An art installation on view in Washington, D.C., imagines the powerful White House adviser Ivanka Trump in a new role: trapped in Sisyphean servitude. In Ivanka Vacuuming (2019), a performance conceived by the artist Jennifer Rubell, viewers are invited to throw bread crumbs in the path of a convincing Trump look-alike, continuously making a mess that she can never finish cleaning up.
The model, a slender blond proxy for Trump, wears an outfit drawn entirely from Trump’s own clothing line (including the same light-rose sleeved dress that Trump wore to the last G20 summit). Expressionless, she pushes a professional upright cleaner methodically over a carpet of such a bright fuchsia that the walls around it glow pink with reflected light. The performance, on view at Flashpoint Gallery, elides any elements that could be associated with Donald Trump: no gold-plating, crystal chandeliers, or fast-food wrappers. Instead, this dreadful Barbie ritual takes place on a sort of stage, pink and pristine, where the actor performs a vision of plastic femininity. The audience plays a part, too, and while Ivanka Vacuuming appears to be making a case about complicity by incorporating the viewer, the message is muddled.
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.
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?
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.
Ivanka Vacuuming has not escaped Trump’s notice. “Women can choose to knock each other down or build each other up. I choose the latter,” she tweeted in response to an article in The Hill about the piece. The performance does not build her up, to be sure. But how it aims to knock her down isn’t clear either. The two threads of critique in Ivanka Vacuuming, one about feminism and the other about complicity, never seem to align. In a theatrical performance with so few elements—a champagne stage, a vintage vacuum, an unsettled crowd, a near-identical stand-in, and a Costco run’s worth of bread crumbs—it’s a problem when the pieces don’t line up.
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