Do what you love; love what you do. The aphorism appears aspirational, but lurking underneath this rosy commandment is an insidious whiff: the implication of which being that having an indulgence is no longer enough—your pleasure needs to be for profit. It is akin to asking an artist what their work is—to which the inevitable reply is, “Do you mean my work or my work work?” Not having a day job, erasing the distinction between work and play, is capitalism’s idealistic vision of labour—the caveat being that profit is involved. Most of all, it is a system that demands maximum personal satisfaction with minimal drudgery, a privilege enjoyed by few, and perhaps least by artists.
Laziness doesn’t have much of a place in a world where work and play are one. To be lazy is to be unmotivated, idle. It is the utter luxury of being able to say not right now instead of a hapless can’t or a resolute won’t. Although laziness is synonymous with inactivity, discussion around it in relation to art practice has sought to recast laziness as a necessity. In this new light, laziness becomes the illusion of leisure. It is still a form of work, however: not inert at all, but a robust and fertile site essential to the production of more work. This may seem at odds with the very meaning of laziness, but my proposal here is that laziness exists as a critical point between work and play.
Laziness as a virtuous activity has been a consistent point of interest for Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovi?, born in 1947 in Belgrade, Serbia. Stilinovi? grew up during a time of rapid urbanisation—1948 ushered in the construction of New Belgrade, a development planned to bring the city into the 20th century. In 1977, Stilinovi? produced To Dürer, a collection of photographs featuring plump, slept-in pillows that referenced Albrecht Dürer’s drawings of the same subject matter. When To Dürer was exhibited at the 2013 Carnegie International, it was presented alongside Artist at Work (1978), a photographic series depicting Stilinovi? asleep while fully dressed—a pairing that demonstrated his poetic exploration of sleep as a form of resistance to work. Later, Stilinovi? took a bolder approach, producing Work is Disease (Karl Marx) in 1981. A piece of cardboard with its title painted in rough, bold red letters, its visual language calls to mind protests and double-sided open/closed shop signs. These same words were repeated in 1993 when Stilinovi? signed his manifesto The Praise of Laziness, a work that owes much to Kazimir Malevich’s Laziness—The Real Truth about Mankind (1921) and Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue’s text The Right to Be Lazy (1883), articles which both engage with laziness and labour. Ironically, it was not until Stilinovi? presented his treatise on laziness that his work began to gain traction in the West, an observation Stilinovi? dolefully acknowledged in an interview with Flash Art in 2013:
“When I started making artworks about work, like Work is Disease (Karl Marx), in Yugoslavia it was interpreted in two ways: the first was that it was a real Karl Marx citation; the second interpretation argued that I signed as Karl Marx, which was true. I was making fun. During the socialist regime, all that was signed by Karl Marx was taken as an absolute truth. So I was being ironic. But in the West, during that period, nobody talked about work. It was a taboo subject—a very strong one. Only recently, over the past ten years or so, they’ve started talking about work in terms of laziness. In the meantime, I slowly stopped doing this kind of artwork. For it was beginning to irritate me just how much they talked about and idealised work during socialism.”1
The Praise of Laziness caught the attention of many. It was outrageous in its strange, sweeping language, with statements such as “art cannot exist… any more in the West” and “Just as money is paper, so a gallery is a room”. Though The Praise of Laziness is brief, it makes an important contribution to the discourse surrounding laziness and why it is essential to art making. Stilinovi? writes:
“Laziness is the absence of movement and thought, dumb time—total amnesia. It is also indifference, staring at nothing, non-activity, impotence. It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, of futile concentration. Those virtues of laziness are important factors in art. Knowing about laziness is not enough, it must be practiced and perfected.”
Stilinovi?’s tongue-in-cheek interpretation removes autonomy from laziness by implicating it within the work/play cycle, leaving one to question: can laziness exist outside of this relationship as purely free time?
Most think of time in its chronological sense. That is to say, we follow ‘clock-time’: a measurable, linear concept that only moves forwards. The landscape of time that laziness occupies is less straightforward. It meanders through a freer notion of time—one that is populated by daydreams and inactivity, where time can simultaneously feel everlasting and yet come to an end all too soon. Never has time been so decadently spent than when it proceeds at leisure—imaginably with the mesmerising Netflix video Fireplace for Your Home running in the background— the moment seeming to stretch into infinity until something more pressing takes over.
As it is with most things, it is easier to comprehend a concept when there is an antithesis. The counterweight to chronological time is kairological time, a term which originates from the Greek word kairos: an opportune moment. The kairological experience is largely intuitive and is more about timing than time. It is eating when you are hungry, and not because it is one o’clock and lunchtime. The process of art making follows a similarly loose timescale of occurring at the right, rather than the prescribed, moment.
Of course, there are artists whose practices go against this kairological timescale, preferring instead to work within self-imposed metrics of time. Japanese painter On Kawara’s Today series of paintings are completed in a single day—any longer and the painting is discarded. Alex Katz and Erwin Wurm have completed works in which they dictate that they spend no longer than several hours (or even a minute) on each. However, a more compelling contemporary example of rethinking time is Pierre Huyghe’s L’Association des Temps Libérés, or The Association of Freed Time. Founded in 1995 by Huyghe, the Association was a legally registered non-profit organisation which explored leisure time as a deliberate concept. In its own words, it sought to “develop unproductive time, to reflect on free time and the development of a society without work.”2 The Association attempted to redefine time along more ‘selfish’ terms by searching for a type of time removed from work or play, devoted to the individual—a utopian quest that counters the idea of laziness as being indispensable to work. As its name suggests, the emphasis on ‘freed’ rather than ‘free’ time demonstrated the Association’s allegiance to a concept of leisure aware that it is not rehabilitation for work. By linking unproductivity with freed time, the Association defies Stilinovi?’s musings on the intrinsic relationship between laziness and labour, presenting an alternative utopia for laziness.
By definition, a utopia is an imaginary place not to be realised. In 2006, the Cuban-American artist Gabriel Martinez purchased an hour of a staff member’s time for $20 from the owner of a small business, in order to return this hour back to the staff member as free(d) time.3 The employee (somewhat anticlimactically) decided to use this hour to nap before going back to work . Short of doing absolutely nothing, perhaps sleeping is the only way to reclaim time as one’s own and resist work, as Stilinovi? did in Artist at Work.
To do nothing is an literal oxymoron, until we arrive at the cartoon world of Spongebob Squarepants. In the episode The Pink Purloiner, Spongebob suspects that his best friend Patrick Starfish has stolen his prized jellyfish net.4 After doggedly spying on a motionless Patrick for the length of a working day (eight hours), Spongebob finally ends his surveillance, only to be surprised by Patrick, who sneaks up behind him:
Patrick: “Hi, SpongeBob. What are you doing?”
SpongeBob: [Surprised] “Uh, you…what the…! What are you doing?”
Patrick: “Nothing. I just finished.”
The idea of doing nothing encapsulates the conflicted purposes of laziness. To learn from Patrick Starfish, perhaps the path to resistance is one of least resistance.
- Nataša Vasiljevi?, “Mladen Stilinovi?”, Flash Art #288, January-February 2013, accessed 25 March [↩]
- Lauren Rotenberg, ‘The Prospects of “Freed” Time: Pierre Huyghe and L’Association des Temps Liberes”, Public Art Dialogue, vol. 3, no.2, 2013, p.186 [↩]
- Gabriel Martinez, An hour of labour is purchased from the owner of a business and given to an employee in the form of a siesta, 2006 [↩]
- Spongebob Squarepants, Season 4, Episode 25, “The Pink Purloiner”, first aired 19 February 2007 [↩]