Art, Northern Advocate Column

Window cleaning with Billy Apple

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16 May 2015

With the sun getting lower in the sky I’ve noticed how dirty the windows of our house are. The dust, grime and insect droppings are showing up marvelously, backlit by sunlight. I need to clean them.

Cleaning windows is something I actually quite enjoy. And each time I’m reminded of one of my favourite artworks by the New Zealand artist Billy Apple. 

In the 1970s, Billy Apple ran a gallery in New York that was a cutting-edge space for the emerging conceptual and non-object art movements. Artists like Apple were questioning every preconception about art. They were rebelling against the idea that art was a precious, crafted commodity, bought in galleries and displayed in homes or rarified museum halls. Part of this critique was the idea that art and life might somehow be fused in the creative act of the artist. The implication was that everyone could use their imagination to perform symbolic acts to re-shape and re-present their world. At the time it was an exciting idea. 

One work by Billy Apple involved picking up broken glass from selected streets in New York and displaying the piles on the floor of his gallery. What was the art experience here? Was it in the act of picking up the broken glass, often with the help of neighbourhood kids? Was it the piles of “beautiful” shards displayed in the gallery? Was it the photos recording the action that we can still look at today? Or was it just the idea that the artist had done such a thing? 

So back to cleaning windows. This was an act Apple performed in April, 1973. Wearing a striking yellow skivvy, he was photographed polishing the inside of a window in his gallery. What the hell you might ask. But if you suspend judgement for a moment and think about the act and objects involved metaphorically, there’s something happening here. There’s light, colour and composition for starters.  

For myself, I think about the human desire to beautify and control our lived environment. In this case, to have windows which are clear and spotless. Often though our attempts to beautify or alter the world do not last. The window that Apple cleans will get dirty again. What’s more the glass surface on the other side, storeys up from the New York streets, remains dirty. As an individual we can only change so much about our world, so much is beyond our power to affect. Yet in the face of this, the individual creative act―the artist’s or our own―is still important, defiant even.  

After cleaning the windows of my house I stand back proudly and appreciate their shining clarity. I know, however, that almost immediately the car fumes, the dust and dirt, will start to build up again. There’s a tinge of sadness that comes with fragile beauty. It’s not too much of a leap to think of cleaning windows as a metaphor for our own temporal and fragile existence. It’s with a smile that I recall the mortal artist in his yellow skivvy reaching upwards to clean the very top part of the gallery window―it’s somehow life affirming. 

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