KUAF Arts Beat: Exploring Art's Role in a 'Pangea of Capital' with 21C Museum's 'Labor&Materials'

Feb 19, 2018

Lina Puerta's "Chili Crop Picker"

The 21st century's "concurrent abundance and scarcity" proves a deep well for artistic exploration in 'Labor&Materials,' the latest exhibition hosted by 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville, offering blazing color, knowing kitsch, and a deep ambivalence towards a world in flux. 

"Economists describe the world that we're living in today as 'at an inflection point,' a major, major change akin only to the changes in the 19th century because of the Industrial Revolution," says 21c's chief curator Alice Gray Stites, who coordinates exhibitions for all of 21c's 7 locations throughout the mid-South. "That means that there are exponential changes."

The pieces on display are in a wide range of mediums and materials. There's Marina Zurkow's series "MORE&MORE (the invisible oceans)," with LED screens crisscrossed by reproducing national icons and oversaturated tessellations, rendered like the perverse and overstimulated version of textiles that long ago traded hands across the Indian Ocean. Colombian-American mixed-media artist Lina Puerta's body of work occupies the opposite end of the technological spectrum, with embroidered portraits of day-laborers as meticulous and hallowed as Renaissance gonfalone. These too, however, are deeply rooted in the precarious present- the script at the base of one quotes NPR- "Improper exposure to pesticides harms 10 to 20 thousand agricultural workers every year... the people who harvest America's food."

Detail from one portrait in Lina Puerta's series

"Some have to do with rape and abuse of women in the fields; also, the effects of pesticides, the hardship of the work and the low wages many of the workers are paid," says Puerta of her work. "Many changes in the system can be made to avoid the abuse that happens on a daily basis."

Throughout the exhibition there is a discomfort with the volatility of the present, and a looming anxiety toward the future. No matter how "smart" our infrastructure or society may be, the laborers in Puerta's tapestries still pick their fruit by hand- the same way they did hundreds of years ago.

Speaking of the labor depicted, Puerta notes that "it has been considered a form of modern day slavery." At the fore of the exhibit stands Kara Walker's African Boy Attendant Curio, a reference to the sugarcane industry of the West Indies, where it was cheaper to buy new slaves rather than feed and care for the ones who worked the fields. 

"There is an interesting and important arc between our agrarian past and the post-industrial present," says Stites. "When we look at this future, it's important to make those connections between what we're doing now and where we might be going, so we can be cognizant of the lives and the labor of those who are still unseen."

'Labor&Materials' is on display through November at 21c Museum Hotel just off the square in downtown Bentonville.

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