Mierle Laderman Ukeles unveiled a new artwork honoring New York City’s service workers.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles's For ⟶ forever..., 2020. Photo by Ian Douglas.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles unveiled a new artwork in honor of New York City’s service workers. The 15-second video piece For ⟶ forever... (2020), which was commissioned by the Queens Museum, Times Square Arts, and MTA Arts & Design, is currently on display on subway screens, Times Square billboards, and the Queens Museum facade. The video features a handwritten message of thanks to the city’s MTA and sanitation workers bookended by color frames featuring two shades which Ukeles described as “Emergency Red/Orange” and “Fluorescent Safety Green.” These colors traditionally signal danger and safety and are also associated with the city’s various service departments.
Ukeles described the impetus for the project in a statement:
The city is ongoing because its infrastructure works: the systems that must work, keep working no matter what, or we cannot stay here. The systems are its people. This is what we are asking these people to do. To keep coming back, no matter if it is dangerous. Now the work itself has always been dangerous. Sanitation, transportation, big amounts, tonnages, big equipment, speed, accidents. Now in the pandemic, we’re asking the workers to keep coming back into this new kind of danger. To me, all there is to say right now is Thank you. Thank you that you keep coming back and for putting your life out there for others, for all of us, to keep this city going.
For ⟶ forever... is the latest work by Ukeles to honor New York City’s underappreciated municipal workers. In 1979, while working as an unsalaried artist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation, she set out to shake hands with every one of the city’s 8,500 sanitation workers in a piece of performance dubbed Touch Sanitation (1979–80). During that performance, Ukeles thanked the workers for “keeping NYC alive,” a phrase that has been resurected now populates billboards and screens across the city.
“I wanted to make a human mapping of the entire maintenance underbelly of NYC,” Ukeles said of Touch Sanitation. “It was about the whole person’s capability and the meaningfulness of what they were doing.”
Interest in Ukeles’s work has seen a significant uptick in recent years. According to Artsy data, there have been as many inquiries for Ukeles’s work thus far in 2020 as there were in all of 2019.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Ukeles’s last name. The text has been updated to reflect this change.