Ukeles has found more and more layers to this work over the years. Certainly, it isn't just political. In her office at the sanitation department, she's taped a xeroxed news photo to a filing cabinet: "Cleansing the Soul." Masses of Hindu pilgrims wade into the holy rivers at Allahabad, India. She points out the people in the photo who've reached out as if to embrace the river. This one joyful and relaxed. That one tense. Both ecstatic. "That's what I've been searching for all these years. You make a place; it'll have huge emotion, but allows room for difference." The photo inspires her as she works on a public art piece for Schuylkill River Park in Pennsylvania. The Schuylkill is extremely polluted. "I'm trying to build an artwork that incorporates moving with joy towards the river. Is there any way to become transformed?"
Sanitation, she points out, is not the same as garbage. Sanitation creates order out of chaos, and in that way it's artlike.
photo: Susan Egan
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the sanitation department's unpaid artist-in-residence
"I consciously put myself in a position to deal with some of the hardest issues in our society: What to do with our garbage, how might we transform a place that's completely poisoned and degraded by our own waste, how might these places become available to us again? Placing myself in the sanitation department, where these questions never go away, is a way for me to keep myself in the real. If our dreams can be expressed in material form, then I want to place myself where the material is completely degraded. I want to deal with the landfill. That's the center of reality; that's where I try to locate my work."
Penetration and Transparency: Morphed and the rest of the Fresh Kills exhibit is open at Snug Harbor through May 27.