The Institution as a Site of Its Own Critique

The Institution as a Site of Its Own Critique


Christopher D’Archangelo entered the Whitney Museum in January of 1975 with a nine-foot steel chain, three padlocks, a set of keys, and his back emblazoned with the phrase: “When I state that I am an anarchist I must also state that I am not an anarchist to be in keeping with the . . . definition of anarchism. Long live anarchism.”1 D’Archangelo proceeded to remove his shirt to reveal the statement. He then wrapped the chain around his wrists and around the door handles, simultaneously locking himself to the door and the entrance to the museum shut. The keys were placed in an envelope beside him. Security attempted to cut the chain without success, and concerned visitors began to flock around D’Archangelo. The Whitney then took swift action to redirect patrons in and out of a side door and shielded viewers from D’Arcangelo by positioning screens on both sides of the glass door. After a while, D’Archangelo considered his act complete (or perhaps the thirty-degree weather a bit too cold for his bare chest), unlocked himself, and left.

In chaining himself to the entrance door, D’Arcangelo manifested the metaphorical weight of the institution. Symbolically, as D’Arcangelo’s action uncovered, the literal and figurative facade is a manifestation of an institution’s power. In leaving the keys next to him, D’Arcangelo left open the potential for a simple undoing of his action. The grandiosity of the Whitney’s reaction, however, unveiled their hesitation to entertain dialogue or address conflict, as their civil engagement with D’Arcangelo would validate his performance and potentially threaten the supremacy of their institutional standing.

The dialogue surrounding institutional critique has remained fairly insular since its conception in the early 1960s. Perhaps this is because, as Julia Bryan-Wilson writes, overviews of institutional critique, “have the tendency to recycle the generally received notions of important precursors, and thus create a fairly static understanding of the historical forces from which institutional critique was forged.”2 In an attempt to broaden the rhetoric and in order to craft a more polemical understanding of institutional critique I will orient the processes of Christopher D’Arcangelo and Mierle Laderman Ukeles against one another. Both artists use the institution as the site of their critique, but confront it in radically different ways; D’Arcangelo has an anarchic approach, while Ukeles has a socialist feminist approach.

Christopher D’Arcangelo’s father, Allan D’Arcangelo, dabbled in the mid-century pop movement, fostering Christopher’s own relationship to and understanding of art. In supplement with his inherited creativity, D’Arcangelo worked as a gallery assistant and came in to contact with Daniel Buren, the artist that infamously rose after he began posting his signature protest stripe outside Harald Szeemann’s seminal exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form (1969). Because of his foundations, D’Arcangelo knew well the inner workings of the contemporary art world and was familiar with institutional critique as a means of artistic discourse. In his inaugural works, D’Archangelo adopted the bold print type and stencils of his father’s pop proceedings. He fused these pop aesthetics with his learned sensibilities about institutional critique to produce a series of stenciled statements. The last phrase in the series of blunt statements declares that as one is viewing the work, the work itself is being created by the artist. The self-reflexive phrasing gestures at the notion of authorship, echoing Marcel Duchamp’s postulations that the viewer’s participation is fundamental to a work’s realization.3

At the Guggenheim, in 1975, D’Archangelo performed a similar action to his previous stunt at the Whitney. With the same anarchic declaration on his back, he trotted into the museum, stripped off his shirt and shoes, sat down, and handcuffed his wrists as well as his ankles together, leaving the key in an envelope beside him. He flipped onto his stomach and was still. His intentional stillness mimicked how an artwork is bound to an institution without any ability to object to its surroundings: passive within its setting. Patrons soon began to gather around the curved balconies, peering down at D’Arcangelo’s stationary form. Since D’Arcangelo’s performance art consisted of a living body with no formal institutional affiliation, however, his art was approached differently than the Guggenheim’s collection. The police were called and forcefully yanked D’Arcangelo off the ground. His state of confinement caused a flurry of confusion. The police faltered for a moment before they found the key, unlocked him, and escorted him outside. The disorienting arrest was an anticipated situation curated by D’Arcangelo, which demonstrated how purposeless the ritual of public arrest can be. It materialized the link of power between the museum and the state, as D’Arcangelo’s body was shuffled from one institution to the next.

Unlike D’Arcangelo’s solo assault against the institution, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work relies on collaboration to reach materialization. In Ukeles’s Manifesto For Maintenance Art 1969! (1969), she “boldy confirms that maintenance is unglamourous, tedious, hard, and generally (in all scales and contexts) unappreciated and insufficiently remunerated.”4  Despite these displeasing qualities, Ukeles took up an affinity with maintenance, making it an integral part of her artistic process. As a fundamental characteristic of her institutional critiques, Ukeles collaborated with the maintenance staff of museums to help realize her work. She dissected the arbitrary powers and boundaries of museum positions at the Wadsworth Atheneum in her series Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object: Mummy Maintenance: With the Maintenance Man, the Maintenance Artist, and the Museum Conservator (1973). The focal point of Ukeles’s demonstration was a protective glass vitrine that encased a five-thousand-year-old mummy. The maintenance staff of the museum routinely cleaned the glass as they would any other display. Knowing, however, that only curators and titled officials could touch an artwork, Ukeles cleaned the case to create  a ‘dust painting,’ and signified her new work with the marking of an ‘official’ Maintenance Art stamp. Since this process of cleaning christened the glass surface as an artwork, the maintenance staff of the museum were no longer ‘qualified’ to clean it and the conservators became the only officials with the authority to touch the vitrine. Before her transference of power, a conservator wouldn’t have thought twice about performing standard labor. Ukeles’s simple act of sanitary labor interrupted the invisible power dynamics within the museum, illuminating just how arbitrary the notion of qualification and authority can be.

Ukeles further explores the grittier sides of sanitation, sides that normally remain unseen to the general public. She asks the messy questions that are preferably shoved to the periphery of  liberal agendas. Premeditatively, she inquired over the course of her career, “After the revolution who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” forcing those who encounter her work to grapple with their own social complacency.5 To visually manifest her exploration of unseen labor, she created The Social Mirror (1983). The work is a garbage truck. The same type of truck that provokes us to instinctively bury our noses into our sweaters as it clunkers by. Ukeles’s altered model, however, has its exterior gilded with mirror. The reflective surfaces don’t allow pedestrians to escape their personal accountability for the smells, the rot, and the perished. Ukeles forces us to acknowledge our own role as thoughtless consumers as we are reminded that the things we toss out don’t magically vanish into a void. With this realization comes the necessary gratitude toward the invisible laborers who ease our lives by constantly picking up the messes we create.

Ukeles was not alone in her endeavors to blur distinctions between art and labor. In 1970, Robert Morris held a solo show at the Whitney entitled, Robert Morris: Recent Works. The radical components of this show, namely the inclusion of dematerialized construction works, signaled that, “Artists such as Morris were starting to see their activities not only as process but also, polemically, as work.”6 The introduction of labor into the institutional sphere in Ukeles’s practice, however, has feminist undertones as it can be read as a structuralist critique of domestic labor. Ukeles’s “performances demonstrated that the work of maintenance is neither exclusively public nor private; it is the realm of human activities that serves to bind the two. Yet when this bonding is exposed, it disallows the ‘proper’ functioning of the public institution.”7 Western art institutions present themselves as apolitical and sterile, isolated from the power dynamics of the outside world. As Helen Molesworth argues, the institution’s facade begins to dissolve when Ukeles flips the script on them, using the labor practices of the private realm to unlock the labor divisions of public operations. The institution’s reliance on maintenance labor is not necessarily negative; in fact, it allows for a wider dissemination of creative practice. Yet, the institution has to take accountability for how they are reproducing systems that make for inequitable divisions of power in the ways that they evaluate both labor and artistic practice.

Both Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Christopher D’Arcangelo use the museum as a space to stimulate their respective institutional critiques. This is not atypical, for as Andrea Fraser writes, there has been an “institutionalization of institutional critique,” in that there is an interdependency between both the institution and its critique.8 The critique is obsolete in absence of the institution, whereas the institution has indoctrinated a palatable narrative of critique into the Western canon. What is worthy of examination, however, is how Ukeles and D’Arcangelo critique New York institutions in radically different ways. Where D’Archangelo’s institutional critique is explicitly anarchist, Ukeles finds her political home in feminist socialism.  D’Arcangelo illuminates the bureaucratic basis of the institution, as his actions goad museums to respond with systematized reactions. D’Arcangelo’s work is both radical and admirable in the way that he pushed the boundaries of both the institution and the rhetoric of institutional critique. His efforts are a departure from the institution, but he seems to offer no alternative. Ukeles, although critical of institutions’ standard practices, gestures toward the ways in which an institution can grow, adapt, and expand. She dismantled the order of the institution and its power dynamics, proposing a wider circumference of labor relations. In her career as an artist, Ukeles went on to partner with and work for New York’s Department of Sanitation. Ukeles’s movement away from the institution and into public service recontextualized an artist’s social obligations, and unveiled the institution’s failure to cultivate such growth.

As both Ukeles and D’Arcangelo demonstrated in their artistic actions, institutional critique is in the process of becoming. It cannot be concretely defined as it is an active discourse that manifests in different ways, in different settings, and at different times. Although the institution threatens an institutionalization of critique, the conceptual movement has the radical potential to expand, transform, and respond to our current conceptions of it.

  1. Christopher D’Arcangelo, Christopher D’Arcangelo Papers, Archives and Documentation, New York University, Fales Library and Special Collections, MSS 264, Binder A.
  2. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “A Curriculum for Institutional Critique, or the Professionalization of Conceptual Art,” in New Institutionalism, ed. Jonas Ekeberg (Oslo: Office for Contemporary Art Norway, 2014), 92.
  3. As in Duchamp’s Creative Act (1957).
  4. Mierle Ukeles and Patricia C. Phillips, “Making Necessity Art,” in Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art (Munich: DelMonico Books, 2016), 39.
  5. Mierle Ukeles and Lucy L. Lippard, “Never Done,” in Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art (Munich: DelMonico Books, 2016), 17.
  6. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Robert Morris’s Art Strike,”iIn Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 86-87.
  7. Helen Molesworth, “Cleaning up the 1970s: The Work of Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” in Rewriting Conceptual Art (London, UK: Reaktion Books, 1999), 119-120.
  8. Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” in Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artist’s Writings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 409.
Back to Top