Capitalism, Democracy and Garbage: The Dirty Mind of Mierle Laderman Ukeles

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[“The Social Mirror,” by Mierle Laderman Ukeles]

I was walking with my dog through Prospect Park this morning and was disgusted by the amount of trash. A lot of folks spent the holiday barbequing in the park so some extra garbage is to be expected. That doesn’t bother me. Litterbugs and dumpers are a far worse problem. These are Brooklyn litterbugs so anything from the relatively benign—a chewed on chicken wing—to the hazardous—I once almost stuck my big toe into a used syringe—is a possibility. People also dump larger items. You name it and it’s probably been dumped in Prospect Park.

But we all create garbage and Americans, as the world’s greatest consumers, produce more than any other people on the planet. So I reuse and recycle and try to reduce the volume of what I throw out. Some mornings when I’m heading to work and see the garbage trucks lumbering down the street I wonder, “How does the planet have room for all this crap we throw away?” That’s about as deep as my thinking goes.

Others view garbage in more complex ways, as a motif of their art and a metaphor for capitalism or democracy or the cycle of life. I usually have little patience for performance art or overly theoretical artistes but when I viewed a documentary on the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles I was intrigued. A feminist and environmentalist in the best sense of both words, Ukeles exhibited a strong connection with unrecognized “women’s” work from her start in the 1960s and went on to embrace unorganized workers and trade unionists, a stance uncommon among many other post-modern performance and conceptual artists.

Ukeles is the daughter of Orthodox rabbi, Manuel Laderman. The National Foundation for Jewish Culture describes a number of recurring themes in Ukeles’ work associated with transformative rituals tied ecologically to four natural elements:

Fire (“Unburning Freedom Hall” at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art); water (“Evapotranspiration for Hiriya” at the Tel Aviv Museum; “Mikva: Place of Kissing Waters;” “Mikva Dreams” and “Immerse Again: the Inception of the Universal Jewish Immersion Project,” Franklin Furnace, Heresies, and the Jewish Museum of New York; “Water Ritual Place for the Schuylkill River”); earth: (“Kiss the Holy Earth” and “Earth Transfer: Maintain the Ties that Bind” at the Israel Museum); and, finally, the element of talking/dialogue (“Peacetalks at the Hearth”, L.A. MOCA; proposed 600 foot long table for the top of Hiriya).

Robert C. Morgan wrote an excellent introduction to Ukeles’ oeuvre in High Performance Magazine. Here is an long excerpt.

In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote a manifesto entitled “Maintenance Art—Proposal for an Exhibition,” which challenged the delegation of housework to women. In this seminal document of feminist art, Ukeles was attempting to demystify the image of the “housewife” as someone locked into an irretrievable system of dependency. Being pregnant at the time with her first child, she was feeling biological and psychological changes within her body, as well as confronting social and political changes within the society, which were in turn affecting her attitudes about art. In deciding to become a “maintenance artist”—and by announcing her intentions through the manifesto—Ukeles wanted to reinterpret the conventional housewife stereotypes, not in imagistic terms, but through a systemic style of creative action.

Initially, Ukeles acknowledged the tasks of maintenance as a liberating idea, a context for her art that she identified as a feminist position. As this position extended from the household system to that of public sanitation, the artist performed in museums and office buildings and eventually in the streets of New York City. In I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976), Ukeles shifted her emphasis from the personal or individual scale to that of a large-scale system. For two months, she worked as part of a sanitation bureaucracy, cleaning floors and elevators in a lower-Manhattan office building along with 300 janitors and “cleaning women” during regular shifts.

Her recent large-scale performance, Touch Sanitation, completed June 1980, involved more than 8,500 workers in the New York City Department of Sanitation. The performance itself lasted for a duration of eleven months. Her intention was “to face and shake hands” with each one of the 8,500 sanitation workers while saying the words: “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”

While not oblivious to the biases that various news media held against the Department, Ukeles believed that most of these negative feelings were the result of irrational fears people had about garbage. As a performance artist, she wanted to emphasize the basically human side of the operation, that the activity of picking up trash was essentially no different than the disposing of it; the process was, in fact, one cycle. By shaking hands with a sanitation worker, or “san-man,” she was demystifying another stereotype.

There is a necessary task to be done and a necessary separation to be made between the task and those who perform it. Maintenance is a shared concern; there is both a private and public aspect to the work cycle. Waste products are not created by “garbage men,” but by individuals who designate leftovers as trash. “Are we to assume,” Ukeles has stated, “that those who dispose of trash—being all of us—are the ‘garbage people’?”

Ukeles’ performance of Touch Sanitation was primarily an attempt to exorcise the stereotypes affiliated with employees in the New York City Department of Sanitation. The notion that one who handles garbage works at the lower echelon of society was the stereotype Ukeles saw revealed time and again. Such a notion is possibly in evidence when a culture has not yet vanquished its puritanical work-ethic as a criterion for godliness. Garbage could be considered a metaphor as much as illness is. Thus, in advocating “the human part of the system,” Mierle Laderman Ukeles has further extended the notion that feminism and maintenance are intertwined; to overcome the stereotype remains a challenge. She has further advocated that maintenance is the “underbelly system” of urban life and culture—a work-a-day system that keeps people alive and things functioning, whether on a public or domestic level.

[continue reading]

You can watch the Annenberg video here. You’ll need to register but it’s quick, painless, and free. There is some footage of her multi-media Flow City in the video. It was located at the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station on 59th and 12th Avenue in Manhattan but it may be closed as of this writing.

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