If Ben Cain’s arch and elusive work slips from sculpture to installation to video, performance and text, its common concern is the way we think of art as ‘work’. Shrewdly navigating current theoretical debates regarding art’s ambiguous relationship to industry, commodification and immaterial labour, the Sheffield-born artist is interested in how artworks, of whatever type, might question us about what we think they’re doing and, by implication, what ‘work’ we think we’re doing when we’re paying attention to them. At the heart of Cain’s work is an interest in remixing terms often thought of as mutually exclusive and oppositional – passive/active, spectator/performer, object/action, producer/ consumer, text/image. So installations of carefully designed and crafted objects are attended to by texts that allude to the process of their own making, and to how we ourselves are part of the ‘production’ of art. In Cain’s one-day exhibition So, This Object (shown in Zagreb’s Galerija Greta in 2011), for example, wall texts narrate absurd ontological possibilities for the stolid, faux-marble sculptures that occupy the gallery: ‘So, this object/leaning against the wall/has been waiting here all day/and now it’s waiting/for you to leave so that it/can do something else.’ Of course, artworks can’t do something else. But Cain’s aim is to break up any stable sense of our own spectatorship, diverting us from a single version of what we’re doing into a playful to-and-fro about what we could be doing – before, now and after. If Cain’s works often refer to tools, tool use and the act of making (as in his 2009 exhibition The Making of the Means, at WIELS, in Brussels), or are formed by elaborate performed acts that turn people into products (as with his performersas- letters alphabet book, By-Product, 2012), they do so to unpick how activity, work, production and reflection are more deeply intertwined than we might ever realise.
This article was originally published in the March 2013 issue.