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Reinventing Maintenance with Artist Mierle Ukeles

December 14, 2006

In the 1960s as a cultivated young woman early in her art career Mierle Laderman Ukeles learned an important lesson in cultural disconnection. Once she became pregnant and then a mother she found herself ignored in the art world and treated with less respect in the larger community. In response, she capitalized on her mundane experiences to reinvent her cultural role; ever since she has created meaningful events and relationships in places where art and culture had been loathe to tread. Maintenance, meaning the entire range of service work, is her keyword and where she chose to create cultural connections. At the time her performances and other work may have seemed a footnote, but not so in retrospect. And what she continues to pursue is very much in keeping with the urgencies of our times and our environment. Next year marks Ukeles’ 30th anniversary as (unpaid) artist in residence in the Department of Sanitation for the City of New York. But it doesn’t stop there; she and her art are known and seen across the country and around the world. In 1969, with Marcel Duchamp as her model, she wrote her Maintenance Manifesto in which she declared that her chores as housewife and mother were her art. In a stunning 1973 performance, mostly unnoticed at the time but now a classic, she washed the floor of the Hartford Art Museum during regular public visiting hours, surrounded by sculpture and painting, as well as its entrance way (Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Inside and Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside). After all, as an artist, the museum was her home away from home. To it she brought her performance art inside and outside—whether as wife and mother or as maintenance worker, ignored as service workers usually are. Later, in Touch Sanitation, a performance beginning in 1978 and spanning 11 months, Ukeles followed the New York pick-up routes through every borough, day and night, to shake the hand of each of the system’s 8500 sanitation workers and say, “Thank you for keeping New York alive.” Her three-part 1983 Sanitation Celebrations consisted of covering the sides of a garbage truck with a tempered glass mirror so passersby could catch their reflection and perhaps empathize with the service workers on their rounds (The Social Mirror). The two other works speak to the extent of her reach: Ballet Mechanique for Six Mechanical Sweepers is described as “a five movement Futurist Ballet choreographed” with six sweeper drivers; and Ceremonial Sweep brings management, including the sanitation commissioner and the entire Executive Committee, out to sweep 42 blocks of a parade route. Anticipating my question about the effect of her work, she said that conditions for sanitation employees have improved, that they are no longer faced with broken hand-me-down furniture from the police and fire departments in their stations, and, most importantly, they feel they are treated with more respect. “Sanitation is the beginning of culture,” Ukeles insists. “And the people who are serving are inside the culture,” though they may be treated as outsiders. Ukeles is quick to point out that she has not been alone in her efforts to improve their work environment. “There is a cultural layer to all processes,” Ukeles commented, remarking on an artist’s or a scholar’s ability to influence various fields such as design and engineering. Recently Sanitation has hired an anthropologist, adding another cultural perspective to the operations of the waste collection service sector. There could have been no more apt choice than Ukeles as “Percent for Art Artist” for the massive Fresh Kills Park. This is the transformation still in planning of the infamous 2200-acre landfill in Staten Island, closed since 2002 after over 50 years as dumping ground for New York’s garbage. Nearly three times the size of Central Park, and frequently called history’s largest landfill, for Ukeles Fresh Kills and its surrounds is a microcosm of “who we are, as a culture, nation, civilization” as she commented. To the west of the site, across Arthur Kills, is the “Garden State” of New Jersey, its shores bulging with oil tanks. To the east across Richmond Avenue, running parallel to one of four huge garbage mounds of Fresh Kills, is the massive Staten Island Mall. Northeast of the landfill is a wildlife conservancy and southwest is the Isle of Meadows, a 100-acre nesting ground for herons; the rest of the area is residential. It is a dramatic synthesis of our consumer culture: built and dependent on fossil fuel, overwhelmed with disposable goods, indoctrinated with built-in-obsolescence, where nature is an afterthought and our garbage and its often toxic afterlife forgotten. In several of her Fresh Kills Park proposals, Ukeles envisions incorporating the history and memory of the landfill into the site’s transformation. While closed for this process, the site’s perimeter will feature her Berm Overlooks to allow visitors to observe the changing landscape. As portions of the site open, the berms will become stairways, ramps and other means of access into the healing land. Another proposal, Public Offerings: Made By All, Redeemed By All, is huge and ambitious. As an antidote to transgressions against the environment—“All of us made the social sculpture that is Fresh Kills,” she reminds us in its description—she invites one million “Donor Citizens” to “create or select something of personal value as public offerings.” In contrast to devalued waste, these items will be bar-coded, recorded, inventoried, encased in glass, and maintained—to be visited and examined by other citizens over time. In a earlier statement, Ukeles formulated her strange and poignant vision for our future: The design of garbage should become the great public design of our age. I am talking about the whole picture: recycling facilities, transfer stations, trucks, landfills, receptacles, water treatment plants, and rivers. They will be giant clocks and thermometers of our age that tell the time and health of the air, the earth, and the water. They will be utterly ambitious—our public cathedrals. For if we are to survive, they will be our symbols of survival. (Sculpting with the Environment, ed. Baile Oakes, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1995)