Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Another fine mess

As far as the visual part of ‘visual art’ goes Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ retrospective of ‘Maintenance Art Works’ at the Arnolfini can only really be described as ‘boooooooooring’ (she said summing up every last reserve of maturity she had left). That is a sad (but also probably quite honest) opinion as I am, in fact, a fan and interested in Ukeles’ work; its the presentation of that work being shown in a gallery context that is boring (but more of that later). I initially learnt of Ukeles through Suzi Gablik's 'The reenchantment of art' and several times more from an environmentally conscientious tutor whilst studying my degree. It was the first time I'd come across an artist whose 'performance' wasn't really to perform in the stereotypical 'actor on a stage' kind-of-way I was (at that point in my younger naivety) familiar with, for Ukeles it seemed that life and all its everyday domesticity is an event and that everyday performances of work are as significant, if not more so in altering how we engage with the world particularly our relationship/impact on our environment. An American artist from Colorado working in the 70’s-80’s in New York (she described herself as an artist, a woman, a wife, a mother (Random order) and swept clean the streets of New York, heightened our attention to domesticity of everyday activities to be seen as important and essential processes, empowered the individual as a catalyst for change, sorted socks, dusted an artwork and attached a mirror to the side of a garbage truck to reflect the makers of the waste. Awesome.

Questions arise when one thinks about how to represent her work to today's audience. When what remains are the legacies from such events whose responsibility is it to ensure they are remembered, learnt from and documented? Does the ‘art’ begin with the actual, original event itself, the documentation of that event, the legacy of the event or (and most likely) a combination of all three?

I see the exhibition of Ukeles work at the Arnolfini struggle to inspire a new generation to become more environmentally/socially responsible in the way I can imagine the original event had when it began in 1977. The need for more positive community involvement and environmental awareness is still, of course, very relevant today (if not worryingly more so) which should make Ukeles’ work all the more poignant, but the exhibition at the Arnolfini  (bar a few documented photographs) fails to recreate any sense of the spectacle, the event and performance that, I imagine, made the original events so empowering and motivational. It takes more imagination (than perhaps I unfairly give audiences credit for) to be not left cold by a room full of manifestos and letters, it certainly left me feeling bored. For those not familiar with what I’m talking about, the exhibition at the Arnolfini presents the documentation, writings and manifestos of Ukeles’ work made between 1969 – 1980 including the ‘Maintenance Art questionnaire’, photographs of early community involvement as well as public and private maintenance projects, maps and copious documentation of ‘Touch Sanitation’ [1977] and the artists ongoing residency with New York City Department of Sanitation.

The fact is, that whilst the work shown is authentic and places an ownership on the work, ideas and events being very much Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ and sets it up historically etc etc. the ideas within the writing (and what is exciting) are as topical now as they ever once were. Hence, what I really have a problem with is that, in my opinion, the nature of the ‘event’ and the ‘performance’ translates so poorly in order to comply with the exhibition system which centres around the presentation of ‘stuff’, physical artefacts or environments of which doesn't have the same impact. Whilst letters, maps and writing are still capable of being 'art' in their own right, collectively they feel somewhat lost or redundant in the enormity of the Arnolfini gallery context. Does the work actually need the gallery in order for it to have an impact/communicate to a wider audience? What’s the purpose/what does the work gain by putting it into a gallery? Or do we [as artists] need the gallery as a voice of authority, mark of approval in order to give work like Ukeles’ credibility or exposure? I’d like to think not but realise it is a bit of a double edged sword and that there is something ironic in the way in which Ukeles’ work aims to question the hierarchies of different forms of work which (as  food for thought) could also extend to the hierarchies of the places that work takes place/is exhibited in.

 In defence of the exhibition one could argue what better way to present the ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’ than with a distinctly no frills, functional, utilitarian approach to documenting the performances/community involvement of sweeping streets, sorting socks, dusting objects and taking out the garbage? The exhibition itself has become a parody of the piece Ukeles’ once created titled; ‘The Maintenance of the Art Object’ which looked at the transference of a vitrine being cleaned by a maintenance worker and then as an art work would be cleaned by a conservator. The same thing has now happened with Ukeles’ work and her letters, notes and questionnaires that were once sent, like regular post, to officials and the public are now artworks and have to be preserved, dusted and maintained by art curators and their teams.

Hypothetically, if we were to recreate any given activity from Ukeles’ manifesto today, the fact is many of us already do by simply cleaning toilets, sweeping and removing our rubbish, would that not present Ukeles’ work more effectively and serve more purpose than a room full of documents of past events?  Or if we took 'taking out the rubbish' through the entire process instead of just leaving it on the curb outside our home. As Ukeles said herself, “My working will be the work”.  I think perhaps the Arnolfini missed the opportunity to give its building/surrounding area a thorough communal clean in the way of a performance working with the cleaning staff it already employs and community to create a 'real' event that would have both humour and make a point....

And if Ukeles had done this piece for the first time in 2013, then I’d like to think it likely that she’d be emailing, blogging and using social networking to demonstrate her cause which would instantaneously communicate her art to many people without the need of ever having to use the gallery. Would the material presented in this exhibition serve better/work as well in a book/digital format as it would in a gallery? Ukeles’ is an excellent writer and I have much admiration for her open, clear and honest ways of communicating that inspires and motivates,
“Mister Sanman! Actually, you are a model of the man of the 21st century. You already work in the NEW way we will have to act on planet Earth since cities’ natural and fiscal resources are becoming increasingly limited, where there’s no more “out” space. We’re all “in” it together, and we must all take part in caring for our living places, and ultimately the whole earth. Or we will destroy it. YOU ARE THE BALANCING AGENTS.”
The act of writing, writing as protest, writing to persuade, writing to document are also part of the work, I just think it’s a little dry when its hung page by page on a wall in a gallery. I saw many of the same artefacts in an exhibition called, ‘Dirt’ at The Wellcome Collection in London about a year ago and because it was a small part of a bigger context about waste, dust, mess, detritus etc it was a lot more intimate and easier to focus your attention on than the Arnolfini show with its large white walls and vast space seemed to almost eat these documents and anyone that leaned in to have a closer read.

Anyway enough now of this written procrastination. Time for some real work, “it's time to take out the trash.” Literally!

Make up your own mind, Mierle Laderman Ukeles -Maintenance Art Works is on at Arnolfini until 17th November 2013.

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