Who picks up the garbage after the revolution? On maintenance as art

A Queens Museum retrospective of Mierle Laderman Ukeles looks at how the artist made daily chores into art


In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles was frustrated. The new mother, whose time was increasingly taken over by childcare and housework, felt she had lost the freedom to make her art. Realising that her artistic “uncles” Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and her “grandfather” Marcel Duchamp “never changed diapers,” she authored her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! “My working will be the work,” she wrote. Through the force of re-naming, and then doing, she would convert the repetitive, thankless labor of housework into art—or "Maintenance Art," as she called it.

Ukeles (who is now the subject of a retrospective at the Queens Museum) outlined two interdependent systems of labour in her manifesto. The first, “Development,” is characterized by individual creation, progress and freedom; it is the work of the avant-garde in its purest sense. The second system is “Maintenance,” which cares for the new, cleans up after the old and preserves individual creation. One cannot exist without the other, as she noted in the manifesto: "The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?"

It was a prescient question. Since the late 1970s, Ukeles has been the official (but unpaid) artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation, partnering with workers and city officials to transform routine waste maintenance into an art practice. Her first work as resident, Maintaining NYC in Crisis: What Keeps NYC Alive? (1976), was a gesture of goodwill. In it, Ukeles shook the hands of every sanitation worker in the city—8,500 who worked across 59 districts—and thanked them for "keeping New York City alive." The work brought compassion to workers at a time when the department was undergoing tremendous financial difficulties and morale was low. At the Queens Museum, videos and photographs documenting this performance resonate with warmth and appreciation on both sides of the collaboration. It was the first of many works with the sanitation department, which have since included raucous and joyous “work ballets” choreographed with sanitation equipment, and a “ceremonial sweep” resembling a quirky line dance with brooms, performed by Ukeles, sanitation workers, and city officials as the grand finale of the 1983 New York City Arts Parade.

Ukeles’s collaborative style ensures that her critique resonates beyond the art world. In I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976), she worked with 300 employees who cleaned, repaired and guarded the Uris Building, a corporate office building that housed the Whitney Museum of American Art, to give them the opportunity to redefine their labour as art. After circulating letters addressed “Dear Friend Worker,” she asked them to consider one hour of their eight-hour shifts as “art.” With their participation, she photographed them carrying out their responsibilities and marked each photograph according to whether the worker said it was taken during their hour of “art” or regular work. These images form a beautiful constellation across a large wall in the Queens exhibition. Yet Ukeles's letters to guards and cleaners proposing this collaboration, and the documentation of the two exhibition openings she hosted (for daytime and nighttime workers), speaks most clearly to the respect and appreciation that underlies this work.

What resonates most in Ukeles's art is how she makes domestic work a problem for the public. For Dressing to go out/undressing to go in (1973), Ukeles photographed the thankless process of preparing her children to go out into the cold, only for them to return home minutes later. The portfolio is set in a family-style photo album with a rag attached by a chain for its own cleaning. This work insists on the ubiquity of maintenance, and in doing so, creates an important bridge between feminism and labour. Ukeles makes this connection semantically, too. By calling her work “maintenance,” rather than housework, she opens feminist concern for the value and visibility of forms of labour performed beyond the home and by people of diverse genders and professions.

While the galleries at the Queens Museum of her early work brilliantly emphasise her feminism, the real strength of this exhibition is that it places her work in the avant-garde tradition of re-naming and re-defining art. Ukeles's Maintenance Art builds upon Duchamp’s declaration that the readymade was a work of art—a point Ukeles expressly recognises. Indeed, the exhibition includes documentation of her performance Now You Have Heirs / Airs, M. Duchamp (1973), in which she tied a string to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (home to Duchamp’s Large Glass and other important works) and connected it to the Moore College of Art (where her maintenance art was on display), only to cut the string just after the connection was made. This elevation of undervalued labour to the status of art questions the values that govern not only art, but also life, to which Ukeles remains tied through her work. No longer the “sourball of every revolution,” maintenance becomes, in Ukeles’ remarkable redefinition of art, a revolution carried out by the same people who pick up the trash on Monday morning, after the revolution is over.

Jane Cavalier is The Modern Women’s Fund 12-Month Intern at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. She received a Masters in the History of Art from The Courtauld Institute in July 2016 and was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Research Scholar in Berlin

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art, Queens Museum, New York, until 19 February 2017