An East London gem, Rivington Place constantly succeeds in delivering aesthetic art with a hidden political punch and the current show is no exception. Currently on display is NS Harsha’s installation Nations and Chen Chieh’s silent film Factory.
Installed on the ground floor, the silent sewing machines of Nations are stacked three feet high, spinning threads tangles and pools between the machines. The flags of those included in the UN hang from each poised needle. If able to match each flag to the correct country would the viewer see who is excluded from the UN and question on what grounds in today’s society a country is judged for their eligibility to join?
In the context of East London’s own sweatshop history, the machines act as representatives of the unseen and unheard garment workers that throughout the centuries have consistently made clothes for countries both inside and outside the UN.
In terms of the textile manufacturing no country has a clear conscious that they have not broken the charter of human rights with regards to the treatment of employees. The exhibition refers to the impact of globalisation; as located within NS Harsha’s words (with thanks to INIVA’s excellent website) “This work took shape after my visit to a local small scale textile factory in which I personally experienced the realities of ‘human labour’. Hierarchies and exploitation are part of today’s global economic order. Nations engages with these socio-political complexities and cultural entanglements.”
The exhibition is suggestive that as industry is now global, it is not enough to look after one’s own population, by choosing to outsource globally, the boundaries of countries disappear.
Upstairs is Chen Chieh’s beautiful and slightly chilling Factory. The film is located within an old textile factory, the casualty of the continuing search for ever cheapening labour. Seven ex-workers who lost their right to a pension with the closure of the factory accompany the artist. The camera pans through the monumental architectural space in a similar vein to the films of Jane and Louise Wilson (Stasi City).
Due to the women’s request the film silently traces their steps through the disused building, still occupied by the remains of their industry. Their passage through the space is occasionally interrupted by archive footage of the Taiwan textile boom, the noisy interruption highlighting those abandoned in the aforementioned search for ever cheaper labour.
The women of Factory are physical reminders of those all over the world, whose quality of life has come to depend on the presence of the textile industry within their country. It’s time that these employees were treated to the rights we so often take for granted whether it is something as simple as a lunch break or as fundamental as a living wage.
The exhibition asks us to question both our reliance and ignorance of outsourced workers at the same time as questioning our knowledge of political intricacies and deals made by the UN that effect relationships across the world.
There are many fantastic websites that continue the work begun by both artists at Rivington Place from the Ethical Fashion Forum, the Clean Clothes Campaign to Fashioning an Ethical Industry, and the War on Want. Green my Style provides daily updates on the steps been made to make the industry greener.
This exhibition continues until the 21st November 2009, hurry down!
The first three photographs are by George Torode and the last three are stills from Chen Chieh’s Factory.
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