Everywhere, Los Angeles, United States, 1999/2000.
Everywhere, Los Angeles, United States, 1999/2000.
The restless Chris Howlett uses his art to energetically pursue a wide range of conceptually and politically focused projects in divergent mediums. He is in fact an exemplary multi-tasker in a post-medium world and has essayed everything from installation, to performance, to sound art, to digital modding with a Quixotic willingness to engage with big themes and issues that would daunt many artists.
Howlett's huge appetite for visual art was incubated during his undergraduate and Honours studies at QUT in Brisbane. This unique Australian art school has an open studio model of training based on the conceptual hothouse atmosphere of CalArts. It was then a natural step for the artist to undertake further study at CalArts whose conceptual pedigree was nurtured by John Baldessari and has since been entrenched and intensified by conceptual luminary Michael Asher. This period of study proved to be particularly formative for Howlett (as it did for fellow Samstag Scholarship winner and QUT alumni Jemima Wyman).
It is therefore not surprising that his first major work Hire Me Out, 1999-2000, was a conceptually immersed performance piece. In this work Howlett hired out his services to a number of teachers and students at CalArts. These included Sam Durant who employed his pupil to manufacture a crate to transport artwork to the Blum & Poe art gallery in Los Angeles; Martin Kersels who Howlett helped to prepare a photo shoot for an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum; and Jesse Proksa who hired the artist for a body massage.
These performances typified the art of 'service aesthetics', a movement that offered actions such as counselling consultations, hairdressing, and cleaning services to the public. Clients who received these services were not treated like anonymous, standardised mass consumer types. Instead, the services were done gratis so as to enable artists to transcend the commodity diktat that dominates our lives today. Their acts of generosity staked a claim for intimacy, integrity and respect; human emotions that are only of value to capitalism's instrumental ethos when required for business contacts, or in exchange for a fee.
Although Howlett's performances were also predicated on 'service', he was actually paid for his labour (probably strictly by the hour). Accordingly, it seemed that he was not so much attempting to transcend the capitalist dasein as draw attention to the way labour attracts a financial equivalent, an 'abstract' fiduciary value. It is this symbolic, abstract value of art labour that lay at the heart of the artist's conceptualist proposition; to wit, that labour's value changes when it assumes an aesthetic dimension when performed in the art world. And further, that this arbitrary value is susceptible to the influences and pressures that operate in broader consumer culture. This may explain why he approached his teachers to help him fulfil his tasks, for as authority figures in a renowned art school they had a certain 'currency' that added value to Howlett's art performances or outputs. There was also an interesting reversal to this relationship for the teachers paid for the student's labour rather than being paid for their pedagogical services. The work may have also owed something to Michael Asher's brilliant conception of his own creativity as measured by the fees he charges according to concept, time and place. Asher sets a limit on the length of time his 'services' can be used, and so controls the value of his art labour while limiting the capacity of others to profit from his work; i.e. collector re-sells at teratical profit, the artist gets zilch.
This examination of artistic labour demonstrated Howlett's early interest in the rationale of consumer capitalist society, and how artists negotiate this condition. Today's post-avant-garde can be characterised as having adopted a pragmatic attitude in this milieu - one that both accepts the decline of art's authority as well as its incorporation into a consumer society that especially values forms of 'creative labour' predicated on celebrity, entertainment and publicity. That being the case, the artist must adapt the notion of artistic value to a system that is heavily invested in mediating perceptions, and often encourages hysteria and other intense emotions so as to attract enough transient interest to secure a sale.
Howlett responded to this condition by creating a sprawling installation called Weapons on the Wall, 2004-5 (IMA, Brisbane, The Farm Space, Brisbane) that directly confronted consumer culture and the media sphere. Weapons on the Wall was the antithesis of Hire Me Out. If the latter contained strict parameters and a subtle conceptual elaboration of work relations, "Weapons" was an incredibly ambitious work that attempted to comprehend and capture the sublime abundance and excess of an economic system predicated on war, hysteria and wasteful consumption.