Contemporary artists love to hate the Trump administration, and plenty of them have subjected the president to pointed caricature. But Ivanka Trump’s polished public persona doesn’t offer an easy grip for satire. To some, she is a cipher. Others see her as a superhuman model of efficiency. Since her elevation from Trump Organization executive to White House adviser, Ivanka has juggled motherhood, her own portfolio, and her father’s behavior in the public eye—never failing to appear less than perfectly coiffed.
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This—Ivanka Trump’s sanitized performance of femininity—is the central focus of Rubell’s piece. Ivanka Vacuuming is not political per se: The artist is not skewering any particular policy or even the Trump administration as a whole (as the artist Robin Bell does in a more inflammatory show of protest light installations, which opened across town from Flashpoint last week). Instead, Rubell examines Ivanka Trump’s cultural significance as a woman who has made the welfare of other women her policy priority. While Trump has talked of “rewriting the rules for success” for women, the artist instead casts her as a Stepford wife, caught in an endless loop of a housewife’s chore. The piece is a picture of vintage domestic labor drawn out to the point of anachronistic nightmare.
Ivanka Vacuuming summons to mind Cleaning the Drapes, a piece from a Vietnam War–era series by Martha Rosler called House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home. Rosler’s collages juxtapose commercial images of the domestic ideal with scenes of military violence in Southeast Asia to capture the so-called living-room war. Rubell draws on this tradition, in which the vacuum is a symbol of plasticity in American culture and a totem for the oppression of women. In putting a robotic Trump clone behind the vacuum, Rubell is placing her near-flawless public presentation at odds with her stated intentions, asking whether Trump, as a persona, conflates femininity with feminism.
Rubell’s performance does register a note of protest. The piece is mildly confrontational, inviting spectators to throw their crumbs at the feet of a captive White House official—a task in which viewers who dislike the Trumps are sure to take some satisfaction. (The gallery’s mound of panko bread crumbs is replenished nightly.) But the point here is confused. If one of Ivanka Trump’s tasks in the White House is to placate or moderate her father’s policies—if she is cleaning up after the president—does that make the viewer Donald Trump?
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Participation is often key to Rubell’s mode of institutional critique. She is known for performances that feature lavish, even grotesque meals as a way of highlighting the opulence of art-world gatherings. For its part, Ivanka Vacuuming arguably also gestures at a class divide between the subject and the viewer: The vacuuming Trump pays no mind to those throwing crumbs at her, although the line here is blurred—viewers are also creating more labor for a person doing service work. As a criticism of Trump’s privilege, Rubell’s performance could be seen as a shot across the bow: Rubell is the daughter of real-estate mavens and art collectors who own a museum in Miami with one of the largest private art collections in the nation; for 50 Cakes, put on at Art Basel Miami in 2014, the artist had her parents spoon-feed cake to viewers. Rubell and Trump—whose art collection with her husband, Jared Kushner, is valued at $25 million—may well haunt the same VIP events on the global circuit of contemporary-art fairs.