Cleaners of the World, Dance!

Migrant workers in an irreverent video by Luciana Kaplun, currently on view in Tel Aviv, overturn the established order and momentarily shed the monotony of their work routine.

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
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A cleaner strips down to his thong underwear.
A cleaner strips down to his thong underwear.Credit: Luciana Kaplun
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

Luciana Kaplun’s film “Gilda” opens in the offices of TheMarker. The place is empty, before or after the financial daily’s working hours, the computer screens are turned off, only a cleaning woman, the word “Staff” emblazoned on her shirt and a cloth stuffed into her back pocket, is working at the far end. A cleaner enters a mansion and turns on all the lights at the start of his day’s work. A vacuum cleaner in the elevator of the Center for Contemporary Art is operated by another cleaner against a background of chairs stacked next to a wall in the institution’s offices and exhibition spaces. From there we move to a place in Tel Aviv’s trendy Neve Tzedek section, where a worker in snow-white clothes gently dusts artworks on the wall of the snazzy space.

All these people are migrant laborers at work in concrete, identifiable spaces in 2014 Tel Aviv. Kaplun follows them with her camera; they’re transparent as they go about their jobs in luxurious private homes and in offices empty of their masters. In her film “Gilda,” one of three current exhibits at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, she pursues her interest in foreign workers and their working relationships, with the emphasis on Latina women engaged in domestic settings, cleaners and au pairs. She previously addressed the same subject in her exhibition “Cleaning Services or Light Entertainment” (2011) and in a video work, “Ella.”

The camera moves between the workers in their different locales and we 
advance along with them according to their pace of work. But after a few minutes strange things start to happen. Instead of arranging the office equipment, the cleaner uses it to create a kind of tall sculpture, made of paper clips, staplers, plastic drawers, Scotch tape, telephone receivers, a report on public-sector expenses, and scissors. She takes a selfie and leaves. One of the workers sits down, places his feet on the table and peruses an art catalog. Another sits on the owners’ bed, a pile of laundry next to him, but instead of folding the laundry he puts on a green dress belonging to the woman of the house. Removing cherries from the refrigerator, he replaces them with a fur he tried on.

Pail by her side, squeegee in hand, a cleaning woman dances to the hit song “No me Arrepiento de este Amor,” by the pop singer Gilda, accompanying her in karaoke style. Purple, pink and green club lights come on. On the upper floor of an empty mansion a cleaning man works diligently, polishing windows in a teenager’s room. Suddenly he puts the cleaning utensils aside and descends the marble stairs, his movements taking on vitality, to the sounds of the song “Hotel California” in a Spanish version. He dances down the stairs, his pelvis undulating seductively in a rather awkward imitation of mass-appeal pop and rock stars. Ruffling his hair and disrobing as he proceeds, he finally strips down to tiger-pattern thong underwear, climbs onto the marble workspace in the kitchen and caresses himself.

Each of the workers is immersed in himself and his work, but suddenly abandons it and launches into activity of a different order, consisting of independent, private actions that reveal personality and longings, in a deviation from the assigned tasks. The conventional image of them as functional and transparent, arising from their job alone, is thus exposed and deconstructed.

It’s the universal world of the oppressed. In Kaplun’s film they are not really harmful, but cause embarrassment. They overturn a taken-for-granted, if informal, order regarding the role of the cleaner, the migrant, the lower classes, the “foreign guest” in his workplace, devoid of rights. They possess a great deal more personality, desires, traits, preferences, tastes and style than are called for. They don’t know their place.

The protagonists of “Gilda” – Jorge Giraldo, Ema Lupe Sanchez, Merly Oyola Gonzalez, Aiderson Gonzalez, Tuti – play themselves in a fantasy version of their lives. Kaplun’s art allows them the protective autonomous conditions necessary to experiment in crossing boundaries without being fired and deported. But even as actors, their role is not one of lawbreakers. They breach unwritten imperatives, constituents of labor relations in cleaning work that are not formally laid down but are nonetheless clear. The cleaner must himself be clean, for 
example, be average and not stand out, blend into the fringes of his place of work; he must be discreet, not bother workers senior to him and internalize unerringly the types of contact and activity permitted in his approach to objects and spaces he does not own. These have to be tidied up and cleaned, moved about and organized, but he himself must not use them. And of course he must work nonstop.

More than in the essence of the border-crossing jobs each of them performs, the violation of the unwritten code of trust between them and the home owners and other employers resides in the fact that they are simply not working. This small act of nose-thumbing encapsulates the unraveling of muted conventions, along with the disparity between decency and deviation. Our voyeuristic gaze at what we are not allowed to see – their true working conditions – renders each of their actions horrible and perverse.

We see workers dancing. Singing. Brushing their teeth with their employer’s toothbrush. Fulfilling small fantasies. They act like the heroes of a telenovela, their performance excessively aware of the camera, behaving as though their life is a serial of which a merry episode is now being shot.

These non-citizens, slaves of the global economy, momentarily burst out of their baleful bondage and reveal the world of desires, which are perforce secret, that constitutes their inner being. Kaplun hooks up with the old theme of “the pauper’s hope” and freights it with social tensions. The film can be seen as a semi-documentary reconstruction of the Cinderella myth, the story of the proletarian woman who possesses a false consciousness: Instead of class revolution, she longs for a prince. In Kaplun’s film she is personified – prosaically, realistically and antithetically to the fairy tale – in the bodies, actions and lives of flesh-and-blood people. In a situation of job uncertainty, civil insecurity, working conditions without rights and a daily grind of poverty and dearth, they each perform their own distinctive version of the “one day I’ll spread my wings” storyline.


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