Made over a 5-year period, Noel Bowler’s Union reveals the boardrooms and private offices of trade union buildings across the globe. The exhibition offers a rare glimpse into places where decisions and policies that affect so many are made.
Bowler’s photographs show how the institutions of organised labour, designed to protect workers from exploitation in the nineteenth century, are responding to today’s economic uncertainty.
Incorporating images from Russia, the USA, Poland and the UK, Union offers unprecedented access to rarely seen spaces, combining photographs of momentarily silent interiors of trade union offices alongside portraits of union leaders.
Bowler invites us to walk the well-trodden carpets and parquet floors, and to gaze at the utilitarian desks beneath strip lights and false ceilings.
Each space offers clues to its inhabitants; flags, emblems and political posters allow the viewer’s imagination to populate each dormant scene. There is a dry humour to Bowler’s work: the sparse setting of the Union of Polish Teachers in Warsaw is fittingly dominated by a large blackboard, whilst a cluttered desk at the Maritime Trades Department at the AFL-CIO in Washington DC demonstrates its inhabitant’s political leanings and sporting preferences. The ordinariness of many of these workspaces is undercut by the knowledge that these are sites where important contemporary battles around workers’ rights are taking place.
Bowler offers a unique insight into the pressures and challenges facing unions in this era of political and economic uncertainty, radical changes in traditional work practices and increased worker insecurity. This timely exhibition continues Bowler’s ongoing consideration of the political forces that shape our world, reflected through the organisation of social space.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 128-page book made across 14 countries, published by Kehrer Verlag and features an essay by photographer Ken Grant.
Union by Noel Bowler is supported using public funding by Arts Council England and Culture Ireland.