Notes on Laura Bielau’s Arbeit
1. “And then the question goes back to what is art? And art is what an artist does, just sitting around in the studio.”
2. Despite its shifts in form and function over the centuries, the artist’s studio maintains much of the same mystique it once did—a place of intense and elusive creative activity, of which the public or a privileged few are granted only occasional glimpses. Today’s social media fueled dispatches from the studio seem intent on upholding its status as “the ivory tower of [the artwork’s] production,” letting the world know that a burgeoning masterpiece is underway while being careful not to reveal too much of the hidden mechanisms associated with the process. As a photographer working in the so-called “documentary style,” the idea of having a studio practice seems incredibly liberating to me, a preferable alternative to the often frustrating reliance on one’s immediate surroundings. I know, however, that in the confines of the studio, a person has to contend with an even more difficult counterpart than the outside world—oneself.
3. In Arbeit, Laura Bielau’s studio looks remarkably pristine, more like peering into the sanitized setting of an amateur laboratory experiment than the disheveled working space of an artist that one might expect. Visible clutter can serve as evidence of frenzied, fruitful activity, but in only one of Bielau’s images is there any sign of this sort of controlled mess. Instead, the overall picture is one of tedium and frustrated desire. Arbeit presents us with the photographer at odds with her own productivity, the immense difficulty of beginning, like the writer staring at “the terrifying whiteness of the page.” In the studio, where Bielau has only herself and the quotidian objects scattered around her space to work with, she confronts the inescapable creative block head on, wrestling not just with the urge to make something but with the difficult question of how.
In the studio, where Bielau has only herself and the quotidian objects scattered around her space to work with, she confronts the inescapable creative block head on, wrestling not just with the urge to make something but with the difficult question of how.
4. The accompanying essay that covers the outside of the book cites a handful of artistic references for Bielau’s project. More than any of those named, though, the work seems to share a kinship with the driving forces behind the early output of Bruce Nauman. Alone in his San Francisco studio in the late 60s, Nauman resolved that, if the studio is where art is produced, then as an artist, whatever he did in that studio would be considered his art. Attempting to counter the boredom and emptiness of the studio setting, he resorted to a range of peculiar strategies involving whatever raw materials were at hand—principally the rudimentary movements of his own body, with which he performed dull, repetitive maneuvers for the camera. With a similar nonchalance, Bielau seems to utilize whatever is in arm’s reach, scrutinizing things under the microscopic gaze of her camera. And, like Nauman, this includes herself, the awkward contortions of hands and feet, the facepalm as a universal sign of physical and mental exhaustion. These, too, feel like strategies for counteracting monotony, a way of making do with what’s available. Looking at Bielau’s quirky self portrait of her eyes peering through a narrow, eye-sized slit in a piece of paper, I think of Nauman and his taped-out square on the studio floor, “stressing the artist’s isolation within the double entrapment of [the] studio and the frame.”
5. Arbeit—work, a word with a particularly elastic meaning, with the potential to denote the mental and physical effort exerted, the site where such labor takes place, and the resulting product of that labor. It’s typically the last of these variable definitions that holds the greatest significance for artists and photographers, the work being the thing that is ultimately put on display, sent out into the world to serve as a measure of its maker. In Bielau’s book, it’s the word’s ambiguity itself that seems to be of interest, with all of its possible meanings coming into play. Her process as an artist is put on display alongside the generic products of other peoples’ unseen labor found in and around her space. Definitions fold into one another—verb, adjective, noun.
There is often an apprehension in this kind of creative work that the book seems to allude to, the way it constantly weighs on the mind when one is not actively engaged in it.
6. Deferment feels intrinsic to Bielau’s project. Even titling the book work seems like a clever rebuff to the notion of what constitutes work itself, as her images evoke the putting off of labor either through clever forms of procrastination or the obstruction of creative hang-ups. There is often an apprehension in this kind of creative work that the book seems to allude to, the way it constantly weighs on the mind when one is not actively engaged in it. One might even argue that there is never really such a time, as everything in one’s life tends to somehow get funneled into the work’s making. Such is the culture we live in today, too, where remoteness and flexibility simply translate to working everywhere, all the time. In Arbeit’s accompanying text, Maren Lübbke-Tidow describes Bielau’s photographs as being “just as personal as they are utterly unspectacular.” Though the conflation of those two terms strikes me as odd at first, it holds true. In resorting to photographing herself and the banal objects of her studio with such ruthless indifference, Bielau seems to be reacting against the challenges inherent in her own practice. It appears to be frustration, procrastination, and boredom that we see in the pictures—but those same images also function as a kind of resistance to it all.
7. In one of his notebooks, Albert Camus, quoting Maurcus Aurelius, writes: “What prevents a work from being completed becomes the work itself.”
Bielau’s images … don’t strive towards any kind of sensuousness or romanticism, keeping the photographed objects secured in their real-world banality.
8. The images in Arbeit prompt me to consider another point of reference in the work of Irving Penn, if only as a revealing contrast. Here, I’m thinking specifically of his Street Material images and the earlier Cigarettes work, first exhibited at the MoMA in 1975. Both of Penn’s series are made up of austere photographs of discarded objects found along the streets of New York City, isolated objects such as an old glove, a crushed takeout box, and a few cigarette butts, all pictured against a flat studio background. They are depicted with a straightforwardness that similarly characterizes many of the object images in Arbeit—two sticks of gum, a slice of bread (first plain, then buttered), the bottom of a pair of sneakers. With Penn’s images, however, he pulls these cast-off objects out of the gutter—both literally and metaphorically—imbuing them with a preciousness that’s only furthered by the technical complexity of the palladium print process he uses. He transforms the city’s detritus into a collection of Romantic ruins, weathered and worn by the passage of time but still maintaining a certain grandeur as photographed objects. Bielau’s images, on the other hand, don’t strive towards any kind of sensuousness or romanticism, keeping the photographed objects secured in their real-world banality. It is largely a result of the objects themselves, most of which are mass manufactured items with no distinct character or identity. Employing the “mathematical rationality” of the camera, her blunt depictions further estrange us from the world of man-made materials, making them appear alien and grotesque. “Rather than raising the status of the objects they depict, the images themselves aspire to the status of objects”—disposable objects that one might not give a second thought to tossing into the gutter.
9. “For a shot to be good,” Robert Adams said, “—suggestive of more than just what it is—it has to come perilously near being bad, just a view of stuff.” A view of stuff would not be an entirely unfair assessment of the images in Arbeit, where, in many instances, the frame simply conforms to the dimensions of the object itself, as though formal composition were secondary to the object’s lackluster presence. But it’s also a fascinating view of otherwise commonplace stuff, fascinating precisely because of its strange, unflinching directness. The images, with their deliberate dryness, break with certain expectations we have of photography to elevate the banal to something of greater aesthetic interest. While photography typically offers us a different set of vantage points for looking at the world, its familiar parts, the repetition of certain motifs and stylistic choices within the medium can often become weary, feeling as unsurprising as the world they seek to provide an alternate record of. One recourse to this is to revel in photography’s role as “the recorder of bald prosaic fact,” its ability to reflect the world back with the full severity of its drab surface. This, too, can be remarkably compelling.
10. The final image in Arbeit brings us, at last, out into the openness of the natural world—a short breath of air, then the book is shut.
Notes to Sections
1. Quotation from Bruce Nauman
2. “The ivory tower of its production” is from Daniel Buren’s essay “The Function of the Studio”
3. “the terrifying whiteness of the page” is a phrase from Stéphane Mallarmé
4. The book’s essay is written by Maren Lübbke-Tidow; “stressing the artist’s isolation…” is from Coosje van Bruggen’s essay “Sounddance”
7. The same quote appears, reformulated, in Kate Zambreno’s novel Drifts as “what prevents a book from being written becomes the book itself”
8. The phrase “mathematical rationality” is borrowed from David Campany’s essay in Peter Fraser’s book Mathematics (Skinnerboox, 2017); “rather than raising…” is from Eugénie Shinkle’s essay “Boredom, Repetition, Inertia: Contemporary Photography and the Aesthetics of the Banal”
9. “The recorder of bald prosaic fact” is from Sir Harry Perry Robinson’s Picture Making by Photography (1884)