In 1969, when Mierle Laderman Ukeles (pronounced MER-yl LAY-der-man YOU-ka-lees) gave birth to her first child, her life changed forever. But not in the way it does for most women learning how to juggle nursing and diaper-changing. This new mother, a classically trained painter and sculptor, became an artist in an entirely fresh genre of her own invention: maintenance art.
Mierle Ukeles stands next to her "Social Mirror" (1983) at the New York Armory Show.
In a four-page manifesto she wrote back then explaining the term, Ukeles outlined a proposal for an exhibition that would convey the connection between personal survival, the survival of society, and what people can do, individually and collectively, to promote the survival of the planet. She would agree, she told The Jewish Standard, that she was an environmentalist long before the term became fashionable, equating birth, delivery, and the care of an infant with the loving care required to maintain the earth for future generations.
At the same time, Ukeles’ feminist sensibilities, cultivated during her coming-of-age in the 1950s and ’60s she graduated with a degree in international relations from Barnard College in 1961 and went to Tanzania with a Kennedy administration delegation before enrolling in a graduate program in fine art at New York University sensitized her to the underdog status of maintenance work, as reflected in the endless chores mothers are expected to perform to care for others and to keep a household running smoothly. "Women are stuck in that role and though their work is not seen publicly, it is valuable," Ukeles observed.
From then on, she made it her mission to enshrine maintenance work by declaring it art "It’s art because I say it is, because I am an artist" and thrust it into the public spotlight where maintenance workers could get the recognition she believed they deserve.
Throughout the past four decades, during which time she had two more children and achieved acclaim as a feminist, environmentalist, and performance and installation artist, Ukeles has swept streets, decorated garbage trucks, and, over 11 months, shaken 8,500 hands to personally thank the entire corps of New York City’s Sanitation Department for "keeping New York City alive," engaging in a variety of other unusual projects to communicate this potent message.
"Our culture has an inability to perceive and appreciate maintenance as something that is part of culture and not outside of it," she said. "I’m trying to bring these work processes out in public and perform them as a cultural act."
For example, she said, she has gotten down on museum floors to wash them, as patrons mill about. Workers typically perform these jobs after hours, once people have left, and are thus unaware of the workers’ contribution to their enjoyment of the experience. "Survival work," as she called it, "is necessary, and culture must be stretched to incorporate it."
Her most recent exhibit, in February, was at The Armory Show, where her 1′-ton mirrored garbage truck, "Social Mirror," was the hit of this large contemporary art fair in New York City.
In 1977, Ukeles was appointed the first unpaid artist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation in recognition of her advocacy of blue-collar workers. As part of a year-and-a-half-long research project to learn what becomes of her garbage once it leaves her Bronx home, Ukeles discovered the terrible self-esteem suffered by sanitation workers. They asked her, "’Do you know why people hate us? They think we’re their mothers who have to pick up after them,’" she said, observing that "they were reflecting the same sense of having to do work for other people, having others dependent on them, but feeling unseen and unappreciated as I felt in my personal life."
Another of Ukeles’ pet projects has been the creation of what she has called "unburnings," talks on peace-making that began in 1997 with her installation at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in the wake of the city’s riots, triggered by the beating of Rodney King. She’s also been involved in redevelopment of landfills into public parkland, including those underway at Fresh Kills on Staten Island and Ayalon Park on the site of the former Hiriya Landfill near Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
Ukeles, who grew up in Denver as the daughter of a rabbi, has been the subject of more than a thousand articles, catalogues, and books and has lectured widely at museums, universities, Jewish institutions, and art schools. She is represented by the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery in New York.
Ukeles will be sharing images of her work and her artistic vision on Monday at 8:30 p.m. at Cong. Beth Sholom at the second annual lecture of the Alfred and Rose Buchman Endowment for Fine Arts. The program, sponsored by the synagogue’s adult education committee, is open to the community.