My own personal diaries about art-making and cleaning, videos of my cleaning performances, the art objects I make, documentation through video and photography, setting up and presenting my work and research, talking about it, exhibitions of other artist’s work that I have seen (as well as smelled, touched, and heard), as well as exhibition catalogues and the myriad of instructive videos on YouTube are all references and sources for this research. I need to remind myself about art whenever I am seduced by writers, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, art theorists, or anyone whose ideas are expressed as text and can easily be accessed and re-read. I believe it is important not only to look at art, but also to sense, hear, smell, and, if possible, touch it; to be with the art, as well as to hear and read what artists have to say.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Annette Messager are two relevant artists. The first is from New York, and her service-oriented practice focuses on cleaning and maintenance. She boldly combines art with life by highlighting the underappreciated work of New York sanitation workers through performance and documentary. Like her, I try to combine art and life; however, unlike Laderman Ukeles, my work has an absurdist element to it, and I do not always clean ‘for real’. Sweeping the scrubby outer suburban wasteland in Veerenni, Tallinn (2016) and The Mourning Sweeper at Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney (2018), for example, were not genuine cleaning because neither place needed to be cleaned or swept, at least not with a broom. What I did was pointless, whereas Laderman Ukeles really did scrub the pavement and rake leaves on a college campus and wash the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum, just as Joseph Beuys did really clean the square after the May Day protests in Berlin in 1972. Of course, Olive also knows about real cleaning.
I am still in the workshop, finishing up for the day. I like it here. There is always something to do. But, when I look at the workbench, I’m reminded of Beuys cleaning up after the excitement of the protests, and Laderman Ukeles in her 1969 Manifesto! Maintenance Art – Proposal for an exhibition ‘Care’, when she asks, ‘after the revolution, who's going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?’42
And I need to tidy up this workshop some time.
Annette Messager is a self-proclaimed bricoleuse, who blurs the lines between art and everyday life and embraces ambiguity as she plays with the various functions within her home and studio, as well as her roles as artist, collector, trickster, handy-woman, and practical housewife.43 Unlike Messager, however, my work delves deeper into the realm of everyday practical objects that can be used to investigate everyday tasks. For example, Olive’s homemade, handmade tools may not always work well, but Thea perseveres because they were made for her. Using an unusual or ridiculously inefficient tool can direct attention to the bodily experience of cleaning and qualities of dirt in a way that a conventional brush or broom might not. Furthermore, Olive’s handmade practical cleaning tools are also art and can occupy both roles: the quotidian as well as art objects in an exhibition.
I recently watched a lecture on YouTube by the musician, visual artist, and theorist, Brian Eno, titled ‘What is art actually for?’.44 According to Eno, science is interested in this world, whereas art wants to know about other worlds, and therefore, ‘What if? questions [...] are at the centre of [...] all art behaviour’. Artists ask, ‘What if a world like this existed’, and ‘What does it mean when I do that?’, and they say ‘Aah, things can be like that’.
This is an open-ended question. Working and researching as an artist means I do not always know why I am doing something. I do not necessarily know why I am making this brush, knitting this cloth, crocheting this round thing, or making this film. What is it for? Why is it important? Is it important? Does it need to be important? And what does important mean anyway?
Contemporary artists engage with the everyday in a variety of ways. They may simply make things visible, or find something interesting and then show us, or they may make the ordinary extraordinary, reveal the overlooked, give voice to those who do not have a voice, or endeavour to effect change. Artists show us things – things that they find interesting. They don’t need to solve problems or come up with answers or define anything. Stephen Johnstone, editor of the MIT publication The Everyday, a compilation of texts by various people including artists, reveals the myriad ways that contemporary artists engage with the everyday and recognises the everyday as a complex contradiction where the alien and the familiar overlap. Thus, any study of the everyday demands ‘an interdisciplinary openness, a willingness to blur creatively the traditional research methods and protocols of disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology and sociology. Perhaps these contradictions and qualifications that characterise the everyday make it seductive territory for those artists who intuitively value the qualities of ambiguity and indeterminacy in their own right’.45 It is these contradictions and ambiguities that make everything so interesting. Rather than attempting to make the world a better place, it is possible, as Hal Foster suggests, to ‘take a bad thing and make it worse’.46 So, instead of cleaning, I could make things dirty.
Olive expresses the difficulty in defining and pinpointing the differences between art and life in the following way:
The squeegee is drying now. The sealer will make it waterproof so Thea can actually use it for washing windows, if she wants to, and it will therefore fulfil its dual role as art and non-art. When I look at the newly painted squeegee, I wonder what it is that I have done? Have I really taken this ordinary supermarket-bought squeegee out of the mundane everyday into a different place – into the world of art? Have I even made an art object? (I don’t want to complicate these questions unnecessarily, but I also wonder if the art is not only contained in the squeegee as an object, but maybe the whole process is the art.) Maybe if I claim that it is art, then it will be. Maybe art is the product of intention, much like Laderman Ukeles’ idea that her acts of cleaning on the street and in the gallery would be art. If this squeegee that I have transformed is art, at which point did it make the transition from non-art to art? Was there a moment of specialness? The story started in a supermarket and moved into a workshop, and I wasn’t even wearing clothes that would suggest ‘artist at work’. All of my actions were quite mundane – shopping, sanding, looking, deciding, and applying paint – and I did not feel as though I was doing anything out of the ordinary. Maybe the moment of transition, if there was one, occurred in the supermarket when I thought to myself maybe ‘Thea needs one’?
This barrage of questions that Olive asks while working suggests that the line, if it exists at all, is moving. I recently became familiar with Rosi Braidotti’s nomadic subject – a theory inspired by nomadic people and cultures, and a way of thinking that questions and defies fixed conventions and established approaches.47 It encourages a flexible and fluid way of thinking that moves from ‘one set of experiences to another [with a] quality of interconnectedness’.48 In the way that Monzaemon’s 'slender margin' cuts through binary thinking, Braidotti’s approach cuts through and across established categories. The line between art and life, like a nomad, is constantly moving, in transit, and thus the perspective is constantly changing – nothing is fixed for long. ‘The nomad’s relationship to the earth is one of transitory attachment and cyclical frequentation’, writes Braidotti.49
42 Mierle Laderman Ukeles, ‘Manifesto! Maintenance Art’, in Boredom: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. by Tom McDonough (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1995), p. 130.
43 Natasha Leoff, ‘Interview with Annette Messager’, in Journal of Contemporary Art, (undated) <http://www.jca-online.com/messager.html> [Accessed 5 June 2020].
44 Brian Eno, ‘What is art actually for?’ 2012 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIVfwDJ-kDk> [Accessed 8 March 2020].
45 Stephen Johnstone, (ed.) ‘Introduction: Recent Art and the Everyday’, in The Everyday: Documents of Contemporary Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008), p. 15.
46 Hal Foster, ‘Culture Now: Hal Foster’, 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Esm21k-zW_w&t=1304s> [Accessed 15 March 2020].
47 Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
48 Braidotti, p. 5.
49 Braidotti, p. 25.