On the act of sweeping
This post juxtaposes two pieces of writing.
On the left is a piece of pedagogical narration (also referred to as pedagogical or educational documentation), a practice inspired by the work of educational institutions in Reggio Emilia (Italy), denoting a process of rendering visible early childhood education experiences. Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2013), as well as Pacini-Ketchabaw and co-authors (2015) put forward pedagogical narration as a practice of mobilizing educators’ curriculum documentation for critical reflection, central to the processes of meaning-making and political discourses embedded in education.
On the right are excerpts (Mingwei, 2015-ongoing; Wan, 2018) describing Our Labyrinth, a participatory performance envisioned by artist by Lee Mingwei and performed by invited dances in the Tate Modern’s grand hall.
By placing the description of the performance and the pedagogical documentation side-by-side, I wish to consider how an everyday act of sweeping can capture and slow us down by only its physical presence in a landscape, and how we might consider this labour of maintenance as a ritual of care.
Time outside begins with the educator taking a few toys from the storage room hidden behind two large metal doors. She steps inside and emerges with a few larger shovels and bright plastic sand toys: little scoops and rakes, buckets, cars, a sifter and a lone orange traffic cone. As children move in, out and through the oversized sand area, gaining and losing interest in various toys, the sand clings to their shoes and bodies, and spills onto the concrete. The educator returns to the storage room to retrieve a corn broom. As she sweeps the sand back into the confines of the sandbox, she is approached by several children who wish to take over sweeping.
One child insists she hands the broom over, while another attempts to push the sand back with a snow shovel. Unsuccessful, she asks for the broom again and eventually negotiates its possession.
She steps onto the sand and drags the broom through it, leaving wide strokes. The bristles catch and get struck. The handle is heavy. The girl struggles to get control over the broom. Failing, she drops it in the sand.
It’s my turn to reach for the broom. As I do, I see Tamara nearby. She is eyeing me curiously, and I ask if she might want to help me. She agrees, and I am thankful, now able to balance my phone and notebook, as the broom passes into her hands.
She sweeps the sand spilled at the very edges of the sandbox first. Getting more comfortable with the large broom, she ventures further away. Tamara sweeps dry leaves that have gathered around the door to the centre. She then moves towards the small courtyard adjacent to the sand area, where mounds of sand, pebbles, rocks and dry leaves are huddled into the crevices of corrugated concrete walls.
Placing the bristles tightly against the wall and the concrete surface of the courtyard, she pushes her body tightly against the handle, seeks purchase for her feet and drags the broom. A trail of damp sand and debris leaves a grayish-brown swish on the concrete. Intrigued by the shape, she repeats the movement again, the snaking sand stretching further towards the sandbox. She creates another, shorter one, along the first. Tamara counts as more lines are created: “One, two, three four, five, six, seven…”
Tamara sets the broom down and points to the notebook in my hand. Earlier this morning we’d sketched boulders dotting this playground. Now, pointing to her creation on the concrete floor, she proposes: “I’m going to draw them”. I quickly add a few lines indicating the edges of the sandbox, the post of a shade-sail and edge of the building. Sharing the pen, Tamara begins to add sand lines as she counts out loud. Reaching 18, she tells me “We can make some more tomorrow or in the afternoon”.
As shapes fill the bottom of the page, she reaches down to pinch a few grains of sand and add those to the page, repeating the sweeping motion until they are embedded into the notebook’s spine.
From Lee Mingwei’s website:
My visit to Myanmar was the seed for Our Labyrinth, inspired both by the gesture of removing one’s shoes before entering any temple, pagoda or mosque, and by the pristine space created for visitors by volunteers who constantly swept the sacred grounds. For this project, I will first ask exhibition visitors to remove their shoes, thereby enhancing the sensations produced by walking. Second, as visitors walk among the projects, a dancer will sweep a mixture of rice, other grains and seeds through the space, along a labyrinthine path of their choosing. This dancer may encounter obstacles along the way, but will navigate these silently and mindfully.
This project is a gift from the performers to the visitors, the providing of a ‘pure’ space, both physically and spiritually, as they explore the sacred space created by the projects.
Each day a ritual is enacted in which a paper ‘wall’ that surrounds the mound of rice is carefully removed and placed in a dedicated area for safekeeping. The dancers operate on a rota of shifts, bowing to each other before passing on the broom.
The rice can be placed directly on the floor of the space or on a large dance mat of a shape that might be likened to a pool of ink. This emphasises the associations with writing, since the broom can be seen as a substitute for a calligraphic brush.
The performance takes place constantly over a period of around twenty-one days, to suggest the commitment with which temple sweepers apply themselves to the task; the act of sweeping is intended as a gift from the performers to the visitors and an exploration of the relationship between spirituality and architectural space.
Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. R. (2013). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care : languages of evaluation. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Mingwei, L. (2015-ongoing). Our Labyrinth. Artist’s website. Online: https://www.leemingwei.com
Pacini-Ketchabaw, V., Nxumalo, F., Kocher, L., Elliot, E., & Sanchez, A. (2015). Journeys: reconceptualizing early childhood practices through pedagogical narration. North York, ON: University of Toronto Press.
Wan, K. (2018, June). Our Labyrinth. Tate Modern. Online: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/mingwei-our-labyrinth-t15700
All other sketches and photographs by Tatiana Zakharova-Goodman