Martha Whittington’s Working Artist Project installation “deus ex machina,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through October 6, is described in silent-film-caption wall lettering as a recollection of “the moment when machines became gods and workers became machines.” The echo of such German Expressionist depictions of labor as the celebrated film “Metropolis” is unmistakable. So is the Expressionist lineage of Whittington’s immense woven and wooden sculptures, although there are more contemporary artistic parallels to their rough linear geometry, which is pared down to essentials that are the very opposite of sleek.
Although the artist describes her materials as “referencing traditional modes of early industry,” the extensive use of wood suggests an even longer arc of history. This is a semi-mythic look at the all-too-literal use of the human body as an incidental implement, an energy-producing machine part for the production of God knows what, but the workers making the product don’t. Here the alienation of the workers from the results of their labor is total; it’s clear that, regardless of the purpose of Whittington’s sculptural objects, they are machines in which the people who operate them have no emotional stake and no financial stake beyond payment received for their particular actions.
The sculptures by themselves look appropriately but mysteriously clunky. They include such objects as a wooden cart with mirrored-steel wheels (the checklist calls it an “Overseer’s Cart”), a couple of oddly shaped tripod ladders and a workstation (“Assessment Table”) with objects in sacks. Everything seems more or less familiar and alien at the same time, which of course is Whittington’s intent.
The relationship between one object and another doesn’t become apparent until the installation is set in motion by the artists of Beacon Dance, scheduled to perform at different times (but more or less weekly) during the run of the exhibition. As a musical score composed by Jon Ciliberto begins to play, the dancers dress in the work clothes appropriate to their functions. Beacon Director D. Patton White, for example, puts on a complicated harness appropriate for heavy lifting, though he heaves no implement more strain-inducing than a hand-made, hand-cranked Victrola-style record player.
Ranging in age and physical condition from fresh-faced and youthful to gray-haired and wheelchair-bound, the dancers/workers carry out their appointed tasks. Metal globes are removed from the sacks and deposited, one by one, into an adjacent bin. A rope is attached between the two tall ladders and supported by a notched pole at its midpoint. The Victrola’s record is played. The overseer, seated on her cart, keeps track of the action by moving numbers of pierced metal disks on a large ring.
What does it all mean? Nobody involved in the process knows, and that’s the point. This is work in which the routine is related only to itself, from the before-and-after floor sweeping to the rope tying to the globe transferring, and there is no need for anyone involved to know the meaning of their actions. The skill set involved in manipulating ropes and ladders is a bit more advanced than the elementary one required to move metal balls around, but there is still no need to know the purpose of the activity.
In this case, the artist is the decision-maker who knows why all this is going on. Whittington’s artist’s statement explains how “the intense toil that utilizes these objects produces no discernible end result” other than a “testament to the requirement to labor continuously, with rest and retirement removed as options.”
She further describes her objects and devices as having been “meticulously, manually constructed from rough hewn to finish, in a manner similar to traditional factory methods, much like the sweat shops and sewing factories of [the] past.” And as the antiquated feel of the scene implies, this surely represents long ago and far away — a place and time in which it would be cheaper to turn human beings into repetitive robots than to invest in the skill-intensive machinery that requires worker responsibility for the processes of production.
What else it might represent is left to what Whittington calls the viewer’s “perhaps uncomfortable decisions.”