David Ireland and the Status of Maintenance


David Ireland and the Status of Maintenance

By Elena Harvey Collins March 10, 2016

One enters 500 Capp Street, the recently restored home and environmental artwork of Bay Area artist and teacher David Ireland (1930–2009), through an unmarked side entrance painted the same pale gray as the rest of the house. The first room one encounters is a white-walled exhibition space previously used by Ireland for showing art; before that, it was the workshop of accordion maker Paul Greub, the house’s previous owner. Currently on view are works by Ireland’s longtime friend and fellow artist, Tony Labat.1 A hypnotic video piece shows Ireland’s hands stripping wallpaper; viewing this at the threshold is a reminder of Ireland’s legacy in the Bay Area, and his influence in introducing ideas of labor, performance, documentation, process, and architecture to other artists here.

From this room, one enters a quiet, sensory-deprivation tank of a hallway lit by a solitary, low-wattage light bulb. After the bustling streets of the Mission District, this space feels heavy, like a subterranean, amber-lit grotto. The somberness is punctuated by dumb humor. Affixed to the ceiling here are a series of small concrete forms, sculpted around nails and jammed into the ceiling. They resemble torpedoes, or, as Ireland playfully called them, “turds.” 2

David Ireland House (interior view); downstairs dining room. Courtesy of 500 Capp Street Foundation, 2015. Photo: Henrik Kam.

Senses primed, one ascends the stairs to the parlor. The cracks and imperfections of the walls are highlighted, bathed in the buttery light reflected from drippy layers of polyurethane. Every line or bump creates a timeline, documenting the shift of the earth or human activity. The parlor is filled with useful things made by Ireland. Elegant wire lamps grounded in pragmatic clumps of cement stand on the floor, while a propane-canister chandelier hangs above the fireplace, mounted to the ornate molding. They are household objects, slightly shifted. At night, docents light the chandeliers by setting the canister nozzles to kiss. As the wire-suspended canisters spring back, the light dances about the room before settling to a soft glow.

500 Capp Street reopened after extensive conservation that included the house, an archive (housed in the basement Ireland excavated to a state of precarity), and a climate-controlled gallery space on the site of the old garage.3 The current exhibition, David Ireland’s House, establishes a base experience: minimal staging that adheres closely to photographs taken soon after Ireland finished his “stabilization” in 1978. The exception to this is the dining room, which is maintained as rowdy dinner-party ready, much like it would have been during Ireland’s occupancy. Among the roughly 100 objects on view are key sculptural works that foreground Ireland’s preoccupation with the residue of the house, as well as art as a byproduct of labor such as Broom Collection with Boom (1978–88) (constructed using brooms left by the previous owner), and numerous signature Dumbballs—durational works formed by repeatedly flinging a lump of concrete from hand to hand.

To understand the importance of the house and Ireland’s labor, one must consider the house in the context of its urban ecosystem. Copper Window (c. 1978) is an architectural intervention that links the house to its surroundings and a specific time and place. A cassette player sits atop a small table adjacent to a copper-paned second-floor window. Ireland installed the copper after the window was shattered by a brick, and recorded the missing view in the nasal tone and fast-paced style of a horse-racing commentator or auctioneer. It is affecting to listen to now, in the context of San Francisco’s current housing crisis. Even more so is the present view from the second floor of city workers moving sleepers out of Alioto Park, the small community garden across the street.

Houses bear evidence of lived presence if we live in them long enough. To move through Ireland’s house is to encounter overlapping presences and timelines: tectonic, personal, art historical, neighborhood cycles, human. Ireland regarded his role as one of “maintenance” and “stabilization.” He added to the house, excavating its matter and transforming it into sculpture. He carefully stripped away old wallpaper to reveal the delicate plaster walls beneath. He made repairs to his home.

Maintenance is something everyone does; all those who keep a house have a home practice like Ireland’s that is somewhere between authorship and maintenance. As Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!, “Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.) [...] The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay.”    

When David Ireland performed maintenance on the sidewalk in 1975, his work was contextualized within the framework of an art-historical canon that includes Joseph Beuys, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp; his labor was elevated to the status of art.4 Beuys’s oft-repeated maxim that “every man is an artist” breaks down, once labor or laborer, often the medium of conceptual art, moves outside institutional approval and across gender and color lines. The spaces artists make are important sites of cultural production in the city; they exist within complicated social networks that involve many in their maintenance, whose laborers (women, people of color, non-artists and artists alike) are invisible. 500 Capp Street’s neighborhood, the Mission District, with the highest rate of no-fault evictions in the city, is experiencing a dismantling of those networks.5 How do you maintain during times of uncertainty and eviction? The renewed presence and vigor of 500 Capp Street reminds us of the profound ways in which artists shape cities through their care. If we can collectively recognize that all of our labor and care counts, there’s an opportunity to move from maintenance toward resistance.


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David Ireland’s House is on view at 500 Capp Street, the David Ireland House, in San Francisco, through March 19, 2016.


  1. Labat was hired by Ireland to document his work on the house; he encouraged Labat to see the resulting videos as his own work. As Constance Lewallen notes in her in-depth history of the house and Ireland’s practice, this experience and the subsequent relationship with Ireland was formative. Labat is now chair of the MFA program at SFAI.
  2. As told by one of the artist–docents who guided us through the house. 
  3. Conservation completed by the 500 Capp Street Foundation with ARG Conservation Services and Jensen Architects.
  4. Upon moving into 500 Capp Street, Ireland was ordered to repair the sidewalk, which he did expertly, having great skill as a carpenter and familiarity with working with concrete in his previous work.
  5. “Community Organizing and Resistance in SF’s Mission District,” Sydney Cespedes, Mitchell Crispell, Christina Blackston, Jonathan Plowman, and Edward Graves; case study by the Center for Community Innovation (CCI) at University of California, Berkeley, June 2015.

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