By treating maintenance work as art, Mierle Laderman Ukeles demonstrated how unpaid domestic work such as cleaning and childcare or sanitation work is often invisible to the public eye. By writing the Manifesto for Maintenance Art and creating works and performances that make the hidden work visible, Mierle Laderman Ukeles became an important figure of institutional critique. Her pieces discuss the connections between work, class, and gender, and how society values some essential jobs less than others. Here are 4 examples and an introduction to the maintenance art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her Manifesto for Maintenance Art
Mierle Laderman Ukeles was born in 1939 as the daughter of a Denver rabbi. She received her degree in history and international relations from Barnard College in 1961 and went on to study sculpture and painting at the Pratt Institute. She married in 1966 and had her first child two years later. When she took on the role of mother and wife, Mierle Laderman Ukeles found it difficult to combine her work at home with her work as an artist. She found a solution for this problem in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, through which she transformed tasks of maintenance such as cleaning into art. She wrote the manifesto in October 1969 in a state of mind that she described as a cold fury.
When she wrote the manifesto, Mierle Laderman Ukeles felt that maintenance was not valued enough in Western society. In an interview, she explained how capitalism facilitated an environment in which people were only fascinated with innovation and the creation of new things. This also meant that maintaining the things and structures that already existed, along with the people who were responsible for them, were viewed as less important and seemed almost invisible.
In her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, Laderman Ukeles distinguishes between development, which stands for change, progress, and new creation, and maintenance, which stands for preserving these new creations. She writes: The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?
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The manifesto served as a proposal for an exhibition called CARE. The main idea was to exhibit acts of maintenance as art. In the proposal, Mierle Laderman Ukeles divided the exhibition into three parts: personal, general, and earth maintenance. She presented the first part by stating that she was a woman, an artist, a mother, and a wife. The personal part of the exhibition consisted of Mierle Laderman Ukeles doing the tasks she would normally do in her everyday life, but at the museum while exhibiting these actions as art.
The idea for the second part of the piece consisted of an exhibition of interviews during which people were asked questions concerning maintenance. Additionally, this part included an area where the visitors would be asked the same questions. The interviews of the visitors would be taped and replayed also. The third and last part of the exhibition would focus on the maintenance of natural materials. Laderman Ukeles planned to purify and recycle containers of polluted air and water from the Hudson River.
1. Hartford Wash: Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside and Inside, 1973
Her Manifesto for Maintenance Art led to the first maintenance piece by Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Since the proposal of the manifesto for an exhibition was rejected, Laderman Ukeles sent it to Jack Burnham who published parts of it in the magazine called Artforum. The art critic and curator Lucy Lippard saw the manifesto in the magazine and the maintenance art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles became part of Lippard’s exhibition titled c.7,500. The exhibition traveled to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford and the institution let Laderman Ukeles perform her first public maintenance work.
During the performance, she scrubbed the front steps of the building and the gallery floor. The photos showing Mierle Laderman Ukeles washing the museum’s steps have since become iconic. The artist also performed another piece at the museum called Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object. During this piece, the artist cleaned a glass case with a mummy in it. In another performance titled The Keeping of the Keys, Ukeles locked and unlocked some of the museum’s galleries and offices even though sometimes visitors were still inside the rooms.
The actions in these performances demonstrated that a lot of maintenance work goes on in a museum as well but usually stays unnoticed by visitors. By locking people in or out, washing the steps during visiting hours, and cleaning cases of artifacts, Ukeles made people aware of the extensive work that needs to be done in order to keep art institutions running. The work is an example of art expressing institutional critique, which Mierle Laderman Ukeles is well-known for.
2. Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In, 1973
The work Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In consists of black-and-white photos showing the artist helping her children dress and undress. The artist left the place in the right bottom corner, where the final image was supposed to be, blank. She also added a cleaning rag and a chain next to the images in the exhibition space. The visitors were encouraged to use the rag to clean and therefore maintain the artwork.
Domestic tasks like these are usually performed by women. In an interview, Laderman Ukeles explained how she felt torn between the two roles of mother and artist. With her maintenance art and pieces like Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In she was able to combine those two roles and draw attention to the work that usually stays unnoticed and often unappreciated.
3. I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, 1976
For her work I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, Mierle Laderman Ukeles spent two months working with 300 maintenance workers. She recorded this time through photos and interviews. The 300 people were all working at 55 Water Street in a skyscraper in which a former branch of the Whitney Museum was located. Laderman Ukeles wanted to feature maintenance work in a skyscraper for years because it involved a huge amount of work.
Ukeles invited the workers to see one hour of their working day as art. She worked alongside them during their eight-hour shifts and took photos of them with a Polaroid camera. She then asked them if the photo she took depicted them doing work or making art. She documented their answers and exhibited them along with the pictures. In I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, Laderman Ukeles made the work that maintains the construction, safety, and cleanliness of a skyscraper visible. For many people working in large buildings, the maintenance work of these workers seems invisible. It almost seems as if the building maintains its structure and cleanliness by itself, but there are hundreds of people involved in keeping the skyscraper from deteriorating and Laderman Ukeles captured the extensive work that needs to be done to keep such a skyscraper intact.
4. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Touch Sanitation, 1978–80
Touch Sanitation is one of Mierle’s best-known works. One part of her Touch Sanitation Performance was the Handshake Ritual, during which Laderman Ukeles shook hands with 8500 sanitation workers from the New York Sanitation Department. She also thanked them for keeping New York City alive. The action clearly expressed how essential the work of sanitation workers was. Without their effort, it would be nearly impossible to live in the city.
Another part of the piece called Follow in Your Footsteps consisted of Laderman Ukeles working for the New York Sanitation Department herself. She worked eight-hour days for eleven months, collecting trash with the other sanitation workers. To introduce herself and the Touch Sanitation project to the sanitation workers, Laderman Ukeles wrote a letter in which she expressed her appreciation for the workers and acknowledged the hard conditions under which they often have to operate. She introduced herself as a maintenance artist who works independently of newspapers, unions, and the city.
According to Laderman Ukeles, the invisibility that sanitation workers face is similar to how women’s work at home is disregarded as work. In her letter to the sanitation workers, Laderman Ukeles also wrote that they were like husbands and nurturers to their city. Some second-wave feminists criticized Laderman Ukeles for focusing on such a male-dominated environment. At first, Mierle Laderman Ukeles also received negative reactions from the sanitation workers who did not value her contribution as an artist, but after some time they accepted her as their co-worker.