“Labor&Materials,” 21c Museum Hotel

Pepe López,Guapísimas, 2004

The latest exhibit at Kansas City’s 21c Museum Hotel, “Labor&Materials,” strives to make the unseen seen. It reminds us that the real price of a strawberry, an iPhone, a day of electricity is not paid by consumers, but by the fruit picker, the sweatshop worker, the miner. There is a myth in American culture that we are paid according to how hard we work and the value of our labor. Not only does the work on display at the 21c Hotel debunk the myth, it wipes out the whole scale of value and hard work.

Many of the pieces revolve around the precarity of commerce. Hector Zamora carefully balances a tower of red clay bricks meant for temporary buildings on a small bicycle, a nod to the increasingly disposable global economy and the backbreaking labor required to sustain it. A photograph by Catherine Yass of a top-heavy lighthouse perched in the middle of the ocean asks if the industrial structures we depend on can really protect us. Who’s to say that a storm wouldn’t destroy the comically disproportionate lookout along with the ships that need it? It doesn’t even look manned.

Left to right: Lina Puerta Sweet Potato Crop Picker, 2017 Chili Pepper Crop Picker, 2017 Peach Crop Workers, 2017; Kara Walker, African Boy Attendant Curio with Molasses and Brown Sugar, from “The Marvelous Sugar Baby” Installation at the Old Domino Sugar Factory Warehouse (Front Basket), 2014.

The materials composing the art contribute to its pathos often as much as its subjects. Serge Alain Nitegeka paints a charcoal man with a barcode on his body in “Captive” and confines him to the canvas of a shipping crate. He visualizes the experience of being treated as a human commodity by mapping his subject along the grain of the wood, letting knots be contours or bruises. The body is inseparable from the shipping crate, used and reused at the will of the consumer. The captive man seems to meet the viewer’s eye with a defiant gaze and gives the impression he will not let the inhumanity of his captors rob him of his own innate humanity.

With “Omphalos,” Dean Byington paints decaying set pieces and intricately textured mountains as the center of the world, the natural and manmade facing off in a massive amphitheater. It convinces the eye that it is looking at all human history and a glimpse at what comes after. Byington’s technique resembles that of early German engravings, and the dystopian landscape of “Omphalos” conjures a sense of past production and future decay coalescing into one.

Vik Muniz, Pictures of Junk: The Education of Cupid, after Correggio, 2006 

Marine Giboulo’s “Le Village Electronique” is the star of the show. Three multi-level dioramas portray scenes of production and consumption inspired by Giboulo’s infiltration of a Chinese cell phone factory, where she pretended to be a visiting CEO in order to talk with the women who worked there. The bases of each pillar are formed by heaps upon heaps of technological waste and above them, we see Chinese families and animals working and living among still more waste. One of the towers conjures a digital age Americana, a family of groundhogs consuming three types of digital media at once while eating KFC. Directly above them sits the environmental impact of their excessive consumption: an idyllic snowy landscape is blanketed in trash.

In the description for “Pictures of Junk: The Education of Cupid,” photographer Vik Muniz explains why he likes to use garbage in his art: “You are working with something that you are usually trying to hide.” This sort of purposeful engagement with things typically kept offstage, and the resulting redefinition of what is aesthetically interesting appears throughout “Labor&Materials.” The exhibit pulls back the curtain on the theater of consumerism, revealing the full range of waste and exploitation that our consumerist lifestyles depend on. This is its biggest triumph.

Labor&Materials” continues at the 21c Museum Hotel, 219 W. 9th St., through April 2023. The museum is free of charge and open 24/7. For more information, call 816-443-4200 or visit www.21cKansasCity.com.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson is a second-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago and a student journalist. Her work has appeared in "The Chicago Maroon" and other student publications. She is from Kansas City.

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