Words by: Tahlia Sanders
The opening of Elizabeth Bills’ show, Snakes and Ladders: a Catalog of a Receptionist at Paper Mountain on Thursday night was an intimate affair with a warm crowd predominately composed of Lizzie’s supportive friends and family.
I didn’t expect the show to resonate with me as much as it did. Liz’s works set out to call into question the arbitrary, unspoken rules of the corporate environment. In particular, the mutual exclusivity of the workplace and authentic emotional expression. Her pieces were witty and evocative – I struggled to pick a favourite. One sculptural piece featured two floating heads suspended above toilets, respectively clutching a tissue and looking at their phone. The piece was captioned “the office toilet, the only place to have a breakdown while downtown.” My two friends and I all reflected on this piece, before confessing to each other that that we had all had been forced to seek emotional respite in the toilets on numerous occasions during our recent internships. For me, that felt like a moment of liberation.
I suspect that everyone who visits Liz’s show will experience a feeling of kinship with her alienation in the foreign culture that is the workplace. It serves as a much-needed reminder that the natural human state is not to sit behind a desk and that our degree of conformance to the corporate setting does not define us.
Here’s what Liz had to say about her show when we caught up.
Can you tell us a little more of the story behind the exhibition? How has your anthropological background shaped your art?
Drawing on my background in anthropology, I investigate my socialisation into the mores, values, myths and contradictions of contemporary Australian democratic society and culture. This exploration takes the form of story, specifically self-narrative: I describe and analyze my personal experience in order to understand cultural experience. I recognise story as a central site of meaning making, as Norman Denzin states: “In all of our stories culture is performed, and the political becomes personal and pedagogical”.
Narrative allows a reflexive critique of my own situatedness as the ‘receptionist’ in the social, political and economic context of the office. Snakes and Ladders: a Catalog of a Receptionist is about my experience working as a receptionist straight out of high school and in different jobs until I was 23. I didn’t immediately understand the ‘rules of the office’. With time I realised the work place is crisscrossed in invisible lines, there is an invisible line that separates business and private life, a line which divides the workplace hierarchically, a line to sign up my labour as a commodity sold per hour.
I gradually learnt the perimeters of these lines by tripping over them or watching others carefully or not so carefully manoeuvre them. This exhibition is my attempt at understanding my own experience in the workplace.
I investigate the valued division between public and private life: ‘We are expected to produce and keep our professional and personal lives artificially compartmentalised in order to succeed’. I offer a critique of a sacred work ceremony, Friday drinks, where exhaustion is a status symbol, a trophy collected by the most overworked employees at the end of each week.
Using plastic sculptural installations and ready-mades Snakes and Ladders: a Catalogue of a Receptionist expresses my constructed reality. The crisp white gloss aesthetic throughout the work mirrors the traditional default colour in office space, while the ready-mades reference a range of common workplace identifiers such as computer mouses and rubber band balls.
What was the process involved in creating this body of work?
I make art based on personal experiences and feelings using paint, found objects, sculpture and textiles. I don’t always understand my experiences in life, and art gives me a way to unravel them, to try to make sense of them. The process of creating is taking something, like a thought or feeling, that I have no language for and expressing it as an object or thing. That process for me is comforting.
What is your background as an artist? Have you explored similar themes to this in the past?
This is my first solo exhibition, I am currently also in the group show ‘Stations of the Cross’ at Wesley Uniting Church that is up until the 28th of this month.
What do you hope visitors take away from your exhibition? Are you hoping to stimulate change or just give voice to your experience?
Snakes and Ladders: A Catalogue of a Receptionist is about my experience before the ‘invisible lines’ become normal. In that moment of confusion, before everything settled and become second nature, when the contradicting values, myths and strange habits that exist in the office were obvious. I hope they become obvious again for patrons who see the exhibition, that ‘normal’ is pulled out and questioned again, as I express my experience of my own naivety and confusion as a young female in the workplace.
I also hope that people, who like me, are still confused and can’t get their head around the spoken and unspoken rules of the workplace find comfort is knowing that they’re not alone in their experience.
What are your artistic plans for the future?
The next body of work I am creating is about the feeling of loneliness. As it’s an exhibition that will be exploring feeling alone, I’ve made a conscious decision that I don’t want to create it alone. I am really excited to collaborate with a different artist on each of the pieces. Look out for it in 2017.