by Sofie B. Ringstad (2021, Kunsthochschule Weißensee)

What is the relationship between exhibited art and cleaning? Often only noticeable in its absence, it is an act that precariously and silently happens around the artworks, usually executed by women or migrant workers. So-called street art, on the other hand, has a tendency to disappear through public city cleaning, reminding us to question how ‘public’ the ‘city’ really is. In this contrast, we discover that the gesture of transforming dirty to clean is a complex concept soaked in power dynamics and normative societal structures.

What is the opacity of cleaning? Are its rituals of maintenance always an act of care, or does its performers (unknowingly) also carry out deeds of soft power? Can it be used as a strategy to dissolve [sic] the role of the cleaner, the object or subject that is being cleaned, and the very operation of cleaning itself? We question, and detect that cleaning can diverge from applied liquid and chemical into something far less wet.

For something to be cleaned, it must initially be dirty. Such a smudging can happen in many ways: Just as much as a public monument can be (supposedly) vandalized by graffiti, a museum’s collection can bloat with artifacts and human remains attained in filthy ways – and the very attempt at cleaning its archive could expose the dirt even more. Considering this complexity of societal and historical slime, we have to examine if cleaning sometimes is as messy as the smear it is meant to remove.

The slime of time, and attempts at cleaning it, gushes towards us in Mohamed Laouli’s recent work Les scupltures n'etaient pas blanches (The sculptures were not white). In a video documentation, we see the artist climbing up on Escalier Gare Saint-Charles in Marseille, a large public staircase commissioned for the city’s 1922 colonial exhibition, commemorating the French colonies through a stereotypical portrayal of a naked, lascivious African woman – leaving it frequently trashed with racists slurs and anti-colonial protests alike. Laouli, himself Moroccan, figures almost as deployed city personnel as he cleans paint from the woman’s body for some time, smearing and blurring the graffiti but not quite removing it. Subtly, almost unnoticeably, Laouli adds a layer of meaning to the monument, contributing an ambiguous comment by means of soap and water.

In its opaqueness, cleaning can also be cathartic; even healing. Ayrson Heráclito’s work Buruburu, where bathing or being bathed in popcorn alludes to a vigorous regeneration of both soul and body, is an example of such. In its performance format, Heráclito cleanses himself and participants of negative energy using symbols from the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, where popcorn represents the curing presence of the divinity Omolú. Through this operation, we see that cleaning can transcend from the physical to the spiritual roam, obscuring performances of maintenance and hygiene we inattentively believed to abreast.

By regarding act of cleaning as opaque we also perceive its ambiguity, and need not be surprised when it’s used to enforce the normative and colonial structures it might wash away. In her 1980 work Free, White and 21, Howardena Pindell recounts how a white babysitter would wash her mother’s dark skin in lye to remove the “dirt”, leaving permanent burn marks. This is a starkly physical example of whitewashing, where cleaning is employed to assimilate a person, concept or object: Reminding us of the indoctrinated link between whiteness and cleanliness. A closer look reveals that the very history of art has been bleached, and as above mentioned Laouli alludes to in his work its title, the classical sculptures we admire today did not use to be white. Time and intent washed out their richness. But ideological polishing exists in many forms: As artist collective New Red Order recently pointed out in a talk for The Lab in New York, institutions often invite indigenous artists only to “redwash” their image.

On this basis, we must conclude that opaque cleaning can both alter and seduce us in arts, as it adds and removes layers of significance alike – sometimes leaving us to wonder if any action happened at all.