Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Mierle Laderman Ukeles

In-Focus: Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is a New York City-based artist known for her feminist and service-oriented artwork, which relates the idea of process in conceptual art to domestic and civic “maintenance”.

Ukeles has held the official position for DSNY for 39 years, though it’s never been paid. Of course, when the department hired her in 1978, the city was on the brink of bankruptcy, and sanitation workers (“sanmen,” for short) were between strikes; the department was not in a position to offer her money. Yet the contradiction of Ukeles’s decades-long, authorized, uncompensated role cuts to the heart of the complications underlying her work.

Ukeles was previously enrolled in Pratt until a certain professor called her work ‘over-sexed’ which resulted in a teacher’s protest during which one professor resigned - she then decided to drop out. However, she later enrolled in an art education program at the University of Denver while continuing to make her own work, imagining a series of inflatable interventions called Air Art. She got married in 1966 and two years later had her first child.

This brought her to a feminist crossroads. Ukeles was a full-time mother, but she was also an artist. Like so many women before and after herself, she struggled to find the time to be both. “I literally was divided in two,” she told Art in America. “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.’”

So she did what any good artist would: she wrote a manifesto.

In 1976, Ukeles scaled up once again. Invited by the students in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program to participate in an exhibition called Art < > World, Ukeles decided to make her contribution a collaboration with 300 maintenance workers in the building where the show would be held. For “I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day,” she spent five weeks in the building, approaching workers, photographing them with a Polaroid camera, and asking them to classify what they were doing at that moment as work or art. As with “Transfer,” she used herself as a conduit, giving the maintenance workers access to an artistic authority that she had outlined in her manifesto: the act of naming. “Everything I say is Art is Art,” she had written in 1969. Now she was passing along that power.

Image courtesy: Medium