Worker! Smoker! Actor! The Art of Labor According to Ohad Meromi

Visitors to Ohad Meromi’s new exhibition at Nathalie Karg Gallery would be forgiven for thinking they’d arrived in the wrong place. Inside the gallery’s downtown Manhattan space, a few sparsely placed objects are juxtaposed with rough wooden floorboards, a rudimentary bench with a book lying on it, and walls that are part wooden panel, part whitewash, with a curved, makeshift plywood screen toward the end. It’s hard to determine where “Worker! Smoker! Actor!”—as the show is titled—begins, and where it ends. Far from being a polished display in a pristine white cube, it feels closer to a workshop or a rehearsal studio with a few props lying around, including a primitivist figurative sculpture wearing a 1950s-era blonde wig.

For Meromi, this unfinished quality is the tool through which viewers are engaged. Born on a kibbutz in Israel and fascinated by Marxist thought, utopian modernist design, and Russian Constructivism, Meromi approaches space and art as the context or stage for human action. His practice frequently crosses over into performance, as in his prior series of “Rehearsal Sculptures.” Excerpts of recordings from these bare-bones participatory performances, which took place at Art in General in 2010, form a component of the central work in “Worker! Smoker! Actor!,” a 20-minute video of the same name, housed within that plywood dome-like structure toward the back of the gallery. 

Meromi’s lo-fi film follows a female laborer as she moves between the handful of spaces that constitute her world: a stop-motion assembly line of intricate, beautifully crafted kinetic machinery—seemingly composed of cardboard or plywood—that churns out packs of American Spirit; her boxy, cardboard home; and an outdoor space in which she takes rest breaks and puffs on a cigarette. Humdrum music plays alongside the video’s action, which is interspliced with shots of a ticking clock and what resembles vintage screen-filler, as well as placards dressed with quotes from the Soviet avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, an acting manual and manifesto, of sorts. One particularly telling quote reads, “The actor must go further in relating her technique to the industrial situation.”

The film’s DIY quality resonates with Meromi’s abstract, Constructivist-style reliefs and sculptural works, and his architectural models dotted around the space—which are predominantly composed of rough, industrial materials like concrete and wood. Speaking of his interest in the Soviet era and Marxist theories about the proletariat, Meromi says, “It is the performative role of the worker—the idea of the working class as the actor on the world’s stage, as the agent of change—that is the part of this moment’s DNA that I’m interested in.” And with its theatrical underpinnings and latent celebration of community and creativity, “Worker! Smoker! Actor!” leaves one with just that powerful sense of the potential for action.

Tess Thackara

Worker! Smoker! Actor!” is on view at Nathalie Karg Gallery, July 10th–August 15th, 2014.

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