About so-called menial labor, about scrubbing and picking up and about the existential meaning of garbage itself,
For an artist obsessed for nearly half a century with the concepts of maintenance and sanitation, Mierle Laderman Ukeles keeps an office in desperate need of a cleaning. Or maybe an intervention by a department of doctoral students.
“This stuff needs to go into an archive, because it’s getting insane,” she said one August morning, surveying shelves groaning with piles of paper, file boxes, photographs, videotapes, rolls of film and other testaments to one of the more unlikely, and underappreciated, careers in the postwar New York art world.
The office, on Beaver Street in Lower Manhattan, deep within the headquarters of the New York Department of Sanitation — where she has been an unsalaried artist in residence since not long after she proposed the idea to the city agency in 1976 — was the site that morning of feverish preparations for the first comprehensive retrospective of Ms. Ukeles’s work, which has just opened at the Queens Museum.
Such a show has been a long time coming, but Ms. Ukeles, at 77, is nothing if not patient. She understood many years ago, she said, that the highly idiosyncratic art she was making — about so-called menial labor, about scrubbing and picking up and about the existential meaning of garbage itself, pieces that confused many of her peers and unsettled fellow feminists — was not sexy and might never get the recognition it deserved.
“People didn’t understand why I was so interested in one municipal department, especially this one, which really got no respect, especially back then,” she said. “But I felt like it was perfect, conceptually and practically. For me, the Sanitation Department was like the major leagues.”
The road that led there started with the birth of her first child in 1968, a dozen years after she had moved from her hometown, Denver, to New York to make it as an artist. She was stunned to discover (“I was so naïve”) that becoming a mother “instantly made me into a different class of human being.”
“People stopped asking me questions, stopped thinking of me as anything other than a mother,” she said. “I was in a crisis because I had worked years to be an artist, and I didn’t want to be two people. It seemed like I could be an artist only by being two people.” And so she sat down and in a single session typed a cri de coeur — “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!” — that became a touchstone of conceptual and performance art, questioning not only gender and class in the art world but the foundations of the avant-garde itself.
Among its choice lines: “The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” She wrote that she planned to continue doing the things she had to do as a mother and housekeeper, but to “flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.”
And then, in 1976, after she staged a collaborative performance with the help of more than 300 cleaners, maintenance workers and security guards at a downtown Manhattan building, an art critic’s tongue-in-cheek response — that maybe the financially beleaguered Sanitation Department could call its work art and qualify for a National Endowment for the Arts grant — set off a bell in her head.
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She wrote to the department and proposed essentially that very thing. Vito A. Turso, a deputy commissioner at the department, recalled reading the letter and manifesto back then, when he was a young public information officer. “I’d been a newspaper reporter and I’d seen some crazy, single-spaced letters in my time, and I thought: ‘Oh, God, what’s this?’ But then I read it, and she had me at hello. And what she started to do was really magic.” (Patricia C. Phillips, an art historian who organized the retrospective with Larissa Harris, a Queens Museum curator, has called the pairing of artist and agency “an almost unimaginable cultural and municipal affiliation.”)
To earn the respect of the department’s workers and to learn its byzantine system for vanquishing millions of tons of garbage per year, she conducted what became one of the most ambitious performance pieces in the city’s history — “Touch Sanitation Performance” — in which she spent a year visiting each of the department’s districts and shaking the hand of every one of the 8,500 workers who would accept the gesture.
Photos from the performance show her, with her shock of blond hair — it’s now mostly white but still cascades around her head — surrounded by crews of beefy men, each of them looking at her as if she was the first person who ever deigned to give them so much as the time of day.
“I think her main idea — that so much happens in this world because of labor that is not acknowledged — is really powerful,” said Ms. Harris. She added that Ms. Ukeles’s concept of landfills as land art, at a time when men like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer were building immense, essentially masculine land-art pieces in the American West, was “a hilariously beautiful mental leap.” (In a video piece at the retrospective, Ms. Ukeles says of the former Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, once the largest landfill in the world, now being remade into a park that she is helping to shape: “All of us made the social sculpture that is Fresh Kills.”)
As you might expect from someone who has bent a city bureaucracy to her benevolent will for almost 40 years, Ms. Ukeles doesn’t often take no for an answer.
“She’s come through with some ideas that, even if you were a willing partner, stretched the bounds of possibility,” Mr. Turso said. “We’ve had to try to slow her down at times, which isn’t easy.”
She and her husband, Jack, now live in Tel Aviv, to be closer to their three adult children and seven grandchildren there. But Ms. Ukeles is back at her Beaver Street office often enough that workers still greet her in the halls like an old friend. And she still knows the department’s inner mechanisms almost as well as any of the eight commissioners who have run it during her time as its artistic soul.
When I told her that the neighborhood where I live in Brooklyn is part of the Sanitation Department’s pilot program for collecting compostable food waste, she beamed: “And do you know what that means? It means the system is backing up into your house, making you responsible. Which is what should happen — because you’re part of the system!”