This article was written on 31 Mar 2015, and is filled under Performance.

Clean Image

 This prestigious (prestidigitous) mise en scène behind which memory disappears. – Francis Ponge, Le Savon.

In the middle of West 24th street the gallery-going public, along with any casually glancing passerby, may be surprised to see a display of the gleaming necks and basins of over half a dozen modern sinks. These sinks emerge from what appears to be massive planes of Carrera marble, themselves supported by a staggering array of white cabinets. Knowledge of the history of the neighborhood may leave the passerby less surprised to see a shop-floor display for a large commercial enterprise. After all, since the late 90s, gallery spaces have been bought out by boutiques, and the most expensive finery has presented itself in the architectural context of what is still called fine art.

Approaching this display, however, from the other side of the glass, coming close enough to hear the gurgling of the sink basins, and wondering how and why water continuously flows from tap to drain, this member of the public is invited to look for the traces of a more precise history, going back half a century. This history remains barely visible in the surface of the prestigious mise en scène behind which memory disappears.

How might this scarcely visible trace of the past deliver itself to the eyes of a viewer? This is the task taken up by Maayan Strauss’s work, Seven Sinks, at Andrea Meislin Gallery. This work reflects critically on the staging of generalized commerce and the way the surfaces of its commodities prestidigitously conceal the traces of their making.

Maayan Straus, Seven Sinks, courtesy of Andrea Muslin Gallery

Maayan Straus, Seven Sinks, courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery.

The seven sinks are contemporary models manufactured by Kohler, who donated them to Strauss, in a reversal of the usual dynamic between patron and artist according to which artworks are commissioned by corporations to enhance their public image.[1]

Kohler began to establish their public image the 1890s with the perfection of an enamel coating for tubs that could be mass-produced. Like the addition of nickel to steel in the making of “stainless steel,” this enamel created a surface that was seemingly impervious to the multiple regimes of cleaning that would wear through the surfaces of their competitors. In the middle of the 20th century their current design emerged, made of stainless steel and chrome, made first for industrial applications, then made for the domestic interior.

Before the arrival of the First Global Congress on Detergence (which took place in Paris, in September of 1954), the chemically enhanced cleaners that “attack,” “burn,” “abrade,” “kill,”—or, indeed, “annihilate”—dirt, needed a surface that could stand up to their effectiveness, a base or basin that would allow them to do their incessant work without itself dissolving into nothingness.  The remains of a meal, the residue of the body, stains from the workplace, would all disappear, while—at least according to the fantasy—stainless steel would remain; strong, planar, and unblemished.

As the congress on detergence took place in Paris, the communities surrounding Kohler’s factory outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin continued to reel in the aftermath of one of the momentous conflicts in United States labor history. The strike began on April 5, 1954. Strikebreakers employed by the company would continue to attack strikers for the better part of the decade. The Kohler strike represents the longest labor strike on its scale in American history. The fact that today we can see no public images of this strike in the U.S. shows that the Global Congress on Detergence has succeeded. Our public representations have been cleansed of labor’s traces in the name of fantasy and private consumption. This is not simply—or not only—because commercially sanctioned images distort the events of the past, as was claimed in a pamphlet issued by the strikers in 1955: “If Kohler Co. had made as many misrepresentations about its products as it does about this strike, it couldn’t have stayed in business.”[2] Images in our time are “clean” by virtue of their very form.

Chemical agitation and washing are physical processes of sanitation as well as a psychical phenomenon. Both the physical and the psychical dimensions converge in the process of making the photographic image. Strauss’s work constitutes a critical reflection on this convergence. The composition of Seven Sinks immediately reminds the viewer of the multi-faucet basins in photographic darkrooms. It is in reference to the “spotless” photographic print that emerges from these basins that the viewer can begin to understand the seemingly unrelated photograph of the young man standing before a continuous blue backdrop—known in the parlance of commercial photography as the “sweep.”

Strauss’s work is in dialogue with a strain of photographic work that explores the unexpected relationship between sanitation and representation, which goes as far back as Duchamp’s Fountain, and expands into the currently dominant mode of imaging exemplified in Irving Penn’s photographs for Clinique soaps. More particularly Strauss demands the same level of attention as the lessor known early work of Christopher Williams in which the artist photographed a dishwasher on a photographic sweep with plates and cups in the colors of Fujifilm’s branding: green, red, and white.

Christopher Williams, "FUJI Color" (2000) and "Fachhochschule Aachen..."(2010), Christopher Williams/Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain,

Christopher Williams, “FUJI Color” (2000) and “Fachhochschule Aachen…”(2010), Christopher Williams/Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain,

The detergent that makes this plastic version of “crystal wear” appear clean and desirable and the company responsible for the chemical reaction that makes this “appearance” possible combine: Fuji Crystal Archive.

Maayan Strauss, "Jonthan (Captain)"

Maayan Strauss, “Jonthan (Captain)”

Looking closely at the Strauss print of the young man the viewer can see that his skin is so even and blemish-free that, on some parts of his face, the grain of the photographic paper catching the overhead light and casting microscopic shadows marks the only tonal variations. And while the sinks remind the viewer of the chemical processing of photographs, this blemish-less face reminds the viewer of the electronic imaging that has come to dominate all aspects of contemporary representation. It was in fact with a Phase One digital back affixed to a Mamiya camera that Strauss captured this photograph. Aside from exemplary personal hygiene the skin that we see in this print is at least in part the result of a technology that produces “clean and pristinely sharp images,” to quote a sentence from a recent Phase One advertisement. In the words of one of Phase One’s direct competitor in professional digital imaging, Hasselblad, these cameras can “produce crisp clean images with perfect colours both on location or in the studio.”

The “clean image” inherits the value attributed to flat surfaces exulted in the international conference on cleansers: now every day is a global colloquium held in its honor. Such images are much more effective than enamel and metal alloys at denying the traces of history. Proof of this can be found in a heavily manipulated digital photograph disseminated by Kohler in magazines after Strauss started her work Seven Sinks. In the language of art display, it describes the photograph under its white typeface as the “carefully curated kitchen.” The text is outlined by a white rectangle that evokes the floor plan of a gallery. An intense blurring effect has been applied to every detail of the photograph to isolate it from its surrounding, its scenario of use, and any possible past.

Strauss opposes the “carefully curated kitchen” logic of contemporary imaging in the “counter” that serves as the basis of the sinks described above. While the surface at first appears quite convincingly to be made of a few giant slabs of marble, it is in fact comprised of a massive photographic composite, printed, mounted, and laminated by commercial photo-finishers. The striking effect of this massive photographic surface, cunningly enveloping a three-dimensional surface, reminds one of the renders of kitchen interiors shown in advertisements and interior design magazines.

But by returning the simulation to three-dimensional space Strauss opens up the simulated texture up to reading the traces of its making, and in so doing, Strauss’ work departs from both the rendered image and previous photographic endeavors that explore the “clean image.” Like the lighter veins streaking through the darker sections of marble—which Proust compared to textual narrative as such—this paper marble surface leaves nameable clues from its manufacture. We are able “read” this surface, in the vocabulary of Photoshop. In addition to the exact dapple of light repeating itself several times on the surface, one sees the traces of the “transform,” “warp,” “heal,” and perhaps even the “history brush.”

Of the many conclusions to still be drawn from Seven Sinks, this one is most relevant to the current interpretation: electronic imaging technologies have also taken over the space once occupied by cleaning powders, gels, and mousses. It’s as if detergents and other aggressive chemical cleaning agents always wanted to sublimate themselves into images anyhow. In the words of Roland Barthes, who attended the World Congress on Detergence in person that September in 1954, “the important thing is for the abrasive function of detergents to have masked itself under the delicious image of a substance that is at once profound and airy…”[3]

Seven Sinks asks us to consider the ways in which history may not be concealed “behind” the pristine surface of commerce, but rather “in” it. After considering her work, the viewer may for a time suspect every sparkling surface of masking its own aggression against the past. But if they look carefully, like a photographer inspecting a lens for imperfections that may dull the delicious image, they will see the “cleaning marks.”



[1] It follows from this that, unlike “appropriated” objects that withdraw everyday items from use, the seven Kohler sinks used by Strauss retain their original function. They are presented as exemplars of functionality in fact. Furthermore Kohler could install these sinks in a more conventional setting.

[2] UAW-CIO Local 833. All my life my Daddy’s been on Strike to make my future better: The Kohler Worker’s Story.” ([Indianapolis, Ind.] : UAW-CIO International Union : UAW-CIO Local 833, 1955)

[3] Roland Barthes, Saponides et détergents, Mythologies, p. 38

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