Challenging Power

In an art world that has historically centered around the white, heterosexual, male artist, how do artists address the marginalization of certain groups of people and the institutional systems that perpetuate imbalances of power? As artists questioned conventions of creative work, its circulation, and display in the twentieth century and at the turn of the millennium, they also questioned structures of power and prejudice that continue to affect society and politics today. In each of these works, the artist challenges authoritarianism or aspects of authority that often benefit from the subjugation of minority groups or marginalized communities—aspects ranging from sexism, classism, white supremacy, homophobia, and settler colonialism. 

Mierle Laderman-Ukeles’s Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside (1973) focused on the labor traditionally done by custodial, low-wage staff at art institutions. Edgar Heap of Birds’ Dead Indian Stories (2015) explored settler colonialism and racism; the text-based work addresses cultural appropriation through language. Ai Weiwei subverted authoritarianism and surveillance in his work CCTV Spray (2012), which provides DIY-instructions to fashion a spray-paint apparatus to encourage others to spray over the lenses of security cameras. In executing these works, students considered their historical resonances within the context of their original conceptualizations and explored how they impact our current culture, politics, and personal lives.

Mierle Laderman-Ukeles

b. 1939, Denver, CO, USA; currently works in New York, NY, USA

Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, 1973

Action with mop, bucket, water, stairs, rag

In 1973, Mierle Laderman-Ukeles piqued the curiosity of passersby by washing the stairs of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartsford, Connecticut. Laderman-Ukeles soaked the stairs with her mop, painting water along the concrete surface as well as scrubbing the steps on her hands and knees with a wet rag. Laderman-Ukeles performed labor for the museum typically done by low-wage custodial staff—jobs often performed by people of color—in her work Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside. Through this performance, she underscores the critical role of laborers who often go unnoticed by performing their maintenance duties herself. As part of her larger work, Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, Laderman-Ukeles calls out society’s preference for the development of works of art while simultaneously ignoring the care taken to maintain those same works of art. By treating everyday activities as art and by exhibiting labor in an art museum, Laderman-Ukeles challenged the idea of contemporary art and its place in society. Laderman-Ukeles herself succinctly emphasized this point in her manifesto by stating, “after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”

FSU student Alice Fabela executed this performance work by Mierle Laderman-Ukeles in October 2020 at the FSU Museum of Fine Arts. Fabela used self-timed photography to document her execution of the work.

 
 

Edgar Heap of Birds

b. 1954, Wichita, KS, USA; currently works in Oklahoma City, OK, USA

Dead Indian Stories, 2015

Interpretive recreation in collage and mixed media

The destruction and appropriation of Native American cultures have existed since the Europeans settled in North America. American artist Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations) sheds light on the persecution of Native American peoples in his text-based works, which often direct viewers to histories of persecution and activities of resistance. In his series of text-based monoprints, Dead Indian Stories, Heap of Birds included six words on each print. One print reads: “TRY / CARE / DON'T / INSULT / THEIR / BEAUTY.” While the interpretation is left to the viewer, what may come to mind is the appropriation of Native American cultural heritage. In the U.S., we commonly see Native Americans as sports mascots, Native American-themed Halloween costumes, the wearing of headdresses at music festivals, and  generalizations of Native American customs in movies and television. At Florida State University, we often hear chants such as “Scalp ‘em Seminoles, do the war chant, and the Tomahawk chop and win the game!” These chants implicate our own community in the continued exploitation of Native American peoples. In this interpretive recreation of Heap of Birds’ artwork, the viewer encounters the artist’s original directive and direction for care. It brings attention to the appropriation and generalization of Native American cultures and ask the viewer to “try care” or to “try” and “care” instead. 

FSU student Erin Walls recreated this work by Edgar Heap of Birds in October 2020. Walls used time-lapse videography to document her process and photography to document the end result. Watch a video of her process here.

Ana Mendieta 

b. 1948, Havana, Cuba; d. 1985, New York, NY, USA

Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972

Photograph

Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta explored gender roles and sexuality by altering her appearance with human hair. In her work, Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), Mendieta’s female face is warped into a non-conventional, non-binary presentation with the use of her male friend’s facial hair. Strand by strand, carefully cut clumps of hair are glued upon her chin, signifying a transformation from a feminine appearance to a masculine one. She actively disrupts social classifications by morphing herself into something that goes against “standard” conventions. Mendieta challenges gender norms and expressions through this performance work by showing a woman with a beard, which during the 1970s was a radical idea. She intended to provide critical commentary on gendered features, such as body hair, that are preferred on one gender over another in society. Identity and personal expression are used by people to differentiate themselves from one another. By challenging gendered standards set by society, Mendieta actively rebelled against these social norms.

FSU student Alice Fabela executed this performance work by Ana Mendieta in October 2020. Fabela used self-timed photography to document her execution of the work.

 

Ai Weiwei

b. 1957, Beijing, China; currently works in Cambridge, UK

CCTV Spray, 2012

Set of DIY instructions and illustrations; pole, spray paint, tape, nylon rope, CCTV camera 

Ai Weiwei challenges the Chinese government’s abuse of power through his practice. His strong opposition against the communist regime and the widespread use of surveillance, in and out of China, is apparent in this work, CCTV Spray. Published in do it: The Compendium, this work is a set of instructions to build a portable device that spray paints over the lens of surveillance cameras to inhibit the device from recording passersby. The materials Ai Weiwei recommends for this project are everyday items: a long pole, a can of spray paint, a bottle cage, a wine bottle opener, a brake bar, a nylon rope, and a screw. This work inspires viewers to question the power the government has in their daily lives and to act against authoritarian practices like surveillance, using materials that are ready-at-hand.

 

FSU student Skylar Alderson executed this instructions-based work by Ai Weiwei with the help of her partner, Chris Williams, in September 2020. Alderson used time-lapse videography as well as photography to document her execution of the work.

Carey Young 

b. 1970, Lusaka, Zambia; currently works in London, UK

Declared Void, 2005

Recreation of the work in masking tape

Influenced by her knowledge of law, politics, and science, Carey Young has created works of art that address a range of social issues. Young’s work, Declared Void, outlines a corner of a room in strips of black vinyl, separating it from the rest of the space. The large text placed next to the marked off area is written in an authoritative style, following the language used in legal documents like constitutions or contracts. The interactive piece, recreated here in masking tape, allows the viewer or participant to enter the zone and declare that the United States constitution does not apply to them. The work invites you to feel or not feel the shift in moving into a “lawless” space and questions the weight of restrictions that written words can place on an individual.

FSU student Ellie Cissel recreated this work by Carey Young in October 2020. Cissel used TikTok and self-timed photography to document her execution of the work.

 
 

Barbara Kruger

b. 1945, Newark, NJ, USA; currently works in New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA

Untitled (Questions), 1991

Recreation in collage and mixed media

American Conceptual artist Barbara Kruger continues to create art that questions cultural constructs, power, and politics. A series of statements in white text on a blue and red background that resembles the American flag comprise her work Untitled (Questions), originally executed in photo-silkscreen and vinyl. The work invites the viewer to reflect upon current events. In the 1991 iteration of Kruger’s work, possible answers to the questions may have included the Gulf War or opinions on the George H.W. Bush administration. In 2020, answers may involve the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the separation and detention of Mexican immigrants, and the Trump administration. Currently, a large-scale installation of Untitled (Questions) covers the north façade of the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the work was installed in 2018 to encourage voting in the primary election. In Kruger’s many iterations of the work, the questions posed are still relevant and translate well through difficult times. The work allows the viewer to question the events happening around them and urge them to be curious about their resolutions. 

FSU student Erin Walls executed this work by Barbara Kruger in October 2020. Walls used time-lapse videography to document her process and photography to document the end result.

 

Several projects executed in this online exhibition are from do it, a traveling exhibition conceived and curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and organized by Independent Curators International (ICI), New York. do it was enacted at FSU's Museum of Fine Arts in Tallahassee, FL in the fall of 2020, and the following instructions-based works are courtesy of the artist, FSU MoFA, and ICI: CCTV Spray (2012) by Ai WeiweiInstruction (2002) by Eric van LieshoutSculpture for Strolling (1995) by Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Instruction (1993) by Christian Boltanski.

© 2020 by the Students of Florida State University's Art History 3854, The Museum Object

Mierle Laderman-Ukeles