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The Hardworking Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles Is Here To Clean Up Your Mess

The artist-in-residence for New York’s Strongest makes large-scale works about process, tedium, and survival

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Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, 1973. 12 black and white photographs, 2 text panels, 16 x 20 inches. (Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York / www.feldmangallery.com)

Every morning, the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles takes a bus from her home in Riverdale, N.Y., to the train station in Spuyten Duyvil. There, she takes the Metro North to Grand Central, where she hops on a 4 or 5 subway train to the Bowling Green stop. At 44 Beaver Street, the office for the New York Department of Sanitation, she rides the elevator to the second floor, walks to the end of a bare, fluorescent-lit hallway, and goes into her studio—three adjoining rooms stacked with filing cabinets and tilting piles of paper, grand monuments to process. When I visited her studio recently, I asked her if she’s the kind of person who likes routine, who needs it, and she told me that this was far too loaded a question.

Laderman Ukeles, who said she is “73.5 years old” and has been the artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation since 1977 (and the only artist ever to hold that position), makes work about process, tedium, and survival. She was born and raised in Denver. Her father was the longtime rabbi at the Hebrew Educational Alliance, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on that city’s west side, and her mother was a homemaker. “They were real community builders,” she told me. She came to New York to attend college in 1958 and, aside from a yearlong stint in Philadelphia, hasn’t really left. In her standard uniform of loose-fitting clothes and tennis shoes, she seems like she might break into a jog at any moment. She’s an exuberant talker and has a girlish preference for long hair and pink lipstick. Her work, like herself, is an exercise in endurance.

The large-scale performance and installation projects she prefers can take five to 10 years’ planning—both because they are labor-intensive by design and because they often involve city-government bureaucracy. She’s built a working mikveh at the Jewish Museum of New York and is working with New York City to help convert the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island into a park. Because of her slower pace of production, she can fall into obscurity for half a decade or more at a time. But she’s having a busy summer, with three shows and, this week, a talk at PS1, MoMA’s outpost in Queens. And her performances from the late seventies that explore the exploitation of sanitation workers have struck a chord with younger curators interested, perhaps, in the parallels between the 1970s economy and today’s.

One of her works, which was on display in “Maintenance Required,” a group show held at The Kitchen earlier this summer, is an album of photographs from the 1970s of people (often the artist herself) working: Pregnant Woman Cleaning a Chicken Foot, Changing the Baby, Doing the Laundry. “I did a beautiful job with that laundry,” Laderman Ukeles recalled, as she flipped through the album pages. In another series included in that show, “Keeping Children Healthy,” she shows a pediatrician weighing and attending to one infant after another; in another, she shows a barber giving haircuts. “It’s boring, you’re doing the same thing again and again. How do you stay attentive doing such repetitive tasks?” she said. She has two series of photographs included in “Homebodies,” a group show currently up at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago, one of her washing the stairs outside of a museum in Hartford, Conn. (“Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside”), and the other of her washing the museum floors (“Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Inside”). She’ll also have seven works at the Istanbul Biennial, which opens this fall, all revolving around the theme of cleaning, caretaking, and maintaining. “Most people in the world do repetitive work. What happens to that person when she has a spirit of creativity? Of invention? It brings a certain tension.”

Laderman Ukeles became interested in boredom when she became a mother. “I had become an artist to live a life of freedom,” she said. “I would have run a mile a way to avoid repetitive tasks. I avoided anything, to the extreme that wasn’t ‘my work.’ ” When she and her husband, Jacob Ukeles, had their first child, in 1968, those tasks became impossible to avoid; the hardest work she did each day, far harder than constructing the minimalist inflatable sculptures she was working on at the time, was the host of exhausting tasks necessary for keeping her children clothed and healthy. But this wasn’t considered work in the circle she ran with. “People would be like, ‘Do you do anything?’ I felt myself sliding out from this entitled class. And it was stupid. It pissed me off,” she said. She felt unprepared. “I had not been educated for this,” she said. She had a Master’s degree in art from N.Y.U. and an undergraduate degree in international relations from Barnard. Growing up, she was never sure if housekeeping was something her mother prized or resented. “She didn’t talk about housework, she just did it,” Laderman Ukeles said of her mother. Laderman Ukeles and her husband, by contrast, talked about housework—a lot. They made up a chart of every household task, assigned it a certain number of points, and divided them up equally each day. “We were very rigid, very humorless about it,” she said, with a laugh.

In that same spirit of rigidity, Mierle wrote a manifesto in 1969—“Maintenance Art Manifesto!” “I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc.,” it reads. “Also, up to now separately I ‘do’ Art. Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.” To her, maintenance isn’t about beautification or cleanliness. It’s not superficial, but basic—it’s survival. This is perhaps one of the reasons her work resonates among younger curators, who are, perhaps, more invested in questions surrounding precariousness and labor. The curators who organized the show at The Kitchen all recently completed the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, a yearlong course for emerging artists, curators, and critics. Mierle’s work was also included in a show by Whitney ISP curators in 1976—it was the show that led to her appointment with the Department of Sanitation.

Her piece in that 1976 show was called I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, and it was a collaboration with the 300 or so workers who cleaned and maintained the 3.5-million-square-foot building where the show was held. She asked them each to conceptualize their work as an act of art for one hour each day, and she took photos with a Polaroid camera. (Documentation of that performance will be on display in Istanbul.) When we spoke about it recently, Laderman Ukeles told me about one man, who cleaned the bathroom, who took her by the hand and insisted she take a photo of him cleaning the underside of the toilet—the grimiest part of his job, his Work. In a review of that show, David Bourdon from the Village Voice suggested—sarcastically—that the Department of Sanitation make up for recent budget cuts with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But soon after, she got a call from an assistant commissioner of sanitation: “How would you like to make art with 10,000 people?” the commissioner had asked, just a year after 10,000 city workers had marched on Wall Street and thousands of sanitation workers went on strike to protest mass layoffs in the Ed Koch Administration. “The Department of Sanitation! This was the major league!” Laderman Ukeles recalled thinking. She started right away. It came with studio space, but no stipend.

One of her first and best-known works with the Sanitation Department was a performance called Touch Sanitation. Over the course of 11 months, Laderman Ukeles shook hands with all 8,500 workers and thanked them “for keeping New York City alive”—not clean, she noted, but alive. She followed them on their routes, pantomiming the way they hauled trash from the sidewalk into the truck, studying their movements as one would a dancer’s. She’s insistent that her role, and her intent, have never been to “help” maintenance workers; instead, she sees it as a collaboration. “I know their anger,” she told me, about the indignity they suffer, especially during the 1970s labor disputes. “I have their anger. The feminist movement missed an opportunity to build a coalition between women, who are the ancient maintenance class, and sanitation workers. That would be most people in the whole world. We could really change things,” she told me. She’s an eager student of the Sanitation Department, excited to tell you about the shift to larger garbage trucks in the 1980s, the brilliance of the engineers in Fresh Kills department, and the methods and movements that service workers have mastered to prevent injury.

As we walked through The Kitchen show, Laderman Ukeles, dressed in a black T-shirt and black stretch pants, enthusiastically greeted the security guard on duty. When the artist dropped her water bottle, she ran into the bathroom for paper towels to clean the spill. “It’s just my fate,” she said, as she dried the floor.

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