The Art of Citizenship: Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Queens MuseumNovember 10, 2016
Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art, at the Queens Museum (on view through February 2017), is the first museum survey devoted to the artist. Over the course of her five-decade-long career, most of which was spent as artist-in-residence with the City of New York Department of Sanitation, Ukeles mapped out a practice that seems to place her somewhere between the late-20th-century strategy of institutional critique and the current vogue for social-practice art. The former is one in which the artist carves out, no matter how provisionally, an outsider position from which to shine light on the biases and inequities institutions enact and reproduce. The latter involves a participatory, collaborative, socially engaged immersion into a field, usually undertaken with an activist intent. If neither of these labels seems quite the right fit for Ukeles, it is because she neither considered herself an outsider to the systems she was operating in nor an activist. Instead, her work, and the role of the artist that her work inscribed, makes a powerful argument for the artistic possibilities of citizenship—and the responsibilities, obligations, and collective pleasures that go along with it.
Ukeles’ practice, since the birth of her first child in 1969, has focused on the idea of maintenance—a category of labor rarely recognized as such. This designation refers to the effort not of giving birth but of changing diapers, not of curating the exhibition but of dusting the display cases, not of erecting the building but of clearing its trash. In Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!: Proposal for an Exhibition “CARE”—a sculpture, she terms it, in the form of a text mapping out the trajectory of her work for the next almost half-century—she calls maintenance “the sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” Posing it as the opposite of “development” and its related concepts of individual creation, progress, and change (the values, as it happens, of the avant-garde), Ukeles imagines maintenance as an equally revolutionary act—it “preserve[s] the new; sustain[s] the change; protect[s] progress”—even if it is rarely recognized as such.
Ukeles’ shift from more traditional object-making to maintenance at first involved declaring the day-to-day drudgeries that consumed her postpartum life as a form of art, a position not dissimilar to a number of feminist interventions of the era aligning domestic labor and artwork, such as Martha Rosler’s hysterical Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), Mary Kelly’s Postpartum Document (1973–79), and even Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1979).
She then stepped into the sphere of art institutions with works such as Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object (1973), which drew attention to the perverse fact that museums assign vastly different values to the exact same work. While a maintenance person could dust a mummy case on a day-to-day basis with no fanfare, the moment that Ukeles dusted the same mummy case and stamped it with the notation “Original Maintenance Art,” it became an artwork—meaning that now, the case could only be dusted by a museum conservator after writing a condition report.
Her shift to working with the New York City sanitation department in 1976 was a natural continuation of this progression—from the private realm outward, first to art institutions and then to the city’s service-based infrastructure. But in this move from the “personal is political” to forms of communal life, Ukeles’ feminism became, necessarily, intersectional. Because the invisibility (and consequent devaluation) of maintenance work in America cuts through gender as well as race, immigration status, and class, her art was no longer necessarily focused on women—though it was no less feminist for the fact.
Ukeles’ work with the sanitation department was catalyzed by a David Bourdon review in the Village Voice of her contribution to a Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, Art< — >World, which took place at its satellite space at 55 Water Street, a fifty-three-story office building in the financial district. I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976) involved Ukeles asking the building’s hundreds of workers to declare one hour of each of their shifts as a work of art; as with her own act of declaring her quotidian childcare routine as artwork, or her interventions in museums, the activities themselves didn’t change, only their conceptual value.
In response to this piece, the Voice critic waggishly suggested that the sanitation department, which was being devastated by the city’s financial crisis in 1975–6, declare its own activities art and apply for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ukeles wrote to the commissioner, enclosing a copy of the review—and after some time she became the department’s first official, unsalaried artist-in-residence. (Among the most charming inclusions in the show at the Queens Museum is the correspondence of Norman Steisel, Sanitation Commissioner from 1978 to 1986 and an enthusiastic supporter of Ukeles to his colleagues—the guy clearly had a sense of humor and played the role of straight man with aplomb.)
The fruits of this association are rich: Touch Sanitation Performance (1979–80), in which Ukeles shook the hand of each one of the 8,500 workers in the city’s fifty-nine sanitation districts, saying to each of them, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive”; Sanitation Celebrations (1983), a parade highlighting the ace skills of sanitation truck drivers and barge captains in choreographed “work ballets”; and Touch Sanitation Show (1984), a documentation of Ukeles’ sanitation collaborations that was installed in two sites, the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station (where garbage was loaded onto barges) and Ronald Feldman Gallery, driven by the sanitation workers’ desire to make something beautiful in their lives.
Of her position, Ukeles has written (somewhat cryptically): “I came into Sanitation not as a social worker to [sic] ‘do-gooder,’ nor as a social scientist to study, nor even as some thought as an empathetic or fed-up relative—for I am none of these.” And indeed, the effect of Ukeles’ interventions is not that of a benevolent artist shining a light on the invisible worker, but of her shining a light on her own—and our—act of relegating this work to invisibility. Ukeles’ role is that of citizen surrogate: She acts on behalf of all of us city dwellers whose livelihood depends on such systems functioning smoothly (as anyone who has lived through a garbage strike will attest), taking on our responsibility to preserve, sustain, and protect a system that has been put in place to make possible a public sphere. This act of maintaining the commons was especially poignant (and urgent) in this era of privatization: the bankruptcy of New York City, the Reagan years, the Clinton administration—the beginning of its (perpetual and ongoing) demise.
To put it another way, there is no inside or outside to the positions that Ukeles maps in works like Touch Sanitation Performance—a distinction that institutional critique largely relies upon—because Ukeles refuses to see maintenance as an Other. For her, making visible the work of maintenance isn’t shining light on something separate—it is, on the contrary, a “flushing up into consciousness” as she puts it, an act of desublimation within the collective psyche. In this light, the forms of visibility that her performances construct are purposely doubled. Social Mirror (1983), consisting of mirror-clad garbage trucks, and made in conjunction with Sanitation Celebrations, may have rendered the vehicles (and consequently, the labor of maintenance) hyper-visible on the street, but it did so by reflecting the city, throwing back an image of us, forcing us, quite literally, to see ourselves in this work.