The following feature appears in the September 2016 issue of NYLON.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles started out as an artist in search of freedom, but after the birth of her daughter in 1968, she felt an unavoidable shift in her life. “Being a mother entails an enormous amount of repetitive tasks. I became a maintenance worker. I felt completely abandoned by my culture because it didn’t have a way to incorporate sustaining work. I had no words, no language to deal with it,” she says.
This realization lead Ukeles to write Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!, a statement intended to unite her work as a mother and her work as an artist. “I felt like two separate people,” Ukeles says, “and I wanted to be both.” Now, nearly 50 years later, a survey of her work will be shown at the Queens Museum in New York starting September 18.
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Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980. Citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all fifty-nine New York City Sanitation districts. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Robin Holland.
“The critical thing to understand about being a maintenance worker is that you make a decision that something has value and should be sustained, maintained, kept alive,” says Ukeles of the connection between mothers and maintenance workers. “Once you make that decision, you have to do the work that it takes to keep that person, system, or city going.” Western culture has never celebrated maintenance work in this way; as she points out, “it’s done behind the scenes, downstairs, after hours, unseen.”
Because of her interest in both creating work and how our society receives her work, it is unsurprising that this connection has led Ukeles to the Queens Museum. “Thinking about the city, thinking about our culture, enlarging who has a voice in our culture—that’s what the Queens Museum has become famous for,” says Ukeles, who will be the first artist to have a show occupy the entire building.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Inside, July 23, 1973. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.
“This exhibition involves looking at works that happened 30, 40 years ago, re-envisioning them for our site today and also re-envisioning the ideas behind them for contemporary issues,” explains curator Larissa Harris. Since Ukeles’s work is heavily performance-based, the exhibition presents some difficulties for Harris and her colleagues. “Our very interesting challenge is to try to understand how this material can take shape in three dimensions, on white walls,” she says. “What you’re going to see in the show is fantastic glimpses of the performances themselves, taken by photographers.”
As Ukeles looks back on the last 50 years, she is particularly grateful for those who believed in her along the way. “I have a great appreciation for the people who took a chance on me and made it possible for me to continue doing my work,” she says. She has led the movement in making strides to improve the treatment and appreciation of the artistic values of maintenance and motherhood, with a core message that remains constant: There is always more work that can be done.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980. Citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all fifty-nine New York City Sanitation districts. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Marcia Bricker.