Michael Wolf & "Work/Place"
Hell isn’t fiery. It’s an overly air-conditioned place illuminated by fluorescent bulbs, where the walls are an indeterminate color between corpse and bile, and humans languish in cubicles that possess all the comfort and charm of veal crates.
In the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s two complementary exhibitions, workplace suffering seems eternal. One showcases German artist Michael Wolf’s photographs of Chicago high-rises; the other presents five artists’ quirky perspectives on office life in photography and video.
Wolf created his series “The Transparent City” in 2007, when he photographed numerous downtown office buildings and a few residential high-rises, including Marina City. The strength of his work lies in its complete divergence from traditional Chicago architectural photography: Glorifying the birthplace of the skyscraper isn’t Wolf’s purpose. Aside from Bertrand Goldberg’s landmark, the artist portrays anonymous glass boxes. He gives viewers little sense of the buildings’ massive scale, omitting the sky and most if not all of their surroundings.
Wolf makes the people in his images—who wouldn’t be allowed to intrude in typical architectural photographs—the real subjects of “The Transparent City.” When he calls attention to slick glass facades or dizzying stacks of offices, it’s to emphasize how these features alienate the inhabitants from the world outside.
One untitled photograph highlights a company’s dozens of identical, wall-mounted bookcases. Employees probably don’t notice them, but from Wolf’s vantage point across the street, we see the bookcase replicated in office after office on multiple floors until it becomes a creepy symbol of corporate conformity. Wolf’s subjects don’t realize they’re being watched—except for one man, who gives him the finger—which makes viewers complicit in his voyeurism. Yet the sadness on almost every face seems suspicious. Wolf has stated in interviews that he doesn’t alter his photos, but “The Transparent City” seems manipulated nonetheless: Enough happy scenes, such as a worker practicing his golf swing indoors or an apartment dweller contentedly eating a snack, interrupt the artist’s poignant narrative of urban solitude to make one doubt whether it reflects reality.
The artists of “Work/Place” display more faith in people’s ability to cope with hermetically sealed environments, which come off as downright humorous in Ann Carlson and Mary Ellen Strom’s Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg & Moore (2007). The pair collaborated on this short video with four elegantly dressed real-life lawyers who perform peculiar choreographed movements in front of their office elevators. Their incomprehensible tics and vocalizations make clever substitutes for the bizarre routines familiar to white-collar workers. Karen Yama’s photographs of family snapshots in cubicles also position the office as more surreal than boring: Yama erases most of the text from the documents littering the cube occupants’ desks and replaces their walls with flat areas of color, making their personal photos seem like the only real objects in her digitally constructed images. Despite the uniqueness of Yama’s work, one is frustrated by its lack of a clear purpose.
Swedish artist Lars Tunbjörk’s 12 incredible photographs of American, Japanese and Swedish offices are easier to grasp. Unlike Wolf, Tunbjörk photographs his white-collar subjects from inside the same room, yet they’re improbably oblivious to his presence. Though it’s hard to believe Tunbjörk hasn’t staged these tableaux, their frank portrayals of office hierarchies and tedium appear convincingly candid: In Lawyer’s Office, New York (1997), an assistant kneels under a conference table; in another photo, a Japanese stockbroker sleeps in his chair. Even in Accounting Firm, New York (1997), which depicts nothing unusual, Tunbjörk gives viewers plenty to observe, from the tense posture of a bespectacled employee staring at his computer to the cramped dimensions of his office to the oppressively bland paint. Even so, Tunbjörk’s offices are just dreary, not hopeless; the people in them can still stretch, gossip and nap when they feel like it. Neither “Work/Place” nor “The Transparent City” is likely to teach you anything about the workplace that you don’t already know; still, they may make your own office seem less Dante-esque.
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