Kay Abude

(DON'T) BE AN ARTIST

2021

Colour paper billboards (a series of five individual paper billboards installed in succession and performed every Tuesday over a five week period from 16 November - 21 December 2021 at The Hotel Windsor, Melbourne) 

310 x 467cm

 

Developed and presented as part of Flash Forward Creative Laneways Project and hosted by The Hotel Windsor, Melbourne

Curated by Lachlan MacDowall and Charity Bramwell

Produced by Olivia Cheung and Kate Spencer

Commissioned by the City of Melbourne

Project documentation by Nicole Reed, Olivia Cheung and Kay Abude

 

 

Exhibition text 

Not for nothing: Kay Abude’s (DON’T) BE AN ARTIST

By Francis McWhannell

 

Doing what you love is a form of survival. And doing what makes you a living is a form of survival. —Kay Abude, 2021

  

Multiplicity

  

Kay Abude’s practice spans diverse media and artistic categories, including text-based art, printmaking, photography, interactive and performance art, and clothing. Her works, or ‘projects’, typically involve garments that bear screen-printed halftone images and slogans in block capitals, evoking protest placards or the front pages of newspapers. The slogans, which often derive from popular expressions or quotations, relate to art, labour, and money. Abude questions the ways in which we value different kinds of work and worker, the sustainability of present-day systems of manufacturing and trade, and the possibility of supporting oneself as an artist or arts worker long-term. Her garments are often worn by workers. Abude acknowledges the artistry that these individuals bring to their professions. Creativity has many faces, and it plays an important role in lending purpose to our doings.

 

Abude’s new project, (DON’T) BE AN ARTIST, is particularly complex. It involves the production of five billboards, each of which is to be displayed for one week on the outside of the lavish Hotel Windsor in Naarm Melbourne. Each billboard will feature a different fabric-bound slogan: ‘(DON’T) BE AN ARTIST’, ‘FOR LOVE OR MONEY’, ‘LEARN TO LOVE WHAT MAKES YOU A LIVING’, ‘MONEY IS GOD’, ‘SOME PEOPLE ARE SO POOR ALL THEY HAVE IS MONEY’. The first four billboards will show people wearing garments made by Abude, including the artist herself and a series of workers. The final billboard, SOME PEOPLE ARE SO POOR ALL THEY HAVE IS MONEY, will feature no people at all. Abude will install each billboard, introducing action into an otherwise image-based project. Starting from the second week, she will don a garment associated with the previous week’s campaign. Her live body will speak to those pasted on to the façade of the hotel in facsimile.

 

  

Commerce

  

I first met Abude in 2018, when I was working for the Auckland Art Fair (now the Aotearoa Art Fair) as co-curator of the non-commercial Projects Programme. Among the projects was Abude’s LOVE THY LABOUR. A series of aprons and coats printed with the title slogan were worn by various workers at the fair, including guides, security people, wait staff, and a handful of gallerists. In addition to overseeing the distribution and careful maintenance of the clothing, Abude worked as a guide, welcoming visitors, handing out brochures, and answering questions. It was her wish to be employed by the fair at the standard rate for such workers. Because she was Australian, however, it became impractical to employ her in this fashion. Legal complexities got in the way of solidarity and required the artist to receive different treatment in money matters.

 

With LOVE THY LABOUR, Abude acknowledged the range of professionals involved in making an art fair possible. She queried disparities in pay and pleasure experienced by individuals working in different industries or occupying different positions. She gestured towards the relationship between a job and a calling. She invited staff and visitors alike to reflect on the reality of being an artist, a reality that is often so much less glamorous than an art fair might suggest. Does a vernissage overflowing with champagne obscure or underscore the fact that for so many arts workers their work is largely a labour of love, that moments of glamour are rare, punctuating long periods of grind and insecurity? Abude’s garments—elegant in cut and drape, but monotonous in colour, and stridently functional—quietly embodied the dichotomy of drudgery and luxury. They still do.

 

 

Ambivalence

 

(DON’T) BE AN ARTIST suggests a growing scepticism on her part towards the structures that dominate global and arts economies, and towards the very idea of a career as an artist. The connotations of Abude’s chosen slogans are diverse, encompassing the general and the particular. The phrase ‘(DON’T) BE AN ARTIST’, the title of the first billboard as well as the overall project, puts me in mind of the vogue for ‘creative strategies’ and ‘design thinking’ in business contexts largely indifferent to art itself. Employees are called on to embrace creativity in order to improve outputs, increase their sense of enjoyment, and, I imagine, encourage them to pour in more passion than they are paid for. Moreover, the slogan evokes experiences familiar to many artists. Some are discouraged from embarking on their chosen careers by loved ones. Some are called on to rethink their work in more commercial terms.

 

Abude’s ambivalence comes largely from lived experience. Her art practice is financially supported by work teaching art. Neither is easy at the best of times, and the present pandemic adds further strain to the system. She has found her health suffering. She has been troubled by the concerns and frustrations of her students. She worries about being made redundant, about not being able to afford a home. The desire to be an artist is not absolute or stable. The parentheses around ‘DON’T’ might mark the temporary nature of the negative token, doubt being an occasional visitor who knocks at the door but is not always let it. They might also signal its persistence, every self-affirmation to stay the course being ghosted by a contrary thought.

 

 

Iteration

 

By the time I engaged with LOVE THY LABOUR, it had been through several versions. Abude’s garments generally exist in multiples, slight differences emerging in the making process. They include images taken from her archive, which are collaged with the slogans. The artist’s use of screen-printing and halftone imagery recalls the work of Andy Warhol. He, too, was interested in replication, and especially the imperfect replication that comes when devices wear down or when one copies a copy too many times. With Abude’s work, it is not always evident how many layers of recycling have taken place. Any garment might feature an image that features a garment that features an image, and so on. The phenomenon evokes not only ‘mise en abyme’, the placement of an image within itself, but also factory production and the significant problems it can pose, in terms of labour abuses, pollution, and waste.

 

The billboard form of (DON’T) BE AN ARTIST derives from a recent presentation at the La Trobe Art Institute in Bendigo. An image from a 2019 project, WORK WORTH DOING, was mounted on the building. It showed a brewery worker, back to viewer, wearing a vest emblazoned with the title phrase (a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt). The composition is echoed in (DON’T) BE AN ARTIST the billboard, with Abude filling the role of protagonist. As she installs the successive hoardings, the phrase on her garment will combine with that in the image being applied. ‘(DON’T) BE AN ARTIST’ will combine with ‘FOR LOVE OR MONEY’, which will combine with ‘LEARN TO LOVE WHAT MAKES YOU A LIVING’, which will combine with ‘MONEY IS GOD’, which will combine with ‘SOME PEOPLE ARE SO POOR ALL THEY HAVE IS MONEY’. It is a property of Abude’s practice as a whole that new and richer readings emerge as she continues to work, and as her repository of documents swells.

 

 

Relationships

 

In 1986, Abude’s parents moved to Australia from the Philippines. As is still too often the case, the change involved a shift in career path. Abude’s mother went to work in an electrical factory. The job was not well-paid. Additional money was earned by bringing home components to be assembled by other members of the family, including Abude herself. She has commented that the work represented an early instance of her using the fine motor skills she now depends on as an artist. Her interest in labour and in related notions of valorisation and prestige stems from the experience. So, too, does her keen interest in relational aesthetics: art predicated on human interaction.

 

Of course, most art production involves a range of people. Few professional artists disdain audiences. Few artists of any kind make every material they use. But Abude’s projects are particularly sociable, being activated by the workers who engage with her and wear her garments. These individuals are more than performers; they are colleagues, collaborators. Abude picks up on a quality inherent in fashion, if not always acknowledged. When we wear a piece of clothing, whether spectacular or plain, it is expected that we will make it our own (indeed, we understand that a failure has occurred if it can be said that a garment is wearing us). Abude’s work is hugely affected by those she outfits. They become unique representatives, whether they choose to speak about the project they are involved in or simply colour it with their attitude and swagger.

 

 

Vitality

 

Abude’s work is intimately bound up with bodies, the things they do, and the things they need to keep going. In a sense, (DON’T) BE AN ARTIST is unusual, almost aberrational in the context of her practice. Although it includes moments of live performance, of activation, it focusses on static images. Relationships between artist, model-colleagues, and audiences are rather less immediate than in previous projects. The situation is partly a consequence of the brief to which Abude responds, but it also chimes with the conditions produced by the global pandemic. These days, images are so often required to stand in for physical encounters, because real people can present real threats. At the same time, the billboards should not be misconstrued as placeholders for human activity; they are instead public proclamations of its deep and messy impact.

 

People are a constant, if not the constant, in Abude’s work. They are essential to every aspect of her process: conception, manufacture, performance, recording. If her projects recall systems of production, they also echo human lives and generations. Somewhere back in the past is their origin. Stretching out into the future are descendent entities that will multiply for as long as there are sufficiently robust platforms to support them. A given project, like a given life, can feel discrete and ephemeral, but it is really part of a chain. The goal is never to produce or become a terminus, although this is ever a possibility. The goal is to keep going. We aim to sustain what we truly care for and what we truly need. We create compulsively, with purpose, and rarely for ourselves alone.

 

 

___

Kay Abude would like to thank the following people for their involvement and support in her project:

Flash Forward curators Lachlan MacDowall and Charity Bramwell, Francis McWhannell for writing the exhibition text, staff from the City of Melbourne – Beatrice Lo, Emily Sweeney, Nadin-Jara Barakat, Esita Morgan, Katrina Gill, Shane McGrath, Linda Catalano, Dan Koop, Kyle Schofield, Simon Reis, Bo Svoronos, Gillian McCarrey, Tyson Wray, Zoë Lea, Bek Duke, Simeon Moran and Jo Mair, Nadia Husiak and Jason Cesani from Print Ink Studio, Rowan Williams, Matt Johnstone and Maryanne McNamara from Plakkit, staff at The Hotel Windsor, staff from City Wide especially Anthony Razos, Sharon Flynn, Mark Feary and Tracy Burgess from Gertrude Contemporary, Nicole Reed, Rhys Graham, Tim Stone, Aya Hatano, Laura Kirkham, Din Heagney, and Rafael Camillo. A very special thanks to Anthony Frazzetto. Deepest gratitude to Creative Producers Olivia Cheung and Kate Spencer.

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