How, exactly, does one become an artist-in-residence at a sanitation department? If you want to do it the way Mierle Ukeles did it, first you get expelled from Pratt for making "pornographic" abstract art. Then you have a baby. Then you write a rad manifesto that redefines everyday maintenance work as fine art. Then you make landfills into beautiful public parks! Easy peasy.
For over forty years, Ukeles has been creating works that expand the boundaries of what art means, where art goes and how we interact with public art. Her work utilizes public spaces and materials, often involving waste management; she helped plan Danehy Park, a 50-acre public park in Cambridge, Massachusetts built on a former landfill, and is currently working on a similar project involving the (ominously named) Fresh Kills landfill in New York City. She created a "Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Service Economy," a steel arch cobbled together from scrap metal donated by NYC city agencies. By using public refuse as her base material, Ukeles takes the idea of "found objects" to its limit. Her materials are things that some would not even consider complete objects, as they might be broken or decaying. By taking the mounds of waste that make up a landfill and transforming them into a landscape that serves the public, Ukeles actively creates and takes part in a complex process of maintenance and public service.
And where did this all begin? With a rage-fueled manifesto, of course. In a 2009 interview with Art in America, Ukeles describes how her agency as an artist changed after she had her first child in 1968:
When people would meet me pushing my baby carriage, they didn't have any questions to ask me. They didn't say "How is it, to create life? How can you describe this amazing thing?" There really weren't questions. It was like I was mute, there was no language. This is 1968, there was no valuing of 'maintenance' in Western Culture. The trajectory was: make something new, always move forward. Capitalism is like that. The people who were taking care and keeping the wheels of society turning were mute, and I didn't like it! I felt when I was watching Richard Serra do these very simple things like throwing the lead, or [Donald] Judd building things... lifting industrial processes and forgetting about the whole culture that they come out of. ...They didn't have workers, they didn't have people, they had objects -- or they had results. And I felt that they were falling into the same trap as the rest of this damn culture, which couldn't see the whole structures or cultures of workers that made the kind of work that invented these processes and refined them.
This frustration led her to create Manifesto for Maintenance Art in 1969:
I sat down and I said, "If I am the artist, and if I am the boss of my art, then I name Maintenance Art." And really, it was like a survival strategy .... I literally was divided in two. Half of my week I was the mother, and the other half the artist. But, I thought to myself, "this is ridiculous, I am the one." It is the artist, not art history and not the critics and not anybody -- it is the artist that invents what is art, and that is why it is important to write a manifesto. It wasn't just, "How am I feeling today?" It was saying, "OK folks, we have hit a certain point here, and from now on art has changed. Why? Because I say so."
Many of her earlier works are performance art pieces; in "Washing," Ukeles washed the steps of an art gallery in NYC (photo below). In "Touch Sanitation" (photo above), one of her most famous works, Ukeles met and shook the hand of every sanitation worker in New York City (over 8,500 people!) and thanked each of them for "keeping New York City alive." Ukeles became the NYC Department of Sanitation's artist-in-residence after beginning "Touch Sanitation" in 1977.
Some might suspect Ukeles's work of being condescending or patronizing to the maintenance workers she so often involves in her art. But her thoroughness and relentless attention to detail make me think otherwise. In "I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day" (1976), she took photographs of over 300 maintenance workers at a Manhattan bank and interviewed them about their jobs. The finished exhibit showcased the words of the workers next to their photographs. In "Touch Sanitation," Ukeles did not only meet every sanitation worker—she also talked with them about the pejorative status that went along with their jobs and included their statements in the finished piece. From GreenMuseum.org:
[Ukeles] drew attention to the maintenance of urban ecological systems in general and the use of pejorative language to represent "garbage men" in particular. ...She documented her activities on a map, meticulously recording her conversations with the workers. Ukeles documented the workers' private stories, fears, castigations, and public humiliations in an attempt to change some of the negative vernacular words used in the public sphere of society. In this way, Ukeles used her art as an agent of change to challenge conventional language stereotypes.
Ukeles crosses the boundaries of contemporary artist's social networks to bring an artist's sensibility to an area that we don't normally associate with artists. Especially in large-scale works like the Fresh Kills landfill and "Flow City," a profound redesign of the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station, Ukeles works not only with maintenance workers, but also with sanitation engineers, ecologists and urban planners. The usual notions of collaboration do not apply to her work as they might a more conventional form; she sees the mountains of waste in a landfill as a "social sculpture that we all made," implicating the entire city of New York as her collaborators. And while Ukeles and her team of planners and engineers are the ones doing the actual work of transforming the sites, Ukeles sees places like Denahy Park as an example of "the public's ability to turn things around ... and the power in each of us to transform the world." She does not only credit the public with creating the landfill, but also with creating the life force that helps to completely transform the space after its facelift.
Ukeles breaks down these barriers in the life/art binary by declaring that maintenance work is art, that art can be performed in public and on public spaces without being vandalism, that freedom and work are not mutually exclusive, that the themes of an artwork (transformation) can be inherently present in the artistic process (transforming a space)—in essence, that the art can be representative of itself—and that art is for the community to share and enjoy. Ukeles takes the role of "artist" out of the artistic establishment and changes it into something more like a public servant. "Maintenance is art" means that life is art, and it just needs a little bit of time and the right frame to be recognized.