Mierle Laderman Ukeles mentions names familiar from the avant garde of the 1960s – Pollock, Duchamp and Rothko – pointing out that that they didn’t change diapers and that when she had a baby daughter she was suddenly in a world of maintenance, involving both mind-bending boredom and the rediscovery of the world as her baby did.
In October 1969 Ukeles wrote her manifesto, and she found her theme: connecting with the world’s maintenance workers, making her art about them and their vital work.
Ukeles explains several projects including the 30-year making of Fresh Kills, a park on Staten Island, New York, constructed on top of 50 years of deposited garbage, where she is organising a million people’s donations of valued objects, hand size, to be documented, archived, and incorporated into the walls and paths encased in glass blocks.
Ukeles met garbage-truck drivers to make a display in a Madison Avenue art parade. She describes holding on to get these drivers to come up with their own ideas because, “it can’t be art if I tell you what to do”- in contrast to Anthony Gormley who used volunteer labour to carry out his instructions for the many terracotta figures made for his Field for the British Isles. She says in that work or in the studio it’s the same process of waiting for the ideas “to rise up, in the vacuum of terror”.
However, it is Ukeles’ 11-month project in the 1970s, when she shook hands with every one of the 8,700 sanitation workers in New York City, thanking each one and rising early to walk all the garbage collection routes with them, that made her famous and which is so relevant now because the worth of all maintenance workers is so apparent in the coronavirus crisis.
Ukeles has earned her place in the contemporary canon of art made from social co-operation. One can argue that she might have been more involved politically in the workers’ union struggle, but it’s certainly worth giving her projects your attention.
YouTube. 14 Feb 2013, 2,558 views – 1 hour 32 minutes.
The book Mierle Laderman Ukeles is by Patricia C Phillips, (2016) with contributions by Tom Finkelpearl, Larissa Harris, Lucy Lippard and Laura Raicovich. The Ceremonial Arch was first made in 1988 – number 4 from her show at Queens Museum, February 2017 – photo Jillian Steinhauer.
Volume 35 no 2 November / December 2020