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Tuesday morning, Ivanka Trump sent out a tweet reading, “Women can choose to knock each other down or build each other up. I choose the latter.” This was not merely another aphorism of light empowerment, as is typical of her social feeds, but a rebuke of a performance art piece featuring her likeness. The response suggests a particularly cruel or degrading depiction, but the reality is a lot more nuanced.
Ivanka Vacuuming, a limited run performance piece hosted by CulturalDC and conceived of by artist Jennifer Rubell, features a pedestal full of panko bread crumbs that viewers are invited to scatter on a plush pink carpet, where an impassive Ivanka doppelgänger continuously vacuums during daily performances. (To be clear, and the gallery wall text makes plain, the crumbs are to be thrown on the carpet, not at the model.) Outright mockery or satire is usually a lot more straightforward than this.
Rubell is more interested in the myriad ways that Ivanka “dresses up” in her various roles (mother, daughter, diplomat) than in dressing her down, and wants viewers to draw their own conclusions from the experience of throwing the crumbs and watching the Ivanka model. Rubell is known for her playful, participatory performances, which often have a food component and invite the viewer to break the rules of a traditional gallery setting. Lest one think the crumb throwing a cruel trick aimed only at Ivanka, it’s worth noting that one of Rubell’s previous forays involved participants pie-ing her in the face with nearly 200 pies. The piece defies easy categorization and neat summaries, and viewers will likely leave with more questions than answers.
Is it about how Ivanka is frequently tasked with “cleaning up” her father’s less palatable views? A comment on performative femininity as a form of labor? Someone’s extremely particular fetish? Is it degrading and sexist to make “Ivanka” our personal maid? Is being a maid inherently degrading? Has the real Ivanka ever used a vacuum before?
Mucking things up further is the fact that the whole spectacle is being live-streamed on CulturalDC’s website during the daily performances, so one can watch the strangely transfixing performance without leaving the comfort of their home. In what could be a nod to paparazzi hounding, the 24-hour news cycle, surveillance states, or all of the above, the audience is under just as much scrutiny as the star of the show. Like a wind up ballerina, “Ivanka” keeps going whether there’s anything to vacuum up or not, so as the wall text asks, “it’s not really our fault, right?”
At Friday’s debut performance, audience members were far from eager to hurl their crumbs; many of them hung back or snapped photos without flinging a single morsel. Those that did mostly seemed apprehensive about it, save one participant who kept returning to the pedestal for greedy fistfuls of panko. Rubell observed that this is often the case when her pieces command viewers to do something that would normally be against gallery rules. “As soon as you put something on a pedestal, people think they can’t touch it,” she said. The real Ivanka might have thought the same applied to her, but it turns out, it might take nothing more than a few well placed bread crumbs to topple her venerated pedestal.
Ivanka Vacuuming runs to Sunday, February 17 at 916 G St. NW.