Suddenly, they are here. As by a wave of a magic wand, huge statues, gigantic installations, twenty-foot canvases appear in art spaces and museums with every new exhibition opening, and we stand and watch in awe, exhilarated by preserved sharks, Infinity Mirrors, or giant balloon dogs made of stainless steel and polished to mirroring perfection.
But, while we might stand for hours in front of these artifacts, pondering their meaning to the world, the question of how these things came to be often requires an all too simple answer: They were thought up by artists, of course, drawn on a napkin by Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama or Damien Hirst. And then, someone was paid to make them.
It is no secret that, like any other billion-dollar industry, the modern art world heavily relies on specialists, industrialized production and on the outsourcing of physical labor. With demands and prices still rising every year, most successful artist have long moved from simply hiring help to employing hundreds of laborers to bring their inventions into life. And there seem to be no limits. A room where it rains all the time? No problem. A biennale pavilion full of red ropes and keys? You got it. When it comes to skill, at this day and age it is irrelevant — the production of an artwork seems reduced to only a necessary chore.
Of course, to claim this as new would be to dismiss historical facts — the separation of invention and production has long been established in the art world. Even Renaissance painters strongly relied on assistants and students, and when demands grew, these students quickly moved up from mixing pigment and oil or preparing canvases to becoming indispensable parts of the art making process. Take Peter Paul Rubens, for example. Struggling to fulfil the many assignments he received from the clergy and aristocracy, he had a flock of assistants working in his Antwerp studio, with two paintings a week leaving his busy factory on average. More than 1,500 paintings are attributed to him – in quite a few oeuvres, only finishing touches and signature were drawn by his own hand. It was the assistants who did all the major work, copying from little oil sketches Rubens had prepared. You could call him a painting tycoon.
Yet, not unlike today, these many hands were invisible. You won't see many assistants in studio depictions of 17th century Flemish paintings, and you still won't find mentions of art fabricators in most catalogues, wall charts or hear them talked about in reception speeches. Having been cultured over centuries, the image of the artist as a self-reliant genius still prevails — when everything focuses on the transcendent ingenuity and the inventiveness of the genius artist, physical labor seems to be taboo. But is the production of the artwork just too mundane to be mentioned, or is it rather our fetish with authenticity that lets us forget that with many “original“ Koons and Hirst pieces, the artist probably didn’t even touch the art?
Of course, this is not the whole story. Many artists — some maybe driven by envy – criticize their successful and entrepreneurial colleagues for relying on the talent of others to fuel their careers, and many addressed the issue in their work. From Duchamp, who with his readymade urinal — simply bought in a plumbing shop – carried the idea of outsourcing to the extreme to Andy Warhol, who made a statement about serialized production by mass-producing screen prints of ordinary objects in his New York City studio (aptly called “Factory”). And some artists even put the workers in the spotlight: when Richard Serra had his Berlin Block for Charlie Chaplin, produced in a German steel mill in 1977, he famously interviewed the workers about the physical construction of the artwork.
“The work needs not be built,” Lawrence Weiner famously asserted in his 1969 “Declaration of Intent;“ it's the idea that counts, the execution is irrelevant. And while he speaks out a truth deeply engrained in the history of art, most artworks still are made, but the times of self-reflection seem long gone. Nowadays, while we are back at the anonymous art factories, at the outsourcing foundry in Asia, the underpaid art students doing the job, we seem to talk less and less about it.
The manufacturing process of an artwork must stay ambiguous and unknown, it seems. Some would now argue in favor of the secretive treatment of the production of a piece of art — knowing how it was made is irrelevant information and would distract the viewer from its meaning, maybe even spoiling the aura and fascination of the work. After all, isn't the inexplicable origin of some artworks often a big part of the thrill? An argument that may well apply in some cases. But all too often, not giving credit to the executing workers seems like an unquestioned convention, trying to conceal the fact that in the 21st century, even the art world relies on alienated labor.
With the art market demanding more and more, outsourcing and serialized production of artworks will stay an issue. So, why not address it openly and find new ways to deal with it? “It's a machine that produces reality,” Olafur Eliasson describes his studio-cum-laboratory in a reclaimed Berlin brewery, where up to 90 employees work not only in production, but also in researching and marketing Eliasson’s signature style of environmentally conscious installation art. The Danish-Icelandic artist is one of the few who talk openly about the means of their creative process, and he takes pride in his function as the head of an organism — a team of equals, with open workshops and group meals every day. This proactive approach doesn't only seem more appropriate for our current transparency-obsessed present, but it also sends a strong message: artworks don't lose value when they are admittedly made by a team, and opening one’s bag of tricks does not necessarily spoil the experience but can enhance it.
Looking behind the factory walls is not about calling the artists' bluffs or giving away trade secrets. If anything, by looking behind the walls, we might find an important piece of the puzzle that has so far been missing from many shows. So next time you stand in front of an intricate art installation, consider not only asking what it all means, but also how it was made. This might even bring out the better story.
Featured image: Yayoi Kusama, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo_Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama.