‘Office Space’ peers into deep isolation of banal work life

Joseph DeLappe/Courtesy

At the entrance, thin, baby-blue sans serif font is plastered on a strip of white that is juxtaposed against a blue wall. The sign reads, “Office Space.” There are two brand new, paper-thin iMacs that sit on the table in the front. Not one exhibition label is out of place. As you walk in, the space is partitioned like a maze of cubicles. The spotlessness of the environment hints that something is off.

Indeed, the clean, minimalist aesthetic is a form that speaks to the emotional sterility of the modern office space. Housed in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, “Office Space” teases out the problems of the 21st century office. It is honest about how the hip and fun belie the exploitation and anxiety in this modern context. The standout pieces speak to the boredom, inequities and artifice of office culture.

In her installation “A Facility Based on Change,” Mika Tajima explores the alienation bred by the architecture of the commercial cubicle. The brightly colored cubicle panels close the viewers off from what is on the inside. On two of the walls, Tajima hangs her abstract silkscreen paintings.

Whereas the cubicle is typically considered a space of isolated efficiency, it is literally impenetrable in this piece and not particularly useful for engaged viewers. Considering the architecture of space, we cannot help but wonder if the cubicle is a space of productivity or confinement.  

The same feeling of loneliness can be found in German artist Ignacio Uriarte’s “From Black to Blue.” The installation is seductive. It depicts a mass of pigmented black scribbles on a white page that transition into blue. At closer inspection, we recognize the smoothness of office A4 paper and the inky chunkiness of BIC pens.

Uriarte makes the point that office stationery, which could clearly be a tool for art, is cheapened and reduced to its utility. In an office, doodling is an indicator of boredom rather than of deliberate creativity.

Other works in the exhibition uncover the grueling demands of the modern office. In “Creative Hands,” Josh Kline creates silicone models of his friends’ hands. The 10 sets of hands hold various objects. In one pair, Kline takes the mold of an editor’s hand, which holds a mini-bottle of Jameson. In another, he molds a PR person’s hands, which grasp onto a Blackberry. Kline’s work gestures toward the exploitation experienced by creative workers who become inseparable from their jobs in a world of immediacy.

Similarly, Kline’s “Coffee Copays” dramatically examines what people pump into their bodies to get through the workday. The piece consists of three coffee makers, sitting on brightly lit pedestals and carrying odd liquid concoctions. One has Blue Listerine infused with Dentyne Ice, another has Claritin-D mixed in Mountain Dew and the third has Red Bull and Vivarin.

Both of Kline’s installations are colorful and toy-like, not unlike present-day advertising. The forms shed light on how the busy world has impinged on the self, how self-validation has become contingent upon productivity and responsiveness.

Joseph DeLappe’s “The Mouse Mandala” illustrates our acceptance of a new quasi-religion of technology. The impressive piece consists of intricately woven computer mice. At the center is a pile of discarded mice, with dozens of extended mice emanating from them like sun rays. The piece is a tribute to craftspeople who were upended during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. In it, DeLappe also reminds us of the physicality of creating art. He transforms the mouse into artistic material rather than the tool that intervenes between the human hand and the digitized product.

Though at times bordering didactic, “Office Space” also highlights the possibility of art in contemporary office culture. It is an important exhibition, a necessary reflective space for anyone who works inside an office. It reminds us that in a vortex of technology and productivity, all we want to do is to feel again. We want to be more than just replaceable cogs in the machine.

“Office Space” will be on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts until Feb. 14.


Stacey Nguyen covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].