Must one imagine Sisyphus happy? Curator Nicky Ni doesn’t. In her exhibition “High Maintenance” (March 10-April 20) at the Chicago Artists Coalition, Ni pairs artists Chloe Munkenbeck and Sungjae Lee on the theme of maintenance—a catchall for a host of contemporary displeasures, from labor and exploitation to tedium and routine.
For Munkenbeck, an artist and practicing architect, maintenance is a fly in the ointment. In four recent sculptures named for common cleaning solutions (“Windex,” “Arm + Hammer,” “Soft Scrub,” “Comet”), she joins aluminum-framed plexiglass window panes along silicone seams stuffed with tiny, gross flotsam left behind by squeegees and scrubbers. In “Windex,” the silicone forms a “T” between two panes of glass, reducing the architect’s T-square to an electric blue gum-up of dirt, including bird droppings, a pen cap and bits of brick. Munkenbeck’s work pokes fun at the severe formality of architecture, especially the sleek windows and shiny metal casing of modern skyscrapers that require untold hours of soaping, scrubbing and shining to maintain the appearance of cleanliness.
Under the surface, Munkenbeck’s clever work has a tinge of existential horror. “Soft Scrub,” window panes adjoined by a milky plastic river of cigarette butts and dust, is leashed to a stainless-steel bucket. The traditionally masculine feat of creation, the realm of “progress,” authorship, singularity, requires the low-grade, infinite process of maintenance performed ad nauseam—a claustrophobic fate for the bucket, ready and waiting with jewel-toned cleaning solution. Each glass window pane is cut with a jagged edge that mirrors the break line—architectural shorthand used in plan drawings to abbreviate length, another gesture toward the undefined stretch of time and space that makes maintenance so maddening. “Maintenance is a drag,” wrote Mierle Laderman Ukeles in 1969, “It takes all the fucking time.”
If there is pleasure to be had, for Munkenbeck it’s in “Tensile Strength,” a nineteen-foot threaded rod that spans the back of the gallery, pinning a washrag in the air mid-wring. The compressed washrag takes on a bodily recoil, the pain of bondage—and the pleasure. In the vise of a perfect squeeze, the greenish, lumpy rag also alludes to the inevitable material failure of cleaning: the thin film of dead skin cells, germs and other biological shedding that finds its way into sponges and towels.
A hypochondriac recoil contains the equal and opposite obsession with and fetish of maintenance. This is the most salient connection between Munkenbeck’s practice and Sungjae Lee’s work. Lee’s performance, sculpture and video documents his interest in the practice of bodily maintenance, primarily through hair of all types. In the video “Temporal Chest Hair, A – Z,” Lee shaves the chest hair of white men seated in different anonymous rooms. Shaving, outsourced to Lee, creates a vaguely sexual encounter (described on the artist’s website as a hair fetish) that is both intriguing and repulsive. After shaving his subjects, the artist arranges their hair on his own chest, exchanging markers of race and gender and underscoring the ambiguous intimacy conditioned by outsourcing bodily upkeep.
Lee’s performance is also documented by white T-shirts spread around the gallery, coated with hair shaved and re-worn. In these, Lee’s work reads a sort of penance, literal hairshirts in place of the Catholic cilice, the shirts of coarse hair worn by ascetics and mourners to irritate the skin and create discomfort to ameliorate a sin. In this, and many other spiraling paths of association and reference, close quarters cramp both artist’s styles—in places, Munkenbeck’s sleek formalism and Lee’s rough-around-the-edges DIY clash and compete for breathing room; big work in a small space.
In her “Manifesto for Maintenance Art,” Ukeles divides work into the labor of creation, “The Death Instinct: separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence,” and the labor of maintenance, “The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return… survival systems and operations, equilibrium.” “High Maintenance” offers a worthwhile rejoinder: half a century of automation, acceleration and outsourcing later, we remain split. What would it mean to imagine otherwise?
“High Maintenance” at the Chicago Artists Coalition, 2130 West Fulton. On view March 10-April 20.