An Ode to the Universal Worker

Sean Duffy
Temporary Worker
Suzanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects,
Culver City
October 16 - November 13, 2004
Neha Choksi

If you have recently strolled amongst watergardens burbling about aptly assembled file cabinet and bookshelf cascades; measured your body against free-standing cabinets coolly modified into playground props and chaise lounges; considered sitting next to the theatrically upturned waiting area chair so unnoticed that plants grow from its underseat; and leafed through doodles of plants annotated with tense snippets remembered from a manual on office policy and sealed with enigmatic coffee cup stains; you could only have played your bit in Sean Duffy’s drama of leisure and work at Vielmetter’s Gallery this past Fall. For those of you who did not take part in this mise en scène—a landscape tribute to the universal worker—and would like some small sense of how one artist evokes nostalgia without irony and earnestness without a moral, imagine an intense but gentle fellow who can’t shed the lessons learnt at work and now carries them into his after-hours meditations by collecting, tearing down and elegantly refashioning the discarded props of that bygone and dated scenery in his leisure time—and invites you to while away yours on a soothing landscape of dated office junk.

The focal point of the main gallery is the overwhelming lush greenness of a wet rockery called Casual Friday. Our eye surveys the topography of hacked desks, bookcases, and filing cabinets naturalized as rocks. Mind you, there is nothing jagged, retaliatory or aggressive about it; the edges are clean, the cuts simple, the geometry planar, the effect pleasing. The one time office furnishings spill over each other, trying to contain and offer up the fine-textured greenery, emphasizing the contrarian nature of foisting delicate plants into regimented office space, of capturing outdoor pleasures in indoor protective and systematizing cages. This work delights in destroying methodically. It is as if Nature has wed itself to a strictly geometric sculpture straight from a stint at Chinati and afterwards fought an elegant battle to sustain the measures of the natural and manmade in each of its offspring. Biomorphic geometry in an un-utopic paradise. Everything is pretty.

The promise of extracting leisure from an embattled workspace is reiterated in the chaise lounges that are placed near both Casual Friday and another water-garden, which sits nicely in the courtyard. These furnishings are too readily usable, too easy on the eye, too easy on the mind. The sterile and hygienic stand-alones fail where the water-gardens succeed in hybridizing western and eastern landscape traditions. The water-gardens evoke the romantic ruins of the English landscape tradition and the formality of the Italian, as well as participating in the general ethos of the Oriental garden tradition.1 The nod to geometry and sharp corners, as well as the use of rectilinear furniture and water basins both to regulate greenery and to channel water, asserts the Italianate positive expression of man’s separation from and authority over nature. However, an informal profusion is contained in those very rectangular basins; the working stiff and nature are construed as allies and companions, revitalizing each other in a post-capital (like post-coital) decay.2 As noted by garden design historian Garrett Eckbo, a good Oriental gardener sensitively maintains and exaggerates the natural and unnatural elements at two scales: “at small scale surrounded by structural enclosure, at larger scale surrounded by architectural elements such as pagodas and tea-houses.”3 Ditto for Duffy, who constructs intimate and continuous relationships for his gardens to architecture (both gallery and office) by placing the inside out and the outside in. The interior storage modules have gone out to weather in the backyard muck and are then rehabilitated as gardening arrangements for the gallery public.

Duffy’s move to enclosure is isolating, private in feel, as if the Zen hobby is a self-directed therapy for the temporary worker most preoccupied by work in its absence (as if, on his days off, the artist makes art about work). If Oriental gardens are the product of authoritarian feudal societies, emphasizing rule of man over man rather than of man over nature, so too then the soulless office, as the accompanying black ink line drawings clarify.4 Inflecting for his own use the formal conventions and contemplative ethos Buddhist paintings scrolls, Duffy composes shooting grass, budding flowers, and other plant material such that they enter the picture plane at vertiginous angles against their background of tasteful coffee mug imprints.5 The landscape of craggy mountains and cherry boughs as a backdrop for human activity is replaced by a caffeinated scenery of human workaday activity as a foil for humble plant material. The accompanying text invokes the expected code of conduct for an ever-hostile office environment. The lonely natural growth, the coffee stains and the stilted text are the interchangeable markings of the eponymous temporary worker, whose paranoia and anxiety are reinforced by workplace text such as “locked,” “reassign,” and “chain of custody.” Yet, with Duffy’s works, there is no outward evidence of anger; the coffee stains are contained politely on the page, similar in gesture to the upturned chair that remains neatly aligned in a row with others.

The insecurity of the temporary worker with no real control over her environment or destiny is here regarded in the hindsight of the obsolescence of the file cabinet and its clerk. Where earth, plant, and water forbid the entry of your body into the fountains, the array of wood-lined cabinets will receive it in play or repose. Such is the lure of the romantic ruin, of the database emptied of pulp and now filled with dirt or worms—or you—but never with both. It is the persistence of life after death, or memory after event.

As we walk around Vielmetter gallery, we are simultaneously in a 1960s filing clerk’s lonesome anteroom and in a twenty-first-century computer and capital supported art gallery. We neither work nor make art in this space, yet upon entering Duffy’s staged landscape, we occupy the two exclusive frames of art-leisure and art-work. The reassignment of the filing cabinets, those other temporary workers, revives for those of us living in the age of computer files the tension, boredom, and tedium of a bygone era. To merely aestheticize form in Duffy’s work is to depoliticize it. After all, to aestheticize an object is, to quote N. Leach, “to anaesthetize it and strip it of its unpleasant associations” in order to cocoon.6 Duffy, however, does not privilege aesthetic sensibilities over other workaday concerns. Instead, he forwards aesthetic sensibilities as the last remaining defense of the worker and the creative artist as a perverse agent provocateur engaged in a counter sting-operation against himself. Unlike the strategy of resistance suggested by the Situationists, the promoters of détournement, this work is neither spontaneous nor sabotage; its high craftsmanship and perfect-pitch design sensibility impress as industrious strivings for a spot of order in a vulgar world. Even that most violent protest of this anxious and perhaps crazed worker— the overturned chair singing its petulance in a chorus of chairs—can only hope to reproach and not to offend. The disgruntled office worker has been waiting and tending his ennui for so long that plants have taken root in the underseat. Having nothing to do is converted from a mark of leisure to the tedium of waiting and working—as if to say, even though you will miss me when I am gone, you will find my vegetal surrogates pleasing and decorous.

Duffy is neither decorator nor entertainer. His mode is pastoral, which, in Western classical times, celebrated the otium or leisure of the peasant as opposed to the negotium or business that occupied the literate urbanite. The pastoral was a way for the urbanite to fantasize about the imagined leisure of a peasantry, the common man of that age, and thus allow the poet-artist the distance to critique society. The common man, of course, still toils, as did the file clerk of yesteryear. The poet Virgil extended the Theocritean Greek genre by politicizing the pastoral, and thus the country-city divide; Duffy further perforates our sense of the divide by transforming the field into an office garden.7 The urban fantasy today is about some imagined leisure that cannot exist out there among the unimagined peasantry. With the demise of the file clerk, we step into an imagined tableau to enact a similar fantasy of the common man’s labor as a seductive leisure.

Ordinarily Ars longa, vita brevis. Here work is long but temporary and thus short, while both the life of art and nature are long. Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus.8 Time flies. The temporary worker is supplanted and then no longer exists. A threat of imminent decay overhangs the fountains. Sean Duffy’s bricolage is on the brink of return to the garden junk or backyard abandon. With or without human aid, his artful arrangement can overgrow and overrun. It will survive, even find sustenance, in that which bored our universal worker. Using old office “technology” and even older flora to make his point, Duffy has made a sincere, wryly knowing work. Whether he is making art tense or tenseness artful is moot: he is designing nostalgic tension, not to alleviate or illustrate it, but to let it subsist, to bring it back into the realm of art.

Neha Choksi is an artist working in Los Angeles.


  1. I use the term “Oriental garden(er)” advisedly. As late as 1997, Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney opened their Oriental Garden section. To call the gardening tradition as received in the West and as referenced by Duffy as Pan-Asian, East- Asian or Japanese would be to generalize or localize inaccurately.
  2. John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s reminder to think of landscapes “not merely how they look, how they conform to an esthetic ideal, but how they satisfy elementary needs” for individuals and communities can be easily interpreted as a concise reminder of important aspects of the two gardening traditions I have articulated. J. B. Jackson, The Necessity for Ruins (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1980), p.16.
  3. Garrett Eckbo, Landscape for Living, 2nd printing. (New York: F. W. Dodge Corp., 1950), p. 16.
  4. Ibid., p. 17
  5. Bird, grasses and flower painting in the Japanese kachoga genre was a continuation of the Chinese scholar painting tradition of the Song and Yuan dynasties. Kakemono or the Japanese Buddhist painting scrolls gained ascendance as valued art objects in the late Muromachi period (14th to 16th century), having been introduced much earlier from China. Suibokuga, or ink paintings, were especially favored in Zen monasteries in the Muromachi period.
  6. Neil Leach, The Anaesthetics of Architecture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. 15.
  7. For a good general introduction to the development of the pastoral, please see Charles Segal, Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral: Essays on Theocritus and Virgil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981). The primary classical texts are Theocritus.
  8. “Meanwhile irrecoverable time flees,” from Virgil’s Georgics, book 3, line 284.
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