Maintenance Art - Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Queens Museum in New York

Issue no2
April - May 2020
Fluïde monumenten

It took Mierle Laderman Ukeles almost an entire year to shake the hands of the 8,500 sanitation workers in NYC and thank them for their job. This exhibition in Queens is the first attempt to bring together the whole body of her work, from 1969 up to today.

‘Here, at the beginning of the new season

before the new leaves burgeon,

[…] they burn trash on the embankment, laying

barer than ever our sad, civilized refuse. 1 coffee can

without a lid…’

In 1958 American poet Paul Blackburn wrote Meditation on the BMT, a paean to the remains of everyday, to the rubbish we leave behind without thinking about the fact that someone has to pick it up after us. By paying attention to details of the present, Blackburn mastered his journalistic art by writing poetry, observing the surrounding world through a voile made of words. We see a similar care and attitude applied by New York-based artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles to daily labour and maintenance, unveiling the artistry of what is normally unseen and underestimated. ‘My working will be my work’, wrote Ukeles in her Manifesto of Maintenance Art, 1969!, and she has continued to work according to this premise for 47 years.

That makes it even harder to believe that her exhibition Maintenance Art, which opened this September at the Queens Museum in New York, is the first individual retrospective of her oeuvre in a major institution in the USA (her last solo show took place at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York in 1998). Nevertheless, despite her recent shows at the Arnolfini in Bristol and the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia (both curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen), this exhibition is the first attempt to bring together the whole body of Ukeles’ work, from 1969 up to today.

On my way to the museum, on a very rainy day, an elderly homeless man pointed to an overfilled garbage bin and screamed: ‘It is all because you all do not pay enough taxes!’ The people who were walking by were indifferent; his existence was invisible in the same way as municipal workers are. They both merge with the urban fabric and organically become an integral part of it. I thought about this incident reading one of the letters of Ukeles displayed in the exhibition: ‘DEAR SANMAN, nobody understands enough about what you do, how tough it is to work day after day on a job like this, about how hard it can be in lousy weather.’ More than thirty years ago, she committed almost an entire year (1979 – 1980) to shaking the hands of 8,500 sanitation workers and thanking each one of them for their job. Touch Sanitation Performance became her signature, and up to this day she has been the only artist in residence in the history of the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Born in 1939 in Colorado as the daughter of a rabbi, Ukeles is one of very few artists, who make daily labour ascend into the heights of art, turning maintenance into a form of artistic expression, and the restiveness of ordinary day-to-day tasks into creative performance. Like an alchemist, Ukeles turns ordinary things into gold. But what would become of magic when it is placed within the realms of ‘white walls’?

Maintenance Art (curated by Larissa Harris and Patricia C. Phillips) inhabits almost the entire building of the Queens Museum and displays an impressive number of Ukeles’ projects. From her early feministic paintings, through the first significant Manifesto for Maintenance Art in the spirit of Fluxus, and her most recognizable works, like Work Ballets or the already mentioned Touch Sanitation, up to her most recent ecological and public art proposals. The amount of it alone is overwhelming. In each of the chronologically and thematically designed rooms, the viewer can follow the course and development of Ukeles’ primarily performance-based practice.

The museum walls are filled with countless photographs, videos and other historical records. In one of the rooms, I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Everyday (1976) - containing 720 Polaroid photographs the artists took of three hundred maintenance items of a bank in Manhattan - is hung beside the photographs documenting the process of making them. Another room is entirely covered with the evidences from her Maintenance Art performances. The central one leads to the restored Ceremonial Arch, which is dedicated to texts and images on Ukeles’ proposal and research for Fresh Kills (commissioned in 1989); the Staten Island landfill that will become a park three times the size of Central Park. Even the installation Peace Table placed in the middle is a reconstruction of the original that was showed at MOCA in Los Angeles (1997), and thus becomes a documentation of itself. In this environment there is no space left for intimacy. The show – more didactic than seducing - resembles a catalogue of art works. Walking from one room to another, the visitor passes through subsequent chapters and subsections, full of material to be assimilated; it is almost an encyclopaedic display that does not leave much space for interpretation and reflection.

Nevertheless, saying that ‘less is more’ would be out of place. This kind of action-based practice is always hard to exhibit within a gallery, and such a significant artist as Mierle Laderman Ukeles deserves to have a retrospective show in a major institution. Maintenance Art takes the viewer on a long trip that meanders through Ukeles’ practice, but like every trip, it is astonishing and exhausting at the same time.

SLIDESHOW - CLICK ON IMAGE Mierle Laderman Ukules, Queens Museum, courtesy the museum, photo Hai Zhang

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Maintenance Art, Queens Museum, New York, 18.09.2016 t/m 19.02.2017

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2020