Yesterday I finally got over to the Mierle Laderman Ukeles Maintenance Art exhibition at the Queens Museum. It covers almost fifty years of her work, all built upon her breakthrough manifesto of 1969, in which she found & celebrated art in the 'menial' labor of cleaning and saw in it dignity, creativity, & aesthetic & societal value. There should be no boundaries, she felt, between art and the day-to-day routines of manual work, and such work was as important as any other profession. Over the course of her artistic career she has explored "maintenance" in a variety of contexts, including motherhood and office cleaning, and she has collaborated on projects in international settings, but she is best known for her work as artist-in-residence at the New York Sanitation Department.
“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.”
Ukeles' work with the DSNY has taken many forms, from a famous, early performance that involved shaking hands with sanitation workers throughout the city, personally thanking them for their service, to elaborate vehicle ballets, and long-term (ongoing) re-creation at the vast Fresh Kills landfill park. It centers around respect, empowerment & ecological sustainability.
I have something of a sanitation fixation myself - albeit in a minor, not in the least bit creative form. Living near a sanitation garage is a big plus for me, & a trip to the SIMS recycling center in Sunset Park is cause for celebration. I've collected the names of independent garbage contractors with peculiarly obsessive pleasure, & guiltily enjoy seeing the big rig lit-up trucks roaring round the streets at night, even though I know their company track records are often dire. A sanman once tipped me off when I was hunting for discarded Christmas trees in springtime (long story) & I traveled far into Queens to the side of a highway to find a discarded tree. Robin Nagle's Picking Up has a prominent place in my city books collection - a wonderful work! - & I'm disappointed, and irrationally surprised that few people I know share my interest.
The Ukeles show was something of a pilgrimage.