Collage artist Mary Lum has been collecting hidden messages for years and is about to unveil them at Mass MoCA.
Lum’s work is part of “The Workers,” which opens at the contemporary art museum on Sunday, May 29.
For well over a decade, Lum has been making note of the bottom of each paper bag that passes through her hands and found a largely unacknowledged directory of paper bag factory personnel that literally litters our landscape.
“Almost every paper bag that you get in a store has somebody’s name on the bottom on it,” Lum said. “It’s the person who made the bag in the bag factory. There’s often just a name but sometimes there’s a phrase with the name like ‘Made with pride by’ or ‘Manufactured by’ or ‘Safety and quality a way of life.’ There’s often a phrase and more often just somebody’s name. There’s more often a series of numbers and a date, so by looking at the bottom of the bag you can tell where, when and by whom the bag was made.”
“You just think of them as being anonymously made by a machine and in a way, the person on the bag is probably the person who inspected the bag or is responsible for the quality of the bag when it comes off the machine, because the machine actually does make the bag. Some of the bags do say ‘personally inspected by,’ but a lot of them say ‘made by.’”
It’s part of a massive quality control system — a low-tech tracking network that assures commonly used paper bags aren’t shoddily produced. Lum has scoped out the best sources for these locally, since not every bag has a name on the bottom. Lum recommends liquor stores in general, Wild Oats and McDonald’s as some of the prime places to find these components of her new wall collage piece.
“There are a few different places in North Adams and Williamstown where the bags all have names,” she said. “It’s really common, but it’s not something that people really pay any attention to. Who looks at the bottom of a brown paper bag? It’s something interesting once you do notice it.”
For Lum’s piece, the bottoms have been torn out and placed on the walls of MoCA in a a single band that moves around the corner of the gallery.
“The Workers” concerns itself with the state of the modern working class and the headlines it inspires in the areas of the recession, unemployment and the assault on collective bargaining, as well as immigration.
As fashioned by Lum, the bag bottoms on the wall create a direct two-dimensional analogy to workers lining up outside the factory or even leaving after a long, hard day’s work.
It’s a visual that stretches back through the history of one of the most industrial forms of art, films — one the earliest films ever was the Lumière Brothers’ “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” in 1895.
Lum’s piece is in lineage to that film, as well as the work of Soviet avant garde artist Yevgeny Lysenko. The colors of the walls are a direct reference to his Workers Reading Room, which he made in the 1920s. But to Lum, none of the art references hold the power of the revelation behind the names on the bottoms of bags.
“That’s not as important as the idea that I’m trying to point out, that actual people made these bags,” said Lum. “The interesting thing is that the bag was made and stamped with somebody’s name, and then the bag was used and then the bag was collected, so one single piece of throwaway paper that we would generally overlook gets handled by so many people and passes through so many different people’s lives.”
Lum current has about 1,000 bags with 700 different names given credit for the manufacture or inspection of the bags, and she traces a lot of them to a plant in Elizabeth, N.J., as notated in the “EL” portion of the codes on many of the bags she has collected.
Lum’s collage work is generally created from items not considered traditional, but the bottoms of bags are a change of pace for her in that they are multiple examples of a single item, which is not indicative of her usual choice of material.
“There are close to 1,000 fragments in this installation and they’re all exactly the same category and the same typology,” Lum said. “I don’t usually just do one thing, but the whole idea of a pattern or something that’s painted or something that is pointed that’s not necessarily noticed is a basic thing in my work – or taking something historical and adding something from everyday and the combination of those things is what makes the work.”
In this manner, Lum is affixing a decade-long history of the items she has amassed — one that disappears each time we toss away or even recycle the evidence. This is in line with many of Lum’s past collage work.
“I often make things that are not commercially viable or that just go away after the show,” she said. “I do a lot of work on the walls that just gets painted over once an exhibition is over.”
In Lum’s piece, people’s identity are represented by fragments of the items they help manufacture — who they are to the museum visitor is what they do for a living. Lum views this as a common way people identify each other, especially when first being introduced, when
“What do you do for a living?” is often utilized as a way to size up the person or configure a way to approach the conversation. It’s shorthand for who this person is and how to treat them. For many, work is one of the final descriptions we get in the summation of our lives, one of the central facts for people to know about who we were in life.
“One piece that I have done in the past that is very related to the idea of the worker and being known for the job you do rather than the person you are is I collected job titles from the obituaries for a long time because in many obituaries,” Lum said. “The headline of the obituary says your name and then what you did in life, your job. It might say Michael Smith, banker in Toledo — you’re identified at the end of your life by what you did not who you were.”
Lum’s piece involved thin strands on a gallery wall created by job titles included in newspaper obituaries and arranged concurrent with the studs behind the walls, thus marking he interior architecture of the space and bringing it out as a map to view.
It’s a similar idea to her work at MoCA and one that Lum sees as integral to the social order of modern America, particularly in a landscape of huge unemployment. If your job is your identity, is unemployment as sentence to non-personhood? Is stifling collective bargaining akin to rendering people mute?
“It’s interesting how you can make the leaps across history and how the issues never seem to change all that much,” said Lum. “There’s always this struggle of the worker against the administration or government.”
Lum’s efforts are symbolic representations of the very struggle by workers to be recognized by the large monolith of government — bits of bags arranged on a wall, each highlighting a worker, become stand-ins for actual workers organizing for recognition. Lum’s challenge has been to find a way in her own artistic vocabulary to do this. Rather than capturing them in her own imagery, Lum’s choice is to have the work represent the people hidden behind it
“It’s all about noticing work as it’s represented, so instead of photographing bag factory workers, you figure out some other way,” she said.