Performance: Cleaning Her

Though conceptualised for the sculpture park in Graz, the performance piece Cleaning Her by Martina Morger was first executed in Glasgow’s Merchant City in 2018. In the run-up to the performance, the concept for Cleaning Her evolved to relate to the industrial past of Scotland’s largest city more specifically.

Historically a point of intersection for international merchants and local retailers, Glasgow’s eastern city centre is now busy with bars, restaurants and cafes. Glasgow’s industrious past remains, however, written into the fabric of Merchant City’s architecture and cityscape. In this environment, Martina Morger chose to focus on the themes of both work and legacy. Being specifically interested in women’s history and domestic labour, her investigation centres around sculptures created by women artists. Within the performance, the artist cleaned the following five sculptures: Gorbals Boys by Liz Peden; Slow Down by Jacqueline Donachie; Mercat Cross by Margaret Findlay and Edith Burnet Hughes; Thinking of Bella by Shona Kilnoch and Dug-out Canoe Found AD 1871 by Louise Crawford and Ian Alexander. With three hours of labour ahead, the artist set out with a tin bucket of water, a household cloth and blue worker’s dungarees. Most of the sculptures were in poor condition and clearly in dire need of care. Assuming the guise of a maintenance worker, the artist traced the surfaces of each sculpture in both a caring and cleansing act towards these forgotten legacies of Merchant City’s female sculptors. The performance was not officially publicised, the authorities had not been informed and thus, this carefully devised work process went largely unnoticed.

Though the blue overalls are dissimilar to and thus distinct from those worn by the council’s employed maintenance workers, nobody stopped to question Martina’s Morger’s position. It seemed as though the blue work-wear suit rendered her largely invisible to the public eye. Wishing to utilise as little foreign objects as possible for the performance, the “costume” was kept as minimal as possible. The carefully devised aesthetic, however, allowed the artist to play with the tropes of an archetypal maintenance worker, a role which, as exemplified by the artist’s performance, goes mostly unnoticed by urban society. The fact that the artist herself is female draws further associations between this public service and domestic services which were traditionally (and are statistically still) performed predominantly by women. Through this association, the performance piece aligns with a history of female artists performing maintenance work in public spaces to draw attention to hidden and undervalued labour. Despite the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles having framed maintenance art as feminist practice as far back as the 1970s, the themes then addressed are still more than relevant in 2018. By cleaning the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum museum for example, Mierle Laderman Ukeles drew attention to the large number of women in service roles in stark contrast to their lacking representation amongst the museum’s management. Furthermore, the labour-intensive practices of both Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Martina Morger bring into discussion the many roles which female artists in particular must adopt to sustain themselves. Through the arduous and repetitive labour of cleaning, parallels were and are thus drawn between artistic practice, the hidden labour taking place within the home and the labour of maintenance workers caring for public spaces and buildings.

Arguably, the cleaning of public objects has gained new relevance in the age of social media. As the artist, Martina Morger states, our society has become even more obsessed with material values and aesthetics. Public artworks now feature as backdrops to pictures circulating on Instagram and the value of the works is thereby reduced to their outward aesthetic. Though the artist’s work is likewise focussed on the surface of the sculptures through her symbolic cleaning and maintenance, the time and care that has been given deliberately to sculptures made by female artists points towards a more focussed engagement with the history of the objects. The time taken to clean the sculptures somewhat mirrors the time and labour invested in their making. Questions arise around the identity of the sculptor, their intentions and the process by which the individual objects came to be. By tracing the objects with the cloth, the artist engages with the sculptures through a bodily experience that goes beyond the visual. Martina Morger describes her interactions with each sculpture as highly individual and intimate. From having to climb up onto the plinth of Thinking of Bella, reaching through a construction fence protecting The Gorbals Boys to being hindered by the fortress-like plinth of Mercat Cross the engagement with each sculpture is individual and physical.

The performance piece was concluded by the artist demonstratively pouring out the bucket of now filthy water. The layers of dirt that had gathered on the surfaces of the sculptures had become a testament to the negligence towards these public artworks. The process of cleaning within Martina Morger’s performance is best described as spiritual labour rather than maintenance work as the sculptures were thereby neither repaired nor revived. The artist does not propose that her performance breathed new life into the objects but rather sees her process as an act of care. By caring for our material possessions, we assign value to them, what then happens when public possession such as sculptures are no longer cared for? Would they have been better maintained had they been made by male artists? The performance piece Cleaning Her gives no answers to these questions raised, but rather proposes a heightened engagement with public art, particularly the still very few commissions given to female artists. The opportunity to engage with public sculptures in this manner is not to be limited to the artist and thus she has chosen to publish a score encouraging others to re-iterate the performance in a location of their choice.

You will need:

A tin bucket

Filled with clean water

A bright neon cloth

Your work uniform

Go and clean public art

made by female artists.

written by Isabelle Thul

score & performance by Martina Morger

images by Wassili Widmer

Martina Morger is a performance artist who also works with multimedia. She reflects on femininity as a device, and claiming space as a political body. Through her work, one discovers an engagement with the limitations of individual freedom in regard to technology. Her main practice is inspired by cyberfeminism, body, code and biopolitics. her work is primarily concerned with women’s placement within society, but also queerness in regards to cybernetical hybridisation.Exploring female and queer voices – or lack thereof – domesticity, repetitive action and labour she works primarily with performance and enjoys investigating the borders to other media. her embodiment of different personas speaks to fluidity and its possible implications in society. 

Isabelle Thul is an independent curator from Germany working in Glasgow and Berlin. Within her practice, Isabelle researches and implements an environmentally conscious and ethically driven approach. Furthermore, Isabelle looks to make artistic practices approachable to a wider range of audiences by becoming aware of and tackling the obstacles, which may stop individuals from feeling that an exhibition or project’s audience may include them. Isabelle is also active as a writer and journalist with published articles on and in the magazine Vegan Connections. Employed by the arts organisation WAVEparticle since early 2019, Isabelle works with a team of artists and cultural producers to lead urban regeneration arts projects and creative workshops for community consultations. 

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