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The Artist Who Made Sanitation Workers Worthy of a Museum

A retrospective of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work argues that maintenance should be valued as art.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, 'Touch Sanitation Performance,' 1979-1980. (Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. (Photo: Robin Holland))

“Maintain” comes from the Latin root “to hold in the hand,” which conveys more tenderness than the word usually connotes. It’s a definition that might resonate with the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who held and shook the hands of all 8,500 sanitation workers employed by New York City between 1979 and 1980.

For 11 months, with the official support of the Department of Sanitation, Ukeles arrived at 6 a.m. daily at a processing facility to devise a cross-town route that put her in contact with as many “san men” as possible. Aboard a DSNY truck, she swept through the city, stopping to shadow workers at garages, landfills, offices, and street corners. Ukeles physically mirrored the work of these laborers, hauling trash and tromping through dumps. And she grasped the palms of each one, saying: “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, ‘Touch Sanitation Performance,’ 1979-1980. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Marcia Bricker.

Touch Sanitation Performance was a personal reenactment and very public celebration of the labor that underpins collective life. It was, and is, Ukeles’s belief that such work warranted greater recognition. “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” she asked in a four-page manifesto on “Maintenance Art,” written after the birth of her first child in 1969. The discord between Ukeles’s life at home and as a sculptor in the New York City art world had spurred her to rethink what art could and should be. Instead of hiding her maternal duties—which she saw as parallel to the work of caring for society at large—or casting them to a separate, less-valued domain, she elevated them as art. Ukeles performed and photographed domestic rituals like dressing her children, scrubbing toilets, and washing stairs, and soon widened her “maintenance” lens to the city scale. Duchamp may have never changed diapers, but he did sign and exhibit a urinal; Ukeles did the same for the hum-drum routines that make society function.

In sculptures, photographs, drawings, diagrams, and letters, the results of Ukeles’s decades-long commitment to “maintenance art” is now on display at the Queens Museum in New York City. In the sprawling, revelatory exhibit, one hall is devoted to the documentation of Touch Sanitation Performance; in another, hangar-sized room, the museum’s Panorama of the City of New York (the world’s largest scale model and a reason for visit all by itself) is dotted by delicate LEDs tracing Ukeles’s hand-shaking tour. Custodians are not often appreciated on a monumental scale, but here, their labor is museum-worthy: One gallery is dominated by I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, a wall-sized quilt of Polaroids that capture 300 maids, security guards, and repairmen at work inside a Financial District skyscraper in 1976.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day,” 1976. (Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts)

At that time, thousands of municipal jobs were being cut as the city hovered near bankruptcy. An art critic reviewing Ukeles’s Polaroid piece in the 1970s joked that perhaps the city’s sanitation department should apply for artists’ grants to resuscitate its slashed budget. Ukeles wrote to the DSNY, inquiring whether a collaboration would be possible, and thus began a remarkable tenure as the agency’s official artist-in-residence, an unlikely position she holds to this day. Other notable works of “maintenance art” completed with the help of the DSNY include garbage trucks bedecked in shiny mirrors and paraded down city avenues, as well as “work ballets,” wherein skillful truck drivers performed elaborate choreographies with their elephantine vehicles. Such spectacles first provoke laughter, and then grip your heart, as they call attention to how infrequently “real” maintenance work attracts attention.

More recently, Ukeles has spent her time imagining how landfills might be better used; her many blueprints and renderings that envision Staten Island’s massive Fresh Kills landfill as a meditative park space are also on display. But her works celebrating the human faces of manual labor are the most moving and resonant at the present moment. Automation is overtaking an increasing number of routine-based occupations in the U.S.; the decades-long evaporation of meaningful “blue collar” jobs, met largely by silence from unaffected Americans, may partially explain the rise of President-elect Donald Trump. When maintenance work is ignored, it may be at society’s peril. When it is celebrated, the results expand our very notions of beauty. Ukeles should be better known, and so should the spirit of her work.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Sanitation Celebrations: Grand Finale of the First NYC Art Parade, Part I: The Social Mirror,” 1983. Created in collaboration with DSNY. (Courtesy of the artist)

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art is on view at the Queens Museum through February 19, 2017.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.