The 1960s and 70s were a seminal moment for Women’s rights. It was the decade when women used their bodies to rise up through art. In one explosive decade feminist artists revolutionised how women’s bodies were seen and shook the establishment to its core with experimental art forms and provocative political statements. Feminist artists were responding to centuries of a particular kind of portrayal of women from Page three girls to Ms World/Ms Universe to adverts that routinely portrayed naked women lying over the bonnets of cars.
The function of post-modernist and post-colonial feminist art is to investigate and explore existing norms rather than express it as a statement of the Status Quo in society. It touches upon the fetishizing of women’s bodies, discrimination in work/pay, marriage and child rearing, wages for housework and everything else that is considered as the ‘acceptable norm’ in women’s lives in society today. Starting in the 1970s with ‘The Wages for Housework movement’ in America, The Equal Pay Act of the UK in 1973, seminal books and television programs like Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ and John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ gave us a deeper insight into the status of women in modern society. Women artists became politicised and were ready for a change.
Feminist art in the west from the 70s and 80s was already veering towards activism, and it involved (in most case) sharp edged actions. These feminist art works are just as shocking today with their explicit and unashamedly female portrayals. They broke down barriers and changed the definition of what art could be. Their work can be considered truly revolutionary, considering there was no language for gender discrimination, no concept called sexism then. In 1970 only three per cent of women artists participated in exhibitions. There was no mention of women in art history or politics or any field as it was thought that women had done nothing of importance and nothing to offer in terms of precedence. Generations were marginalised and dis-empowered. In this scenario, some feminist artists actually saw the gap and seized the moment. And there were others still, who wanted to show their dissent differently.
Lucy Lippard, the American art critic and writer, in the 1980s spoke of art activism as art that is politically engaged, that it could operate within and outside of the art world, art that is not tied to a specific genre, something that is defined by its function and is mostly process based. So activism is art that engages in political action in a broad sense. One of the reasons of writing this essay was that as part of the Recreational Board of the South London Gallery I was involved in the conception and realisation of the ‘Went to Work Came Back’ exhibition (See Appendix 1 ) inspired by the Women in Work exhibition of 1975. We started by visiting the Tate Archives to sift through all the material that was used in the original exhibit and were able to collate a few of the important pieces for our own archive exhibit in the new exhibition. We decided on the title ‘Went to Work Came Back’ as it was a natural progression from where the older exhibition left off (in terms of the relevance of the Equal Pay Act where it still is a burning issue in this day and age, the division of labour between men and women in the workplace, the dual responsibilities of most working women of managing both the demands of work in the market place and in the domestic sphere, and maternity laws). We had organized a panel discussion on what it meant to be a woman in these times and included leading voices from the LGBT and Black community of artists, an eminent art historian and an artist who works with mothers and children to create new forms of art. As part of the exhibit we have included excerpts of an interview we had taken of Mary Kelly on her visit to London in November 2018. All the issues that were central to that ground breaking exhibition, is still very much in question now 40 years on and does not look like it will be resolved soon.
Another inspiration for this essay was a chance encounter with Ewa Majeswska (in the ‘Symposium for New Feminist thinking’ in Middlesex University in July 2018) was instrumental in writing about this idea of fighting back against the establishment in what could be only termed as ‘surreptitious’. Totally legal but so subtle it could go unnoticed or worse still be ridiculed as a failure. This Polish art critic and intellectual prompts us to think about different versions of protest that does not look the part. It looks at work not of huge scale so as to be noticeable but of the type that is ordinary, day to day and the ‘normal’. The word ‘protest’ usually evokes images of struggle, of oppression against powers that dominate and suppress. However, in reality it is more of trial and error, more of failures coming together, weak forces combining and of building delicate bonds in the face of the problem. Talking about artists who not only blurred the line between art and non-art but also paradoxically highlighted the importance of art and its existence. They aimed at exploring ‘alternative protest’ in terms of looking at their practices to challenge the binary values of success and failure, right and wrong. Art that had strong ties to humour, parody and failure by re-evaluating the concept of ‘silly’, ‘childish’, ‘failed’ and ‘weak’.
After Joseph Beuys made the iconic statement “Everyone is an artist” future thinking artists have worked tirelessly towards democratizing art making. That Joseph Beuys, who belonged to the avant-garde artist network ‘Fluxus’, used as his starting point the concept that everything is art, that every aspect of life can be approached creatively and, as a result, everyone has the potential to be an artist. (Tate.org.uk) It is the rejection of the notion of art being an exclusive or elitist pursuit, and where artists encourage participation of non-artists and include the ‘everyday’ in art by doing away with any art/life distinction.
In contemporary art today the idea of ‘avant-garde’ or the ‘advance guard’ in terms of war the army which goes forward ahead of the rest is exemplified by a very few superstar artists, mostly male who influence the rest of the ‘uninformed’ masses. Alternative protest comes from the art of failure or insubordination to dogmas of society. It does not try to use the binary code of right/wrong or black/white but tries to subvert them. Art that is not planned or is a mistake or even a happy accident was highlighted. This, in the importance given to success in society could be very noticeable. It is the subtle pushback, deviations and silences, subtle changes that represent this kind of resistance. It is the new way of looking a ‘low’ and ‘high’ art and at art and life.
Boris Groys (art critic, media theorist, and philosopher) argues for a new category of the ‘weak’ avant-garde, which combines the rejections of the phenomenon of the ‘art genius’ and demands for an expanded repertoire –including marginalized in art history and practice. According to Boris Groys, it is precisely the democratizing power of avant-garde art that makes it very effective in using it as resistance in a social context. The avant-garde did not want to create the art of the future—they wanted to create ‘trans temporal’ art, i.e, art for all time. (Boris Groys https://www.e-flux.com/journal/15/61294/the-weak-universalism).
In this essay, I will discuss this concept keeping in mind three artists whose works could be considered subversive, some would even call it ‘non-artistic’ and quite iconic in their impact on the art establishment and in the an academic sense as well. These works serve as great example of alternative protest. I will use the works/performances of Ewa Partum, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Mary Kelly’s ‘Women in Work’ exhibition (1975). These artists used concepts that blurred the lines between art and life and thus allowed for what could be connoted as ‘non-artistic’ ideas using everyday life motions of cleaning, speaking and protesting into the artistic fold. They pioneered what is now known as participatory art. They would rather use self-mockery, invite ridicule/ advertise failure keeping their egos aside as in the case of Ewa Partum, understand and integrate their life choices into their art and try and find a correlation between domesticity and public maintenance jobs with Mierles Laderman Ukeles and in the case of Mary Kelly use data as material for an exhibition to expose the mechanisms of domination over women in industry.
This essay is an attempt to understand and find a definition for this genre of activism or protest. The reasons for choosing a way of working may be different but there is a common denominator linking them through their process and thinking. There is a subtlety and a delicateness to the sting of protest that could be disarming and proved to be very effective in bringing about awareness and change for future generations to come. They illustrate a form of struggle and provide us with lessons to use our own truths and every day struggles as a means of protest.
The three artists have used conceptual art as their medium for their activism. There is a certain freedom that conceptual art extends, as it is not limited to a particular genre of art. It is more about ideas and implementation rather that artistic skill in its traditional form. Also art is strategic. It allows you to get into spaces that otherwise you would not be allowed. Art allows you to ‘confuse’ authority and therefore it is a very effective way of using it for protest. Adding the word ’art’ to any activity that typically would be deemed as ‘weird’, ‘inappropriate’, or ‘seditious’ would enable them to defend themselves against the authorities. ‘Conceptual art might be said to have transformed the practise of art history through its rigorous self-reflexivity, its engagement with how language frames practise and in particular, the influence of feminist approaches to questions of history, gender and the body.’ (Rewriting Conceptual Art Reaktion Books 1999 P 2)
Failure as Protest
Ewa Partum is a child of the 50s and coming from a deeply conservative Poland was one of the pioneers in using her ideas as performances to make her point. Although she is currently based in Berlin, her career started in the 60s as an art student who worked on questions of ‘presence’, ‘representation’ and ‘the public space’. In this essay the focus is on Ewa’s early works that sought to unravel the tenacious hold of patriarchal domination on the arts establishment. In this quest she took a lot of risks that seem trite and not thought through at the time, but in retrospect is ironic and quietly effective. She challenged social norms at a time when there was no precedent of equal rights and how society should be like for women. She was able to see the gaps and highlight them through her ‘art’ performances.
Ewa’s work was fairly unknown till recently when major feminist exhibitions started including her work in 2005. Artists from the former Eastern Europe were responding to the political climate of the times and ‘political activism’ i.e protesting against oppressive communist regimes led to the broadening of themes leading on to feminist activism. According to her, ‘any act of thought is an act of art’ and thus uses signs and language in its many forms in her performances and installations in public spaces as well as in her ‘active’ poetry.
Artists working in Central Europe in the 1960s and 1970s responded to life under authoritarian political regimes. Approaches ranged from open resistance to quiet disruptions of everyday experience. These artists lived in socialist Hungary, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Poland. These countries were satellite states of the Soviet Union and, to varying degrees, functioned with repressive cultural and political systems. Brief periods of resistance or liberal reform took place in Warsaw and Prague in 1968 but were strongly suppressed, and these failed democratic uprisings resonated with these artists. They had little chance to show work in official art institutions, no access to an art market and infrequent opportunities for international travel. Instead they formed their own networks and developed conceptual and performance-based practices which diverged from state-approved socialist art. Each took a different ‘unofficial’ position and adopted varying strategies in relation to the state control, censorship and surveillance which they all experienced to different extents. Some devised objects to disrupt public institutions or celebrate popular resistance to state control. But many of the artists in this display did not consider their art to be ‘political’ as such. In place of direct confrontation and open dissent, their works were often extremely subtle interventions in public space, gesturing to alternative ways of living. Their temporary and understated form was both a conceptual choice, and helped artists evade censorship and arrest. (Tate Modern Nov 2018)
Ewa says “When I was growing up when everyone around me wanted to be either a great poet or actor but all I wanted to be was an ordinary woman”. (Tate Shots) In her 1971 ‘Poem by Ewa’ she cuts up cardboard alphabets from propaganda communist advertisements of the time (Socialism shall win, or our part shall win or we lead the nation) and lets it drop it at random on the streets below. She says that in 1972 not everyone was familiar with art in this form as such so the next day the cleaners would sweep the letters away and she would have to start all over again. Ewa felt that this work really inspired the audience to participate in this installation further building and re-building it in different ways and at the same time they are touching this art directly. She had the idea to do something that had meaning for other people outside of the art world and not only for people who do or understand art for its own sake. Her idea of Feminist art was to create a situation that didn’t relate only to herself but to all women.
In 1980 Ewa decided to do her performances naked (see Fig 1). Her reason being that the only way she could represent her nature was though her own self. She used her own body to create her art and then she was using it as a prop in her actions. Performing with clothes would allude to something completely different to what she was trying to communicate. She was intent on creating a feminist symbol which would be doing enough to compete with male art so that feminist art works would have pride of place in museums and other powerful art institutions. In the 70s and 80s her feminist protest was only through conceptual art and now ‘all women in Poland are out on the streets and are all feminists’ (Ewa Partum Tate Shots).
Ewa used herself as the ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ in her artistic approach. Sometimes she would also place cut outs of her naked self in life size in various places in Warsaw instead of appearing herself and in other times pose naked in front of the government building. This for her was an important way to bring to the attention of the absence of women in ‘public perception’ and art in general. Ewa used vulnerability and ridicule as tools to create an impact which might seem trivial and facetious but it proved to be anything but that and her naked pictures were banned by the then government. To subvert the stereotypical norms of what is considered as ‘successful’ and use them as a way of getting people to sit up and notice and most importantly think about what she is trying to say is what Ewa did with a lot of success.
James C. Scott, in his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990) argues for an often over-looked area of dissent and protest: the infra-political (as in invisible to the naked eye ..like infra-red) jokes, folk-tales, songs, rituals, rumours, but no less important in giving a voice to subordinate groups and challenging the official narratives of power. (https://frieze.com/article/how-important-art-form-protest)
Some more of the self-ridiculing but powerful performances that Ewa did include Women Marriage is against you and Stupid Woman. In Women Marriage is against you Ewa walks in on a ramp like a model on a ‘catwalk’ wearing a wedding dress made out of plastic and as she walks up she tears out of it like its a bad gift wrap saying ‘Marriage is against you’. The naiveté and expectations of a woman who is about to be married is shattered as she upturns social norms in one sweeping gesture. By the crude disrobing of layers of clothes and plastic, in which she enters the stage only to leave it naked, marks a desire to challenge the existing patriarchal norm by letting people see her vulnerability and let herself to be judged and ridiculed. In a society where women’s nakedness is treated like a commodity that needs to be protected, this act takes that aspect head on and subverts it. There is an echo here with other feminist projects, in which, like in Barbara Kruger’s famous image, a woman’s body “is a battleground’ and Yoko Ono’s iconic performance piece ‘Cut Piece’.
In Stupid Woman (see Fig 3) (considering there is a contemporary echo with ‘stupidwomangate’ in politics as this was written) she again does a performance piece naked only wearing dark lipstick and high heels in a gallery full of high ranking officials, mostly men. She dons the role of a ‘silly’ woman in the most pejorative sense and flirts with them and giggles like she is inebriated, for 45 minutes, after which she abruptly stops, thanks everyone and leaves. The awkwardness of the whole social engagement in this performance piece which has so many layers to its meaning is quite ahead of its time. It points again to the dominance of men in the arts industry and the stereotype of the vacuous woman with nothing else to offer but her sexuality. Ewa was poking fun at the social mores of how a ‘reasonable’ woman in society is supposed to behave. She let herself be ridiculed, excluded and discriminated upon to make a point which would not have been as effective if it was made in an angry demonstration. This performance was ridiculed at the time but is now considered iconic. She breaks down the rules of success versus failure in order that the end goal is achieved. ‘Failure’ allows for more inclusivity and creative spirit and makes room for a more collaborative practice. There is irony in working with the pastiche of the ‘old ways’ and asks everyone to break with the status quo and hierarchy in art production.
Fig 1-4 (clockwise) Ewa’s performance auto-identification/ Marriage is against you/ Stupid Woman/East-West Shadow
Maintenance work as Art and Protest
Moira Gatens dismisses the idea of equality as a legitimate demand for women’s rights in her book ‘Feminism and Philosophy’ because the system on which society and its structure is based is already skewed in favour of men. She broadly divides society into its public and private domain.. ‘public domain is dependent on and developed around a male subject who acts in the public sphere but it is maintained in the private sphere traditionally by women. That is to say that liberal societies assume that its citizens continue to be what they were historically, namely male heads of households who have at their disposal the services of an unpaid domestic worker in the form of the mother/wife.’ (Moira Gatens Feminism and philosophy Polity Press 1991 P38)
In her 1969 Maintenance Art Manifesto Ukeles divided human labour into two categories..development and maintenance. Extrapolating the idea of the public and the private spheres expounded by Moira Gatens in her book, Ukeles says development is the public side that included notions of progress and individuality, while maintenance, the more private side which is the realm of activities that kept things in order – cooking, cleaning, shopping, child rearing etc. I have included Miele Laderman Ukeles’ work since it best describes and brings to the fore the questions of public and private in terms of especially labour. She too was in her artistic prime in the 1970s when the ‘wages for housework’ concept was just about discussed about in social circles. Her artwork was the ‘performing’ of the maintenance activities in galleries, museums, and in other large projects as a long term art resident of the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY).
‘Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit). The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom. The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay. My working will be the work.’ (Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969 – Mierle Laderman Ukeles (2016))
The very public DSNY project done by Ukeles in the 80s can be considered as an all time first for any conceptual artist. Ukeles had an idea that could have been seen as completely preposterous as she proposed to the DSNY that she would be ‘an artist in residence’ working, recording and participating with the ‘Sanmen’ (sanitary men) for a whole year. This proposal was supported by the then head of the institution (as he was dealing with lack of morale among the workers after a particularly severe winter resulting in delays in garbage disposal and harsh criticism from the public as a result) and became an affiliation quite unparalleled in the history of conceptual art. There was no user’s manual to explain how to be an artist in residence in a large municipal organization as it had nothing to do with art and culture. But Ukeles wrote an extensive five page proposal and considers ‘ The scale of the Department of Sanitation as a Form: A network of flowing garbage. The goal was to translate this space and volume into an expansive and prolonged duration.’ She divided the proposal into three projects. Project One was called ‘Touch Sanitation’, the second one ‘Sanitation Celebrations’ and the third ‘Future Fruits’.
Touch Sanitation included documenting and recording the shaking of hands of each of the ten thousand employees in the department across New York in all the boroughs. Her rather simplistic use of a gesture to express her gratitude and respect (over eleven months of shaking hands as a way of thanking almost ten thousand sanitation workers) was really a powerful one in turning around the morale within the organization and the understanding of their contributions by the wider public. This symbolic act belied a multitude of planning, logistical organization, observation, research and implementation that it now stands as one of the key examples of conceptual art as activism.
As part of the initial research, Ukeles studied the DSNY field location book and the working conditions of every district in NY’s five boroughs. Without the help of computers or any modern day technology we now take for granted she made a series of dynamic and intervening space-time drawings that matched the vast geography of the city to three daily eight-hour work shifts throughout a single year. She called these drawings /maps ‘sweeps’ (Fig 5) and with this information she also planned and mapped her own time and movement over weeks and months. These logs would touchingly include her own personal schedules of the baby sitter’s / husband’s timings, pick up times for the children, their homework and doctor’s appointments. Additionally she would let the workers know on a daily basis after greeting them where ‘the maintenance artist’ would be that day and when she would be reaching the next borough to greet them.
Touch Sanitation was extensively covered with some amount of bemusement, curiosity and skepticism in the local newspapers. The great thing about this initiative was that it led to improvements in perception of the ‘Sanmen’ and their working conditions.
Fig 5 Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Touch Sanitation Performance ‘Sweeps’, 1979-1980.”
Fig 6-9 Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Robin Holland.
Expose as Protest
Women and Work developed from the artist trio Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly's involvement in the Women's Workshop of the Artist's Union, a group formed in 1972 with the aims of advancing women's causes within the union and of ending racial and sexual discrimination in the arts. Significantly, the Women's Workshop also sought to make connections with women's groups in other unions. One report stated 'The Women's Workshop maintains that women in whatever sector they are employed are largely unorganized and consequently receive the lowest pay and work in the worst conditions; it is our intention to support our sisters in their struggle for unionization and also in the action they take as organized workers.' (Women's Workshop, 'A Brief History of the Women's Workshop of the Artist's Union, 1972-1973' in Hilary Robinson, ed., Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000, Oxford 2001, p.87)
This group consisting of Mary Kelly, Margaret Harrison and Kay Hunt was one of the earliest proponents of protest in the form of conceptual art within a feminist context. Mary Kelly’s 1975 exhibition Women in work: A document on the division of labour in industry held at the South London gallery in London. This exhibition was done to coincide with the Equal Pay Act (EPA) implemented in 1970. They wanted to do a kind of expose on the practices in industry where gender pay gap still was rife and women basically were discriminated against in work, salaries and promotions despite the law coming into force. They chose the metal box factory in Bermondsey where they did a detailed study of the kind of activities done by women and compared with the work done by men and the remuneration they earned from these activities. The finding from this research and detailed reports was collated and exhibited in the form of meticulous minimalist exhibits in black and white. They chose the South London Gallery in Peckham where over 150 women took part. The idea was to explore the relationship of women working there with the work environment and how it affected their lives in totality.
The distinctive point of this kind of ‘protest’ was the sociological approach of the exhibition collecting vast amounts of data through interviews, archival research and observation. The scientific quality of the methodology added credence and provided irrefutable evidence but the most impressive was the minimalist way it was shown with typewritten data in black and white and photo copies of work sheets and punch cards, charts and documents. Punch cards and payroll sheets show a significant difference in salaries between men and women and film clips inside the factory showing a typical work day includes women doing stationary, monotonous and low-paid jobs whereas men are shown to be doing physical and supervisory roles. There are clever references to the political and personal, objective and subjective and public and personal views that coexist throughout the entire exhibition.
There were very few pictures of the women apart from few who were chosen to represent their role or position in the organization (Fig 12). As an aesthetic it was linked to the notion that it was the idea, not the object. They were treated like important personalities rather than have a generic shot of the women working. ‘In the aesthetic strategies for Women and Work we didn’t want to picture the women so when you see the work its their hands you see, which actually is an interesting study because most of the machines men work with that are documented need the whole body. You had to show the whole body as they use the whole body. But the grade 2, which is where they could put women and then say their work was different so it wasn’t subject to equal pay. There was also an aesthetic decision of not photographing the women except as people, as personalities. That’s why we gave them all a portrait, which is a separate work and is a kind of acknowledgement of them in a different way. (Mary Kelly’s Interview with the South London Gallery’s Recreative Board 2018)
The entire approach to the exhibition showed a definite shift towards ‘analysis’ and experimentation. There is documentation to the daily lives of the women working in the factory in terms of the division of labour within gender lines and also within the wider domestic sphere with women talking about their lives outside of work. They did it in terms of conceptualism. It didn’t have a political content, it was more about the structure of ideas or a kind of limited idea of documentation. It was quite novel as an idea to get the documents in the factory, like the pay-slips, with the stamps on them, because there was something about the look of the stamp, like, this is a moment in that time recorded for posterity. It is a kind of aesthetic of documentation as much as it is a collection of facts.
In a recent interview with Mary Kelly about this exhibition she said ‘ We interviewed men and they told us everything they do at work and when we spoke to the women all they said was ‘ went to work came back’ and spoke at length about what they did at home AFTER work.’ (Mary Kelly’s Interview with the South London Gallery’s Recreative Board 2018) The significance of this artists’ intervention created quite a stir in the management of the factory when it was realized what exactly was taking place and eventually the artists were banned from the site altogether. The best outcome was that the trade union organisers in London were able to use their material from the exhibition.
Fig 10 and 11: Archival material from the Woman and Work Exhibition
Fig 12: Archival material from the Woman and Work Exhibition
I find that the aspect that binds these three artists’ oeuvre is that they used activities which typically do not fall under the purview of ‘art’ as their artworks in order to make a point about the imbalances in society. Feminism has always been associated with a kind of optimism bordering on utopia (considering we are still grappling with exactly the same issues in 2019 as in 1975!) and they all pushed the boundaries of the potential of ‘hope’ through both art and activism. In doing so they have not only managed to keep the distinction between art and life separate but also have the credit of using art as a form of legitimate public discourse, a way though which to enter ideas into public discussion.
I think artists should find ways to collaborate with sectors in society not typically used to working with artists without compromising on their right to criticize, provoke and stimulate. In this age of super technology and instantaneous information dissemination it is no longer enough to produce art in a silo with no thought of how the work sits in context of the current world events. The two acts, the making and the disturbing can never be apart from one another, rather must be treated like the indivisible parts of the same process, keen on bringing about awareness and transformation across a cross section of society. According to the social critic Richard Cork ‘ Artists must break out irrevocably, from the weary tradition of avant-gardism and resolve that it is no longer enough to see themselves in romantic opposition to the society they inhabit. Rather than accepting a marginal role on the outer edges of everyday discourse, they have to develop ways of becoming reintegrated with the fabric of life around them, forging language and subject matter of demonstrable relevance to the people who view their work.’ (The Social Role of Art; Richard Cork; Gordon Fraser London 79 P 10)
The three artists coincidentally worked in the same zeitgeist of the 70s and 80s when feminism in the west was based on the daily-lived experiences of women. The visual arts explored female sexuality, biological processes till then considered taboo topics like menstruation and childbirth. There was concentration on domesticity (wages for housework movement had just started), women’s handicrafts as historical forms of artistic expression. It is hard to imagine how difficult it might have been for Partum, Ukeles and Kelly to rise above the then prevalent ways of art practice and use it as a tool for social change. The sheer frustration on being marginalized, not being taken seriously just because one had a family and being passed over or paid less just because of one’s gender drove them to do whatever they could possibly do to protest in the name of art. For Partum, art and activism were apposite. The constraints of the political system of the time on society and on women in particular compelled a certain work ethic that was constantly provoking, pushing the boundaries of ‘reasonableness’ in social behavior using herself as a mirror of society’s expectations of women.
Ukeles was trying to find a connection between municipal maintenance work and feminist theories of domestic work in urban societies. Ukeles invented “Maintenance Art.” In doing so, she posed entirely new questions about art. What if we understood sanitation work—much like domestic chores—as being skilled, and full of its own distinct choreography? What if the most interesting work to be made had no measurable results other than keeping other people’s lives in order? With the Touch Sanitation Performance, she used remarkable resourcefulness to expose ignorance and callousness of back-end jobs, of the visible and the invisible, the spoken and the unspoken and led to the concepts of keeping, preserving, supporting and protecting done by maintenance workers.
Mary Kelly replaced the visual and emotional experience of art with an analytical and linguistic one. This again goes back to the idea of the art object being deskilled, democratising art-making. Her use of lists, factory punch cards, graphs etc she presents her art as a science, evidence based. The focus on the numbers, data and drawings made the exhibition sombre, reflective and hard hitting.
The works of these three feminist ‘artivists’ have received renewed focus from the current generation due to the changes in how we look at gender, the concept of ‘labour’, from the threats to individual privacy made by the ever expanding threat of the internet in the lives of people, to the reorganisation of the ‘public’ space. Gender is no longer considered to be a binary construct but includes many shades of ‘male’ of ‘female’. So when we refer to the status of women today it is imperative to consider the challenges faced by these gender ‘mavericks’ who take inspiration from the way these artists have used their art to enter ideas into public discussion. The change in ways of working like ‘home officing’ has turned the original idea of the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ spheres of working on its head. These issues run through the fabric of our lives with a thorough certainty and the experiments of the three artists hopefully will inspire new ideas from future generations.
For as long as there has been a mainstream culture there have been those who have stayed their position outside their fashion their own identities and communities. Customs and styles often but not always coming together around 'culture' like music uploading or even cars. These artefacts constructed culture of their own through this cultural lens meant dividing the world into good and bad and in the process creating a system values and norms distinct from and often in opposition to those of Greater Society. These are subcultures micro-worlds created by those who feel they don't belong in the world at large; the young, the passed over, the out-cast. This cultural space offers great political potential as subcultures provide a place to test out new identities ideas and activities that deviate from the status Quo. And because they are self-constructed they grant their constituents power of creation and then sense of ownership of what they have created. These are key ingredients of any political formation but subcultures can also become an escape from politics a safe space to dream of magical cultural solutions to the real world problems. Sub cultures are cultural resistance. (Stephen Duncombe Cultural Resistance Reader Verso London 2002 P135)
Kelly, M. (2018) 'Went to Work Came Back'. Interview with Mary Kelly. Interviewed by the REcreative Board for the South London Gallery Exhibition.
Majewska, E. (2018) 'Weak Resistance' (Presentation in the Symposium on Feminist thinking, Middlesex University)
Black Mirror; Art as Social Satire (2018) London: Saatchi Gallery
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Lippard, L., Harris, L., Phillips, Patricia., Finkelpearl, Tom. (2016) Mierle laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art. New York: Prestel.
Majewska, Ewa. (2015) ‘Weak Resistance’ (ICI Berlin Lecture)
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Fig 1 – 4
Partum, E (1980) Auto-Identification. Available at:
https://awarewomenartists.com/en/artiste/ewa-partum/ (Accessed 10 December 2018)
Partum, E. (1981) Stupid Woman. Available at: http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/interviews-sp-837925570/806-ewa-partum (Accessed 10 December 2018)
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