“Everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art.” When artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote these words in 1969, she was a wife and a new mother wrestling her many roles in order to find the balance between them. Back then she was spending more time in her home than in her studio, doing the chores that needed to be done: washing dishes, sweeping floors, making meals, changing diapers, and dressing her children, among other Sisyphean tasks. Ukeles believed that these labors, though unpaid and unglamorous, were not in truth menial, but rather vital and necessary for her family to thrive.
Whether marriage or motherhood or art practice, all of it was her life’s work, so why fracture her sense of self, or rank her productions (artistic and otherwise) within a cultural system that renders invisible some of its most essential labors? As she forcefully determined in her landmark text MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969!: “MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK.” And so it was, and has been, for Ukeles’s unparalleled five-decade career.
An outstanding survey at the Queens Museum — a first for the artist, and long deserved — immerses viewers in her radical practice of Maintenance Art, which proposes that care and maintenance are imperative to the cultural momentum, and to the health and vigor of the world at large. As such, these often unseen efforts should be brought to the fore, celebrated and practiced as sacred art forms. (It follows that art too is a kind of maintenance work — a way of sustaining life.) In an era (and a city) that feels crushed by a market hell-bent on selling and circulating as much stuff as possible, Ukeles’s art resounds now perhaps more than ever, pointing to the possibilities of how a creator might elevate and reinvigorate her or his own industry.
The exhibition takes us through the evolution of her practice, its sculptures, installations, performances, and actions partly captured in writings, photographs, and videos. From early works such as Maintenance Art Tasks 1973, an intimate family album–style collection of images documenting the monotonous duties of motherhood (“a mother’s work is never done,” as the saying goes), to public installations such as Re-Entry (1987, on view only in photographs), for which she lined the passageways of what is now MoMA P.S.1 with twenty tons of recyclable refuse, Ukeles expanded her practice over time, from her home to public spaces and institutions, and finally to the city at large.
In 1977, she began a lifelong partnership with the New York Department of Sanitation, becoming its first and only artist-in-residence (an unpaid position, even forty years later). Her role there was (and is) far from incidental or decorative; it was balm. In 1975, President Gerald Ford had denied New York City’s formal request for federal assistance to avoid its impending bankruptcy. Union strikes and general protests followed in the wake of massive fiscal cutbacks. When the sanitation budget was inevitably reduced, outraged New Yorkers responded to the lack of pickups by throwing their trash into the streets.
From 1979 to 1980, Ukeles carried out her terrifically moving Touch Sanitation Performance, for which she shook the hand and thanked every one of the city’s 8,500 sanitation workers for their service. As part of this action, the artist also talked with the “sanmen,” expressing her disgust at their deplorable working conditions. When asked on video for their thoughts about the job, the men didn’t gripe about the garbage. What stunk to them was the way they were treated by the people after whom they picked up: no expressions of gratitude when the job is done, only complaints when something goes wrong. “We’re human too. We have homes. We have children,” one worker said in a moment that appears, through Ukeles’s lens, as an act of Maintenance Art, connecting life, labor, and love.
One of the more recent sites for Ukeles’s Maintenance projects has been the 2,200 acres of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, which since 2001 has been undergoing a slow transformation into a public space that will be larger than Central Park. Looking at the artist’s numerous studies and proposals for Fresh Kills, consider how macho by comparison are Robert Smithson’s earthworks — an artist imitating nature to shape its elements into artworks — while Ukeles has chosen to support and preserve what was here long before any of us. A favorite image from the show: four garbage trucks (in the video document of City Machine Dance, 1985) performing a ballet Ukeles had choreographed for them. The vehicles move with surprising grace, dancing for the artist when the rest of us would have just preferred they pass us by.
‘Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art’
New York City Building
Flushing Meadows–Corona Park
Through February 19