Everyone Is An Arts Writer

The Aesthetics of Perpetual Toil

13 December 2018

Kawita Vatanajyankur, Carrier II, 2017. Vinyl billboard, 3400 x 5858mm. Installed at the University of Melbourne’s New Student Precinct in partnership with Next Wave

Through an extravagant pose plastered on a billboard, Thai-Australian artist Kawita Vatanajyankur asks viewers to consider the human labour expended within their consumption habits. Vatanajyankur’s Carrier II, installed on the exterior of the University of Melbourne’s School of Mathematics and Statistics building, shows her body suspended by ropes against a blue background bearing towering fish baskets. The work illuminates the fraught relationship between humans and their labour by symbolising the tribulations of the Thai fishing industry to a culturally-distanced audience, the University of Melbourne’s crowds. Overall, its dissonant display of beauty, objectification and endurance demands an awareness beyond surface-level aesthetics, soliciting discomfort to create value of the labour beyond indulgent consumptive behaviours.  

Passing Carrier II at the Swanston Street entrance, one could easily consume the billboard within a materialist framework, as Vatanajyankur imitates the language of consumption and instant gratification. The work activates the glossy, energetic aesthetic of everyday advertisements that are casually consumed without consideration. Yet, to sit in this gaze for an extended period, the viewer becomes aware of Vatanajyankur’s painful, precarious posture. Gazing beyond the initial glamour, they become aware of her body’s objectification as it is displayed as a product and confronted by the unethical undertones of the capitalist visual economies they habitually partake in.  

Contrary to first impressions, Vatanajyankur’s work cannot be absorbed on autopilot. It’s unsettling as it both recognises and belittles the human body and its labour within a billboard presentation. This is distinctive of Vatanajyankur’s oeuvre: after migrating to Australia as a teen and studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, her early work explored the social conditioning of humans working for acceptance and survival. Yet, her message didn’t remain so universal, with focus shifting during a visit to Thailand in her late twenties. Vatanajyankur observed Thai women investing significant time and energy into domestic labour due to traditional gender roles and lack of technological assistance, a stark and challenging contrast to her life as a woman in Australia. Responding to this, Vatanajyankur examined their labour by merging the exploited female body into a domestic tool within video works whilst emphasising endurance and strength.  As exemplified in this series of work, which includes Carrier II, her idiosyncratic approach doesn’t elicit pity by creating a narrative of victimhood and oppression. Rather, it empowers by attributing value to the worker’s toil and resilience.   

Within her work, Vatanajyankur subjects her body to labour, asking viewers to peel their gaze beyond an easy visual consumption and to recognise the human narrative behind their production. In Carrier II, Vatanajyankur uses the colour blue and appetising fish baskets to transmit ideas of fish dinners before revealing rampant exploitation within the Thai fishing industry. Her body bears the fish baskets, manifesting the industry’s reliance on human trafficking as it outpaces Thailand’s workforce. Further, trussed by ropes the artist embodies the debt bondage endured by forced labourers working within reprehensible conditions. By juxtaposing superficial aesthetics with exploited human labour, Vatanajyankur says viewers will see “the never-ending and ignored labour by people behind those products.”  

At the University of Melbourne, Vatanajyankur’s work resonantly represents invisible human labour to those studying at the elite education institution. As students devote themselves to intellectual pursuits, many are ignorant to the human toil expended to support their capitalist lifestyles. Yet, Vatanajyankur says the campus is an ideal space for exhibiting this work as it “is a space to raise awareness of these issues and for the University audience to study and develop even further from my ideas.” As such, Vatanajyankur disrupts the socialised transgression of ignorant consumption and induces increased consciousness beyond the ivory tower. Instead of being consumed as another glossy advertisement, Carrier II triggers increased comprehension of the realities of global working conditions and its direct relation to daily life and personal agency.  

It is with astute perspective that Vatanajyankur communicates such cultural and economic messages usually indiscernible amongst the hustle of everyday life. In Carrier II, she leverages her distinctive experience of both Australian and Thai culture and tunes into tensions between visual economies and human exploitation.  As students navigate campus, a space of intellectual rigour but also of comfort, she says they need to break their “continuing loop of need and desire” and see those rendered invisible. Furthermore, her self-reflexive posture prompts a destruction of the oblivious gaze and consumption of a product, elicits consideration of issues around exploited labour and requests an increased value attributed to the human body and its perpetual toil.

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