Making Work/Making It Work – Visual Arts Editorial


My favourite subject at high school was always visual art. I looked forward to weekly sessions in the art classrooms, and I embraced extra-curricular opportunities to take part in ‘art summer camps’ and excursions to interstate galleries.

Despite my deep love for the subject, when it came to deciding what to study at university, I made a compromise between the ‘sensible’ option (some combination of law/commerce/medicine) and my interests in art. I settled somewhere that was academically neither. I am sure that this is a narrative familiar to many of us. Art is a passion project, a hobby, but it is not a vocation, we are told.

Looking back on those decisions that led me here, and writing this editorial for Peril on the theme of work, I am reminded of the ongoing discussions surrounding artistic work, labour, and value. Did I decide to not become an artist because I wasn’t good enough? Or was it also because I was worried about making a living in this field?[1]

What is the relationship between making work, and making it work as an artist? I started to question the fraught relationship between creative production and economic sustainability, and the highly specialised place that artistic labour occupies within a broader labour force.

In his book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Marxist art critic Ben Davis discusses at length the specialised position that artists occupy as ‘middle class creative labour’.[2] For Davis, because artists work in a self-directed manner as their own ‘creative franchises’, they differ from the working class whose labour is directed by others and is, ultimately, disposable. For Davis, the issue of class is not just a matter of how much money you make, but also, how you labour to make it.

What Davis discusses is interesting because it places the value of artistic output not solely on commercial or economic outcome, but rather on its very methods of working. That is, the working conditions for artists are distinct, because of the independence that they have over their own work. But is it really enough to say this when artists still continue to be exploited and underpaid for their time and efforts?[3]

When I approached artists James Nguyen and Jason Phu to contribute to this edition, I was interested in looking at this conflation between art and work, but with particular emphasis on the process of making and what that might reveal about their practice. I wanted to take this opportunity to turn the lens critically on what might go unspoken within the fields of artistic creation and output, and ask both artists to contribute their personal voice to the topic.

Phu’s newly commissioned work can’t break rocks when a tiger took your head is a contemporary day fable regarding day jobs and working conditions. With his signature wit and humour, Phu’s drawing and accompanying statement playfully looks at the monotony of the day job and the much coveted lunch break, while also reading like a warning regarding fair work conditions and the relationship between workers and bosses. When I asked Phu whether the tiger was a metaphor, his response was ‘lol, dunno.’

James Nguyen’s works, by contrast, offer a ‘behind-the-scenes’ insight into his artistic process and working methods. In his essay piece towards a working title, Nguyen unpacks the possibilities contained within the use of a working title, and argues that its use can play a significant and strategic role in the making of art. His video piece Superman, similarly extends these themes by offering viewers a glimpse into his working processes. The video was a test shoot by the artist to establish a new work, but as his accompanying statement testifies, it was ultimately not completed. Together, Nguyen’s works ask us to consider how we might approach work not just as a destination or outcome, but rather an ongoing process of change and decision-making.

The work here is not done yet.


[1] Ironically, I am not making a living today either as an independent curator and writer, but that’s a topic for another conversation.

[2] Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), page 14

[3] See the NAVA Campaign for Fair Pay of Artists as recent example:

Sophia Cai

Author: Sophia Cai

Sophia Cai is a Melbourne-based emerging curator and arts writer with a particular interest in Asian art history as well as contemporary craft. She graduated from the Australian National University with a First Class Honours degree in Art History and Curatorship in 2011, and completed her Masters in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London in 2014, specialising in contemporary Chinese art post-1979.