An exhibition at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow titled Spirit Labor: Duration, Difficulty, and Affect shows the work of thirty artists of varying generations from Southeast and Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern and Western Europe. The exhibition explores the most significant and complex substance known to us – time and its duration. Whether the artist attempts to archive time, slow it down, speed it up, expand it, repeat it or put it on a loop, the idea of time as continuous and progressively flowing is bought into question.
The title Spirit Labour is taken from a film essay by the British performance historian and curator Adrian Heathfield in which he explores a specific type of artist’s labor based on overcoming forces such as time or natural phenomena. It denotes a specific mode of artistic labour that is “inclined towards elemental exposure and non-human forces”. The word “spirit” in the title is not to be confused with the theosophical notion, but rather relates more than anything, in this context, to time as an artistic medium and durational aspects of certain artistic practices.
Tehching Hsieh made seven works over the course of his entire life, each one taking a year to make. His longest and final piece took fourteen years to complete. Vyacheslav-Yura Useinov spent eleven years making a small scale painting The Shadow of a non-Existent House. He explains that the final image was the result of an emotional and spiritual effort to keep the memory he was guarding in his mind’s eye alive. Other artists in the exhibition engage with the theme of duration in more literal terms. Fiete Stolte for example travels from airplane to airplane, moving across time zones in order to escape the rising of the sun and so gain an extra day of life.
The point of entrance: the idea of duration, leads to reflection upon the psycho-emotional work of the artist as something that involves great difficulty. It is an unquantifiable form of labor. One example that best exemplifies this is the work of Elena Kovylina, Save My Soul, in which she steered an old rickety boat in the direction of a storm. She survived, however part of the work itself was the uncertainty and emotional turmoil in not knowing whether she would live or die.
The exhibition points to a form of labour that is unquantifiable, economically and temporally. Under the logic of Spirit Labour an artwork is quite possibly never finished, it can be in a state of perpetual reworking and the final “product” may not exist beyond the psychic experience of the artist themselves.