Honoring a dirty job and a beautiful one, too

October 5, 2016

Amy Muldoon recommends an exhibition in New York City that will make you think twice about the actual pillars that a modern city rests on.

"AFTER THE revolution, who will pick up the garbage?"

Is there any more tired attack on the idea of socialism? Scratch beneath the surface of this question, and racial, gender, and class biases abound. Yet without this work, society would drown in its own filth in a flash.

Maintenance Art, the Queens Museum's retrospective exhibition of 40-plus years of work by feminist pioneer Mierle Laderman Ukeles, is a love letter to the labor, skill and, yes, at times beauty that maintaining society both requires and produces.

Ukeles was part of a radical movement of artists in the 1960s and '70s who sought to break art out of the confines of elite museum spaces and to challenge both the assumptions of who deserved art and what deserved to be considered art.

Nearly half a century later, Ukeles' work is still startlingly assertive and fresh. The artist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation for almost 40 years--where she has a permanent office--Ukeles is known as the "patron saint of sanitation" for her work that humanizes the people working daily to make cities livable.

Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles speaks with a sanitation worker in New York City
Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles speaks with a sanitation worker in New York City

Ukeles was moved to highlight what she calls "maintenance work"--what some Marxists call "social reproduction"--when she became a mother and saw her standing as an artist drop. Writing for the exhibit, she explained, "I learned that Jackson [Pollock], Marcel [Duchamp] and Mark [Rothko] didn't change diapers; I fell out of their picture...I didn't want to be two separate people--the maintenance worker and the free artist--living in one body."

In her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! she declared: "I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, persevering, etc. Also (up to now separately) I 'do' Art. Now I will simply do these everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art."

Putting her money where her mouth was, Ukeles performed maintenance in the spaces where feminist shows were happening: washing a sidewalk, scrubbing steps, raking leaves.

HER MOST ambitious performance piece--perhaps one of the most ambitious pieces in all of art history--came in 1979 with Touch Sanitation: Over 11 months, she shook hands with every one of the Department of Sanitation's 8,500 employees, saying to each "Thank you for keeping New York City alive."

To show the enormous scope of this project, the Queens Museum has modified its permanent exhibit Panorama of the City of New York--a 3-D scale model of all five boroughs created for the 1964/1965 World's Fair--to include a network of lights showing her path around the city.

By making physical contact with each employee, Ukeles sought to break down the barrier between "dirty" sanitation workers and "clean" residents, who in reality are the source of mountains of waste.

The Museum has layered the Panorama display with sound recordings of interviews that Ukeles made with sanitation workers, as well as the everyday noise of trucks, barges and machinery used in the sanitation system. The effect is both haunting and familiar and dispels the usual sterile atmosphere of viewing art in a gallery.

The Museum has also arranged for weekend showings of a piece called The Social Mirror. The center of this piece is a retired 1983 garbage truck covered in huge mirrors. The truck drives a circuit around Flushing Meadow's Unisphere--another holdover from the World's Fair--several times a day, and images of the parks architecture and greenery melt the frame of the truck, turning it into a playful, glittering kaleidoscope.

Originally produced as part of a parade, the truck reflects the images of onlookers back at them, again breaking down the separation between the system and those it serves.

It also reinforces Ukeles' commitment to see art as an interaction in and with the broadest public--during The Social Mirror's maiden voyage, kids playing under the Unisphere chased the truck as it traveled around, a reaction not many easel painters can claim to receive.

The other standout piece is the enormous Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Service Economy.

Each of the six supporting columns is constructed out of repurposed materials from the city's fire, police, public transit and roads department. These literal pillars, representing the figurative pillars of a modern city, are crowned by thousands of used work gloves, labeled by their former owners and tagged with each one's job. The gloves, with their softened, organic shapes that are so obviously the result of human labor, and the stylized recycled columns are an unexpectedly moving combination.

Ukeles' work communicates that no matter how large or complex the system, people make it work.

The show comes at an important time as "feminism" has come back into vogue, though a wide variety of meanings are attached to it. Ukeles' work shows the breadth and the potentially revolutionary content of the term.

Her work stands out among feminist artists not for being "better" or "more important," but for extrapolating from her personal experience of social reproduction--how it is hidden and taken for granted--to comment on the whole working of society.

It is noteworthy that a feminist has delved so deeply into an occupation that is dominated by men, yet is looked down upon by society at large. She has done so becaue Ukeles sees its continuity with "women's work" at home.

Ukeles' art is direct, unpretentious, humble, and, at times, playful and funny. Unfortunately, it is also entirely relevant since the questions she first tackled in 1969 are still with us today. If you live in New York or visit the city, make time to go to this exhibition and become familiar with a dedicated public servant of social justice.

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