An Ivanka Trump look-alike in a pink dress and stiletto heels pushes a vacuum cleaner around a pink carpet, blonde hair perfectly in place, a smile never leaving her face. Around her, onlookers throw handfuls of crumbs at her and on the floor around her, which she silently vacuums up without complaint, without any falter to her smile.
This is “Ivanka Vacuuming”, a performance art piece currently on display at the Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, DC. According to the artist Jennifer Rubell and the Cultural DC website, it’s a commentary on the many roles Ivanka plays and how we the public contribute to those roles. According to conservatives on Twitter, it is a derogatory piece meant for us to poke fun at Ivanka and laugh as we throw trash at her. The artist herself admits there is no one correct interpretation of her work, and it seems to me possible that both factions are correct. Undoubtedly, there are mean-spirited people who do feel some glee in throwing something at Ivanka, but that is the lowest common denominator, the most shallow possible reading of this work.
My own is more charitable, and in my opinion, more likely to be along the lines of what Rubell had in mind. Now before I explain this, know (if you are new to OT) that I am a liberal, a Democrat, decidedly anti-Trump and no great fan of Ivanka’s (I prefer Tiffany, to be honest. Did you know Trump also has a daughter named Tiffany? She’s a law student at Georgetown.) However, I can honestly say that I do feel for the first first daughter.
I can’t say I empathize totally. I’ll never be a thin, willowy billionaire heiress, and I am far from pitying the woman who probably grew up eating from a literal gold spoon. Still, the many roles she plays is something with which I can commiserate as a professional, a wife, and a mother, though on a much less grand scale. As Culture DC says, Rubell’s piece was “inspired by a figure whose public persona incorporates an almost comically wide range of feminine identities…”
Real Ivanka never stops smiling, except when required to appear reverent. Every day she is the center of the many spinning arms of her persona: the mother, the daughter, the wife, the businesswoman, the diplomat. She’s well aware of the fish bowl in which she lives, and the scorn of which she is the subject. But she remains smiling and outwardly gracious, even if some find the smile plastic and the sincerity of her magnanimity questionable.
She keeps up appearances. She is the subject of scrutiny, her father being the most polarizing figure in American politics in years. She faces a lot of hatred, and much (legitimate, in my opinion) skepticism over her qualifications as “senior advisor” to the president. Even photographs of her with her children are criticized as unrealistic or too posed. And still she smiles with her back straight and head high. Maybe it’s arrogance; maybe it’s more than that. Maybe its how she holds herself up to the maelstrom of expectations in which she stands.
The Ivanka in the museum exhibit is doing something that, chances are excellent, the real Ivanka has never done before: vacuuming. The details of the piece are juxtaposed symbols of different types of womanhood, both the traditional and Ivanka’s in particular. The fake Ivanka represents a homemaker, who is happy and also beautiful and also well dressed in pink business attire and also has perfect hair and also sucks up whatever garbage you throw at her.
Real Ivanka, of course, is far from the typical woman. Her life experience does not echo that of the average wife, mother, or businesswoman. Which is what makes her such an easy subject for the piece, a catalyst for the integration of the onlookers who are as important to the statement of the piece as the Ivanka stand-in is. Are they throwing crumbs at the first daughter they dislike and mock? Are they throwing them at a persona of a woman who has everything and the audacity to be happy about it, who dares to absorb their derision without giving them the satisfaction of a frown? Or are they testing the strength of her womanhood, seeing how long she can continue to suck up whatever is thrown at her with a smile upon her face before she cracks and throws the vacuum cleaner down and starts hurling the detritus back at the crowd?
The fake Ivanka vacuums on; the real Ivanka hasn’t buckled. Like women everywhere who give daily performances of a juggling act, who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, who are too feminine or not feminine enough, who should not be lazy and stay at home but who should also not leave their children to be raised by strangers, and who must stay thin and well made-up but should not be so selfish as to spend too much time at the gym or the salon, who must smile and be pleasant but not fail to show their humility, who must not struggle but must not appear too proud and competent, lest they make others feel bad.
Maybe it’s just an opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of Ivanka Trump vacuuming in stilettos while throwing things at her. Maybe that was the actual intent of the artist, beneath a false front of something deeper. In any case, the point of a performance art piece is to elicit thoughtful discussion. But if we can get past the perception of a simple school yard bullying, I think there is more than meets the eye here.