The Labor of Art and the Art of Labor: Christopher Benton on His First Exhibition in Al Ain
By Niccolò Acram Cappelletto
Published on November 7th, 2021
On the day of the closing of “Worked (So and So and On On and So On and So On),” Christopher Benton reflects in the following interview on the exhibition that took place between August and October in Al Ain, UAE, at the Art Space in Al Jimi Mall. I had the pleasure to meet Christopher virtually as he is currently in the United States for his MS in Art, Culture, and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the support of the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. Based in the UAE, Christopher is the recipient of several awards and residencies and this exhibition is one of the final products of his Residency at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi. Recently, he has been selected to be one of the artists representing the UAE art scene at the Abu Dhabi Art fair in November. In the interview, Christopher addresses issues of labor and materiality in his art practice and discusses “Worked (So and So and On On and So On and So On),” which is his first exhibition solely dedicated to sculptural artworks. Although focused on materials, a recurrent theme in Christopher’s practice, the exhibition will “live forever in the public imagination, as the image in jpg.” Paraphrasing his words, the artworks acquire multiple lives inside and outside the exhibition space and the digital pictures will remain evidence of the artworks, even becoming artworks themselves. I found in Christopher’s views on labor, repurposing, and the value of art-work a compelling argument that imbues the artworks on display and resonates greatly with contemporary societies around the world.
Niccolo Acram Cappelletto: So I start with the first question, which is regarding the title of the exhibition “Worked (So and So and On On and So On and So On).” What is your relationship with “work” in general as a concept? Why this title and what do you think of the work both as the final art object, but also the labor process that goes into it?
Christopher Benton: Thank you, that's a really great question. My practice is mostly situated around questions of labor and how everyday people make their way in this neoliberal society that dominates us. Labor issues particularly come into focus in a place like the United Arab Emirates, where the majority of the citizenry immigrants who are here for work opportunities. A lot of the global issues that you see, as a result of capitalism, really come into glaring focus through individual stories here in the Emirates. I wanted the title to directly reference labor so that people have that framework in mind when they come to visit the show. Then the subtitle of it, “So, and so and on and on and so on and so on.” I think it was more about creating an intersectional potentiality, where people thought about their own labor. I think it's easy for the middle-class not to think about working-class issues as their own. I vocalize a lot of the stories that I tell about the Emirates through the working class, but I want people who come to see this exhibition to remember that the issues of the working class are the same issues that they deal with every day.
Labor issues particularly come into focus in a place like the United Arab Emirates, where the majority of the citizenry are immigrants who are here for work opportunities.
N.A.C.: That's very interesting. Regarding your own practice, do you see it as part of that labor, like a sort of manifestation? How do you consider your own practice in the scheme of revealing what is concealed?
C.B.: If you think about the production of my work, it also tries to engage in questions of labor. This specific show for example is a series of collaborations with different craftsmen. There are a few tapestries in the show that are products of me working with different tailors. There is an upholstered wheelbarrow for which I worked with a carpenter. I gave him the freedom to design the object as he wanted. Each of the objects in this show represents a process of me working with the craftsmen. Sometimes I give them pretty strict instructions and other times I'm giving the craftsmen an opportunity to show their own creativity, and I pay them because they work with companies. I pay them, but then I also give them a personal bonus for the work. It's not like an hourly rate. In that way, they benefit beyond the framework of normal wage labor.
I think everything in this show is made with people who provide these really great everyday services mostly in areas like Satwa, in Dubai, and also craftsmen in Abu Dhabi, around Madinat Zayed and Mina Zayed. If you're familiar with those neighborhoods, you're also familiar with those types of crafts, because they represent specific places where someone might go to get their window tinted or get different things fabricated out of wood. So my work is also location-specific and speaks to the character of specific places.
N.A.C.: What was your relationship with the different materials of the exhibition? It was your first time working with sculptures. Was there anything that surprised you in the process? Anything that fascinated you about working in this way?
C.B.: This is my debut sculpture show, but in general, I present sculpture and installation. This is just the first time where I only show sculpture because I try to work across like media and modalities. Typically there is some video, some sculpture, maybe an installation, but this is the first time where it's only physical objects in space. To answer the question about materiality, I consider myself an artist who works with found objects. I have a vast collection of artifacts and material that I have been obsessively archiving and gathering for years. You find uses for the different things you have over time. I was in a residency at the Cultural Foundation and I knew that I was moving to America for graduate school, and so I felt really compelled to use as much of the material that I had collected over the past years, to make things that were slightly larger scale. When it comes to found objects, I think I just really get inspired by things that happen with history because that history comes through in an object. If you consider the components of events that make an object come into existence, there are some really strong narrative potentialities already embedded in the object. In which case, you can let the object do the talking with minimal intervention. As I said, my work is quite representative of the neighborhoods and the places where I found the material, so all the tapestries are constructed using found swatches from an upholstery shop.
I was in a residency at the Cultural Foundation and I knew that I was moving to America for graduate school, and so I felt really compelled to use as much of the material that I had collected over the past years, to make things that were slightly larger scale.
I'm not sure if you've ever been to Mina Zayed, but as you know, they're gentrifying the neighborhood and there's this really lovely carpet and upholstery souk, which I believe is going to stay open but there's a lot of ambiguity about what will happen to these businesses. Are they going to remake the facades and keep them open? I think there is still a lot of fear among the business owners, because some of these places have existed for 30-40 years. These specific tapestries are actually made from swatches from an upholstery shop that close down. So I found all the fabric in the garbage. I found all these binders and swatches in a garbage can. What I also appreciated about the fabric was that it was a material used to make a majlis, which is sort of a communal space that traditionally had magisterial purposes: places where labor and economic issues are sometimes worked out between a sheikh and his people.
N.A.C.: Did you just go and take those majlis swatches from the garbage?
C.B.: Yeah, so that is a question: where do found materials come from? In that specific case, basically, there are always really interesting things near those garbage cans because they get really full. There was a bunch of binders next to the garbage and when I opened it, I realized there were even more of them. It was really funny because there were shop employees looking at me like: what is that weird guy doing with garbage?
That is one of the key concepts in my work. Materials come from anywhere. It's also sometimes really fun to go to these abandoned work sites with unfinished skyscrapers. There are a lot of really interesting things there. You just have to be careful to know that, sometimes these abandoned objects can come back to life. So if I'm going through like a building, it is normally a building that's going to be knocked down so you know for a fact like these are things that are basically going to be abandoned. So a lot of times I go around businesses that are closing down or apartment complexes that are being demolished.
Materials come from anywhere.
N.A.C.: Did you ever think of the ecological aspect of reusing these sorts of waste, or leftovers?
C.B.: There's definitely an ecological component to using found objects, but for me, I'm more interested in the narratives of the material and the humbleness of such material. I'm representing it in this art context and thinking about value. Thinking about the high-end value of the object, as opposed to the humbleness and mundaneness that sometimes accompanies the material.
N.A.C.: The sculptures all seem different but they actually are connected aesthetically to some extent, despite their different shapes and different materials. For instance, could you talk about the works on the pedestals, Deluxe Plus Ultra, Opportunity Pavillion, and Ministry of Happiness? Is there a link among them or should they be appreciated individually?
C.B.: Happiness Pavillion is actually a project I've been working on for years, and I feel like I finally figured out the form it is supposed to have now. I have been collecting keychains for years, and I wanted to do something with them. When I started out, it was more of a photography project and then became a sculpture, and so I'm really happy about its life-cycle. There's also the Japanese version of that work that was shown in Tokyo, which is a different kind of version of the same idea. Some works exist in many ways and oftentimes I present them with the same name. But all of those things are again going back to using found materials, and come out of this excavation process of looking at neighborhoods, looking at buildings, looking at people who may have lost their job, and thinking about the here and now. How can you share the story of these places when you don’t even know so many of the details that make them up?
The base of these sculptures is inspired by Brancusi [Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957] shapes. Brancusi does amazing things out of marble but he does these really amazing plinths too, that hold and restage the object. For my sculptures, I wanted to recreate versions of those out of the humblest materials possible. So, the composite wood that forms the base is the cheapest one that you can get from a woodshop. It’s plastered with this very specific brand that you see all over the Emirates, on provisional street signs. The wood isn't made to last and is usually used by construction companies to make temporary street signs. So the front of the sign will say something like “Road Closed,” but on the back of it will see this cheap brand. This wood, you literally see it everywhere, but no one ever thinks about it because, again, it's something that's ephemeral. I think the slogan says something like “Golden Prestige,” which is also kind of funny when you think of the disparity between luxury and the actual object.
This wood, you literally see it everywhere, but no one ever thinks about it because, again, it's something that's ephemeral. I think the slogan says something like “Golden Prestige,” which is also kind of funny when you think of the disparity between luxury and the actual object.
There is really this attempt of getting rid of artificial hierarchies like the high and the low. You have these really cheap plinths that reference really expensive art, which is holding up these sculptures that again are also made from really humble materials. Then you put it in the context of an art gallery, which is a more bourgeois space. But then again, the specific art gallery where these works are shown is a shopping mall, which is a more democratized space. I like the idea of inspecting preconceived judgments on the difference between a high art object and a low gesture. That is perhaps one of the main intentions of this show: to make people question value systems and hierarchies relating to art and everyday materials.
N.A.C.: Did the show take place at the end of your residency at the Cultural Foundation? Why did you pick that shopping mall location in Al Ain [town located in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi] and what did you think about the end results?
C.B.: The Cultural Foundation, part of Abu Dhabi Culture [DCT], has an agreement with Aldar Properties, a semi-governmental Abu Dhabi real estate developer. The idea is to give artists spaces to exhibit in unused retail shopping mall locations. The initiative is called Art Space and there are art spaces in several malls all over the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. This specific one is in Al Jimi mall, there is one at World Trade Center Mall and another one in Yas Mall. I had been offered a choice of different kinds of spaces, and this one stood out as the most interesting to me because I'd never shown in Al Ain before.
There are not so many art galleries in Al Ain, and so I felt like this was an even more rare opportunity to reach people who might not have seen this type of artwork before. The art circles the conceptual but also I think that it is gesturing towards inclusivity and accessibility. I received this really awesome message on Instagram from someone who had seen the show, saying something like: “This is my first time ever at an art gallery. I saw your works and I didn't quite understand it, but after looking at your Instagram, I see what you mean and I'm really grateful to experience your artworks.” That was so kind. It made me really happy.
There are not so many art galleries in Al Ain, and so I felt like this was an even more rare opportunity to reach people who might not have seen this type of artwork before.
In the art world, the restaging of the found object – the gesture of the readymade – is common and institutionalized. It's a framework. But for people who don't typically experience or know the quirky nature of how our art world works, to see works that don't prioritize virtuosic craft and that use cheaper materials, is a novelty. Sometimes I’m working with installers and they get really confused about the artwork they are putting up. What is this? And why does it look like something that I can see outside of my house? How is this considered art? Then you talk to them about it. I hope that they also realize that the everyday things around us are artful, and it’s powerful to give value to things that are not normally noticed or respected.
When you live in a culture that tells you your labor is not valuable and it gives you a monetary amount reflective of that, I think you sometimes internalize that as truth. But to see something humble that reminds you of yourself and what is around you, this is where the recognition happens. I think it reminds you of the value that you present and the pride in knowing the kind of life you live is being celebrated and showcased.
N.A.C.: Art is always an unfinished pursuit, right? It's always the goal that you work towards.
C.B.: Yes that’s true. I guess the thing I also recently realized is the importance of the audience’s reaction to the art you present. It’s the installers, it's the drivers, and all these sorts of entangled interactions and different kinds of relationships leading up to the final exhibition. Sometimes the most valuable experience you have is that one conversation with the art installer that asks you bluntly about the artwork’s meaning. Those are the things that I work for.
N.A.C.: I saw that on different occasions, for previous exhibitions for instance, you mentioned an inspiration to the Arte Povera movement. I was wondering what inspired you to that movement in particular?
C.B.: I think it's important to attach your work to a historical framework because all of us exist in our own lineage of gestures and making. I think it is imperative for you to cite your influences as an artist. I think Arte Povera was a lot more political than the work I make. They were really responding to major local issues in Italy at the time as well as an encroaching American globalism, and so that context is very different from what I work in. But I relate to how they question the dominance in the art market and how they valorized the everyday and banal.
I think it is imperative for you to cite your influences as an artist.
Some artists have this misplaced idea of the modernist idea of newness. If you think about Ezra Pound and his “make it new”, artists often want to be the first to make some sort of gesture. I think that sort of thinking is destructive and actually impossible. When we think about art history, obviously there are people who are credited with being the first to do something, but that is more based on the market accepting that something happened first to that person. But there is always a revisionist history of who really did what, so I’d rather look at the gestures of the past and contextualize that to see if it still even applies to our contemporary moment. This sort of juxtaposition is a great strategy to create emotional encounters with the work you make.
N.A.C.: I definitely see the resonance, also with the use of untypical, repurposed materials that Arte Povera was known for. There is also a history of materials that has been neglected for some time, which gets into the study of material culture. Luckily now there's a bigger focus on material culture but that's a whole another type of history and then is often harder to retrieve. This reminds me of How To Be At Rest, your previous work with repurposed chairs. When you work with those materials, you have to know their places in history and geography. I think if you don't know the history, then the meaning also doesn't come through as powerful or maybe as intense.
C.B.: I think a lot about archives and how an artist makes an archive and so I’m interested in investigating how archives work, and how you can create an alternative archive that maybe illuminates lesser told narratives.
Most of the chairs in [How To Be At Rest] came from Satwa, maybe five kilometers away from where Dubai Design Week was taking place. I wanted the fair visitors to know about the labor of these really amazing South-Asian craftsmen. I also wanted people to question why this sort of co-called informal design is not typically a part of the conversation. I felt really lucky to be able to share the work of others.
N.A.C.: The last question is about your upcoming commission for the “Beyond” section of Abu Dhabi Art 2021. Could you tell us more about this project and what we can expect to see?
C.B.: I’m presenting a project resulting from an alternative map, looking at the expansion of the global date industry around the turn of the 20th century. I will be charting narratives from Zanzibar, historically the last slave market to the Gulf and the Emirates, and the roles that slaves played in the production of date farming, up to Coachella Valley in California which created a rival date industry based on Orientalist fantasies of the East. There are some fascinating interwoven narratives and I’ll be presenting different kinds of artworks talking about these stories, all about labor and identity. I must say it's a big challenge to work on a show when you're not in the country, but I’m very excited to be premiering this new series of work at Abu Dhabi Art at the end of November.
“Worked (So and So and On On and So On and So On)” was held at the Art Space in Al Jimi Mall in Al Ain, UAE from August 10th to November 1st, 2021.
Christopher Joshua Benton (b. 1988, US) is a UAE-based artist and advertising creative director working across photography, film, and installation art. Christopher works closely with communities and neighborhoods to instigate collaboration and share stories of power, labor, and hope. His practice explores how the working-class uses cultural innovation to stage resistance to postcolonial and neoliberal forces. Past work has been presented at museums and institutions across the Middle East, including Alserkal Avenue, the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial, and Jameel Arts Centre. He is currently pursuing his MS in Art, Culture, and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the generous support of the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.
NiccolòAcram Cappelletto is an Editor at Global Art Daily and Postgraduate Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, based in Treviso and Abu Dhabi. After completing his B.A. in Art History with specialisations in Political Science and Heritage Studies, he is conducting research on the connections between heritage and contemporary art in the context of postcolonial Italy. Recently, he collaborated on the Paris Bible Project with NYUAD and the Louvre Abu Dhabi on the study of bible manuscripts from the XIII century. Niccolò worked as a gallery and curatorial assistant with galleries in Venice, Paris, and Abu Dhabi. Interested in decolonial and demodernising practices, he believes in the need to translate into an accessible practice the heavy theoretical frameworks of the present.