

Theron Schmidt


This article takes as its point of departure the prevalence of performance and diverse kinds of works on display in the 2016 Biennale of Sydney (BoS) as an opportunity to think through the different kinds of “work” that they do. These varying kinds of work are examined in relation to different theoretical frameworks that are inflections of “materialism”: cultural materialism, which helps to situate the economic and material conditions that both constrain and actively generate the kinds of available encounters, and which considers the BoS as an economic as well as aesthetic proposition; “work-like” performance or work-as-material, that foregrounds the material body of the performer, and can also position the labour of the gallery technician as a kind of performance; immaterial labour, which describes work that produces experiences and affects rather than material goods, and which can be placed in relation to participatory and relational art; and finally, shifting from human to non-human performance, new materialism, which emphasises the significance of non-human assemblages in delimiting and producing human agency.

In delineating these concepts in relation to particular artworks presented in the 2016 BoS, my intention is to use them as critical lenses with which to view those works, but also to consider how those works might speak back to these concepts. That is, what is proposed here is not a hierarchy of “materialisms,” nor a privileging of concept over work (or vice versa), but instead an attempt to articulate how the works themselves might be material practices of thinking, “working through” the conditions of their own possibility, and implicating me (as spectator) within the questions of value, ethics, and agency that they raise.


performance in the gallery; cultural materialism; work-like performance; task-based performance; immaterial labour; affective labour; new materialism; relational aesthetics; Barbara Cleveland; Adrian Heathfield; Mette Edvardsen; Fukushima Exclusion Zone;

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