In 1969, Colorado-born artist, feminist, and new mother Mierle Laderman Ukeles committed to paper a body of text titled “Maintenance Art: Proposal for an Exhibition.” This artist’s manifesto embodied her reaction to the chores of motherhood and the nature of work and material in creating art and going about daily life. “Maintenance is a drag,” she writes. “It takes all the [expletive] time. The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom. The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay.” Four decades later, Ukeles is still examining the relationship between waste and humanity’s curious inclination to want it and its handlers to remain at a comfortable distance.
On Monday, May 10, Ukeles speaks at Santa Fe Art Institute’s Tipton Hall as part of Elemental: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, the institute’s ongoing series of presentations by visiting artists and scholars. For almost 30 years, Ukeles has served as the official artist in residence — an unpaid position — for New York City’s Department of Sanitation, where she oversees the construction of public projects that bring everyday citizens closer to the waste they generate. Frustrated and inspired by the view of the public that sanitation and maintenance workers are lower-class citizens, Ukeles creates work in both grand and intimate scales while representing garbage and unwanted material, such as snow, as things that should sit higher on the list of what defines us.
In I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976), Ukeles “embedded” herself for two months with 300 New York sanitation workers, cleaning floors in a Lower Manhattan office building. She photographed the workers while toiling alongside them and asked them to frame their daily labor in terms of both work and art; she later exhibited their narratives alongside their pictures at
Mierle Laderman Ukeles: RE-SPECT, 1993, performance work on the Quai de la Navigation, Givors, France; this image and image on facing page courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York/ www.feldmangallery.com Below, rendering of the proposed park at Fresh Kills Landfill; courtesy Field Operations and the New York City Department of Sanitation