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A London gallery has shut its doors in the name of art. Is that acceptable?

28 April 2016

If you want to go and see German conceptual artist Maria Eichhorn’s first London solo show at the Chisenhale Gallery, 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours – you can’t. That is the artwork. The gallery is locked and shuttered, the staff have withdrawn their labour, no one is in the office, your emails will be deleted, and a notice on the gates explains that the gallery will remain closed for the five weeks of the exhibition.

Given the coincidental opening of Tate Britain’s ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979’, one might think that this non-event is a homage to the ‘closed gallery’ gestures of those days, such as Daniel Buren’s blocked entrance to his solo show in Milan in 1968, or Robert Barry’s 1969 Closed Gallery piece in Amsterdam. Eichhorn nods in that direction, but it turns out that this project is more thoughtful and provocative than simply closing a gallery – as well as possibly being a gift to the Daily Mail.

Berlin-based Eichhorn has a track record of more than 20 years of making work that investigates the institutional structures of the art world. Last year she conducted a seminar with the Chisenhale Gallery’s staff to investigate their conditions of work. On the basis of her findings, she decided that, following an opening symposium, the staff would not work for the rest of the show. They are not on strike – they continue to receive full pay – but they are not allowed to work for five weeks.

Maria Eichhorn, 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours (2016), Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate

Eichhorn sees this as a gift of time: ‘I am interested in the fundamental possibility of suspending the capitalist logic of exchange by giving time and making a life without wage labour imaginable.’

Behind this lies a concern with the labour conditions of the art world: the exploitation, and self-exploitation, including the increasing expectation that people will work for free. The idea is to reverse the way that work, aided by modern technology, has increasingly invaded everyone’s waking hours. But while the Chisenhale’s 14 full-time and part-time staff struggle with the paradox of making a work by not working (and Eichhorn receives her fee of £2,000), questions should be asked as to how far 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours has really escaped the cash nexus.

The Chisenhale Gallery receives annual funding from the Arts Council, and this project completes a special three-year ‘How To Work Together’ programme supported by ACE’s Catalyst Arts scheme. This is ‘a capacity building and matchfunding grant’ designed to improve arts organisations’ ability to raise funds from elsewhere. In Chisenhale’s case, this was done in partnership with two other mid-scale galleries, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire. Although ‘How To Work Together’ is ‘supported’ by the Arts Council, we are assured that no Arts Council money was used in the making of 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours. Chisenhale demonstrated its fund-raising capacity by securing help from Bloomberg, Jerwood, Cockayne – Grants for the Arts, and The London Community Foundation.

One of the many ironies exposed by Eichhorn’s project is that 75 per cent of Chisenhale director Polly Staple’s ‘work’ (and a large proportion of her staff’s) is actually fundraising, work that won’t be done in the next few weeks. The no-show demonstrates the fiscalisation of art. A further irony is that the only way you can access it is via the Chisenhale’s website, which carries full documentation and a recording of the opening symposium. Yet it is this kind of electronic automation that is increasingly putting ‘art-workers’ out of work. The ‘gift of time’ to Chisenhale’s staff is small compensation for the increasing precariousness of a new class: the educated precariat.

5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours turns out to be a more challenging concept than it at first appears. And though this work is about what you do not see, it still has a material existence in the documentation and argument it provokes – including this commentary. The next step would be to send the show on tour – providing, of course, that they can get the funding.

5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours remains closed until 29 May.