Olga Jurgenson essay

Go West

“Together
We will go our way
Together
We will leave someday
Together
Your hand in my hands
Together
We will make our plans” – Neil Tenant “Go West”

On May 1st 2004, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia joined the European Union. Eight of these ten ‘accession’ states were members of the Eastern bloc of countries, which had formerly been under the influence of Soviet Russia. The EU anticipates that this addition of over 100 million people will stimulate economic growth, creating jobs in both old and new member states and that this will lead to a better quality of life throughout Europe1.

Olga Jurgenson is an internationally exhibited artist currently resident in the UK. Her work across many media is linked by a critical examination of the human themes of migration, work and identity. As Manuel Castells has pointed out “there is increasing migration, increasing multi-ethnicity in most developing societies, increasing international population displacement, and the emergence of a multilayered set of connections between millions of people across borders and across cultures” 2. In a global world, where working relationships are constantly being redefined and are increasingly transitory in nature, Jurgenson highlights the dynamics of new economic models of production, distribution and employment and the effect that these have on working people.

Working in photography, graphic design, media and installation art, Jurgenson’s work examines the economic and social realities of the new EU and provides an insight into the lives of those who travel from east to west in search of new opportunities. Recent projects have included: a series of large-scale prints representing the new Euro banknotes whose imagery has been manipulated to reveal the ‘closed’ nature of this supposedly open culture; an enormous banner, covered in images of exploding fireworks, welcoming migrant workers from Eastern Europe into the newly enlarged European Union; and a gallery installation of video, photographic prints and found objects in which the lifestyles of these workers can be experienced by the uninitiated.

‘EUROwindows,’ a set of large-scale prints, was exhibited at Place Porcia, Vienna, as part of Global Fusion 2002. The works offer an interpretation of the economic situation as it existed in the eastern accession states, as they were seeking membership of the European Union. In the Euro banknotes printed to herald in the forthcoming European enlargement, images of open windows signifying hope, transparency and a welcoming attitude to the new member states are presented. Jurgenson has replaced these images with bricked and boarded up windows she photographed in her hometown Kohtla-Jarve in Estonia. The ‘European Windows’ in the manipulated images also show the newly installed window frames, imported from Western Europe, which are used to gentrify and develop private property in towns in the old Eastern Bloc. EU enlargement proves to be a complicated transaction, open to economic speculation, one effect of which is that the gap between rich and poor in new member states grows ever greater.

As someone relatively new to this country and with a personal involvement in the UK’s Eastern European communities, Jurgenson is uniquely placed to provide an insight into the lives of those who come here to do the work that we, the long term residents may feel is beneath us, jobs such as fruit picking and vegetable packing, production-line factory work and employment in the service industries. Work of this nature is often poorly paid, monotonous, and lacking in basic union protection. It is also often seasonal, physically demanding and sometimes hazardous or even dangerous. Meat- cutter and animal gut remover are among the jobs recently listed on the UK Immigration and Nationality Directorate website3.

‘Abundance’ forms part of the ‘Go West’ Installation exhibited by peterborough digital arts in June 2005. Hundreds of images of sliced bacon, fruit, vegetables and cakes were pasted to the wall of the gallery so as to form a repeating pattern reminiscent of wallpaper. The repetition in these images mirrors the monotony of the daily grind that is work on the industrial food production line. These works were exhibited alongside a seemingly haphazard pile of second-hand television sets, all displaying the same ‘videoke’ footage beseeching the viewer to ‘Go West’. This is the tower of Babel, as built from the migrant workers simple possessions, their televisions and furniture. Together these two pieces allude to the domestic setting of the migrant’s home and the work that sustains this impoverished lifestyle. This installation formed the central motif of Jurgenson’s exhibition ‘Party at the Bar EU Paradise’, which examines the lives of the migrant workers whose labour we all rely upon so much.

Migrant workers provoke a variety of emotional reactions in the UK. These range from pity to distrust and resentment. What are rarely taken into account however, are the individual’s personal reasons for journeying here. These workers provide cheap labour and are often exploited, and yet many migrants are well educated and professionally qualified and, lacking any real opportunities in their countries of origin, choose poorly paid work in the UK and other countries in Western Europe. Working conditions, wages and self-esteem are all relative, especially in a global economy. The migrants’ attitudes to the work that they do and their relationships with their employers are complex and ambiguous.

Jurgenson’s recent works likewise defy easy definition or categorisation. They are at once a commemoration of the migrants’ newfound freedoms and a protest against their low pay and poor working conditions. These paradoxes are evident in “Celebration” 2004. This work, that took the form of a banner hung from the Medieval Vienna Gate in Hainburg, Austria, consists of numerous images of exploding fireworks placed alongside multiple photographs of the artist dressed in the garb of a factory worker. Jurgenson plays the role of the Eastern European worker who is celebrating European enlargement by counting down the clock to the time when she will be able to travel more freely westwards to look for work. This comical portrayal of such a naively optimistic attitude to the new possibilities that enlargement has to offer contrasts with the actual situation and the menial nature of the type of work likely to be available, work the nature of which, is reflected in the artist’s attire.

And yet in “Go West Karaoke”, part of the exhibition “Party at the Bar EU Paradise” as well as satire there is a sense of optimism, the outlook is one of festivity and merriment. Endless tinny pop music forms an auditory backdrop to the daily experiences of many factory workers, the intention of which is increased productivity. “Go West Karaoke” attempts to rest back control over this music. Iconic images of London and New York tourist attractions together with a cover version of the Pet Shop Boys song ‘Go West’ are appropriated to form a videoke piece that subverts the marketing of the West to the countries of the old Eastern Bloc as exotic. Jurgenson’s work seeks to provide a more realistic view of what might lie ahead for the prospective migrant. Leaving home is difficult, saying goodbye to families and friends hard, but for the young perhaps there are new opportunities and a better life available just across the border.

In Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927), capitalists and workers, attempt to construct the Tower of Babel and metaphorically attain heaven on earth. The tower is constructed to represent the glory of those who built it. Whereas in the Biblical telling of the story God destroys the project by making the people of the world speak different languages, in Metropolis the son of the capitalist, by taking the place of his ‘brother worker’, is symbolically crucified on the clock of industry, but finds salvation by becoming the ‘heart that mediates between the hand and the brain’. Bringing together the two sides of the historical dialectic.

Jurgenson’s “Glory to capitalism” projects Metropolis, at twice its normal speed. The film is inter-cut with footage from Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Soviet treatise to the power of film editing ‘Man With a Movie Camera’, together with film-clips from the Prelinger archive of production line packing, shot in America. Capitalism and Communism come together and march to the ever-increasing speed of industrial production. For Jurgenson the West won the Cold War. One of the final scenes of her film extols ‘Workers of the World Unite’. Unity attained under global capitalism is, however, tinged with irony. We are all united under the yoke. Eastern Europe has, under the pressure of market forces, exported much of its workforce westwards.

Is Capitalism the ideal political model? Can it be improved upon and transformed peacefully by dialogue? Is art the heart that mediates between the hand and the brain? Olga Jurgenson is a politically engaged artist whose work asks important social questions. She ‘re-familiarises’ us with the economic reality and everyday industrial and political processes from which we have become removed. The economic and geo-political forces hidden behind industrial rationalisation are revealed in all their complexity.



1) The European Unions website, Europa details the European Integration process and what it hopes to achieve by it, see: http://www.europa.eu.int/comm/enlargement/arguments/index.htm

2) Castells, M. (1996). The Rise of the Network Society. London: Routledge.

3) The UK Immigration and Nationality Directorate website can be found at:
http://www.ind.homeoffice.gov.uk/content/ind/en/home.html

 
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