Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the “Maintenance Art” Pioneer Who Made Art out of New York’s Sanitation System
Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s studio consumes three rooms of New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) office near Wall Street. She is the organization’s official artist-in-residence, a position she created in 1977 with the blessing of Vito A. Turso, now deputy commissioner for public information and community affairs in the department. The offices are almost impossible to traverse, stuffed to the brim with evidence of Ukeles’s socially engaged practice, which spans the past 47 years. Ukeles attributes her interest in the sanitation department to her first brush with motherhood. “My art heroes were all autonomous males,” she says. “That is why I wanted to be an artist, because they were so free. And I didn’t feel so free, I had to keep taking care of the baby. If I create the art, I thought, then I create maintenance as art. And it’s art because I say so, because that is what Western culture does give me the freedom to do. I name necessity art. I name maintenance art.”
A pioneer of her own kind of empowerment, Ukeles approached the female body in terms of labor. Unlike her peers Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, and Valie Export, who used their bodies to create a kind of self-portraiture, Ukeles looked outward to other bodies in society. She focused on drawing attention to the marginalized treatment of caretakers, especially the maintenance workers that tirelessly keep cities running. “Even in the beginning, I always thought about scale: personal, social, planetary,” Ukeles says. “Work doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”
She outlined her artistic point of view in a 1969 manifesto, which served as a statement for her first-ever Maintenance Art performance. The manifesto is on view at her long-anticipated retrospective at the Queens Museum, set to open this month. In the text, she states:
“I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order).
I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, up to now separately I “do” Art.
Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art… MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK.”
This seminal manifesto would encapsulate Ukeles’s work over the next 40-plus years.
At the Queens Museum, visitors can engage with the evolution of her work thanks to the exhibition’s semi-chronological timeline. Each major project is illustrated with Ukeles’s meticulous notebooks and preserved communications, as well as photographs and video documentation. Some works, like Touch Sanitation, are given prominence. A performance piece that began in 1979, it sent the artist all over New York’s five boroughs to shake the hand of every sanitation worker.
Situated between Land Art, endurance-based performance, and conceptualism, Ukeles’s work provides a challenge to exhibition-making, especially when confined to a singular space. To represent Touch Sanitation, for example, the Queens Museum has added lighted paths to the museum’s signature, permanent installation, a vast three-dimensional diorama of New York commissioned by Robert Moses.
In the central gallery, her Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Service Economy (1989–2016) serves as a first glimpse into Ukeles’s holistic vision. In its third iteration, the arch is composed of common materials from 10 different service and infrastructure agencies, including the Post Office and Park Services. The columns are composed of what Ukeles describes as “emblematic materials,” a phrase she borrowed from a fire department captain. “If you want to talk fire,” she says, “look at its hoses and pick-axes,” pointing to a box of the sharp-headed tools. Used work gloves thatch the roof. Each bear a tag from the department they represent, and some of them are signed. Ukeles’s practice demands this kind of inclusion and collaboration. Every person working on her Queens Museum show is cc’d into every email. She fully embraces the bureaucratic systems in which she surrounds herself.
In many ways, Ukeles’s oeuvre feels in line with Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s short, heady essay, “Ironic Ethics,” in which the Italian Marxist theorist expresses his belief in art as offering commentary on the state of the world, as well as a solution. “When the attunement of organism and environment is disturbed by the acceleration of the Infosphere,” he writes, “art registers and signals this dissonance, but at the same time it sets conditions for the creation of new modalities of becoming. In its relationship with schizotherapy, art acts in two different ways: a diagnostics of the pollution of the Psychosphere and as a therapy of the relationship between the organism and the world, particularly the relationship between bodies in the social space.”
Breaking down the barriers between people and the systems that contain them, Ukeles seems not only to have freed herself, but also to have created a method for others to do the same. A concrete example of her influence is the proliferation of artist-in-residence positions in New York service departments. “The fact that we are talking about Western culture’s inability to be holistic is a huge step,” she says. “Having a museum willing to risk it all on one artist is a huge step. I feel very grateful and humbled to see the things that I was thinking about so long ago finally coming to fruition.”