Mierle Laderman Ukeles
American Sculptor, Photographer, and Conceptual Artist
Denver, Colorado, USA
Summary of Mierle Laderman Ukeles
For almost half a century, Mierle Laderman Ukeles has been making art across a range of media and processes to challenge our ideas of work, care, and collaborative art practices. In her early work, Ukeles made abstract, messy, bodily sculptures, but it was her entrance into motherhood that provided a catalyst for her most significant and enduring idea of "maintenance art" and the "maintenance artist". Ukeles understood motherhood and domestic labour as a kind of maintenance work, and wanted to make this work visible by framing it as an art practice. Ukeles has documented her encounters with different kinds of care-workers, including sanitation workers and cleaners, and has also undertaken massive environmental care work, in the case of her current long-term project regenerating a landfill site in New York.
- Ukeles' most important and radical contribution to contemporary art is "maintenance art"; the claim that care work is art because it involves creative; challenging; emotional work, just like making art does.
- As part of the feminist movement of the early 1970s, writers like Sylvia Federici and Selma James started the Wages for Housework movement, which demanded wages for childcare and housework, the work that women were doing without getting paid. Mierle Laderman Ukeles also thought it was essential to recognise the hard work of motherhood, including childcare and domestic tasks, and her art remains some of the most important and compelling documents of these common tasks that are integral to keeping humans alive.
- Ukeles expanded on Marcel Duchamp's idea of the readymade, by stating not only that any found object can become art, but also that found actions, habits, and everyday activities, particularly those performed by women and working class people, can be art too.
- Mierle Laderman Ukeles was one of the first artists to work directly with large municipal organisations such as the New York Department of Sanitation and city planning divisions and she believes collaborations with these organisations allow her to make an art that is more accessible and representative of the spaces where she works.
- Accessibility is also important to Ukeles in her Land art, or Earthworks, pieces, in particular her long-term LANDING (1989-present) project reclaiming a landfill in New York. Ukeles felt that Land art artworks by people like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer were too difficult to get to and experience, and so is working to make Earthworks that are in or near major cities and are as accessible as possible for locals.
Progression of Art
Second Binding is an early sculptural work composed of a mass of wrapped, stuffed, bulbous forms, which are dyed black, red, orange, yellow, and brown to give the appearance of something organic and fleshy.
This work is one of several sculptures that Ukeles made while attending the Pratt Institute. The work caused a lot of controversy at the school, with administration demanding it be removed from the graduate studio as they considered the sculptures "pornography" created by an "oversexed" woman. When Robert Richenberg, her favorite professor, ignored these requests, he was dismissed from his position. Ukeles herself was not expelled as she had feared, however, she was made to feel "extremely unwelcome", which led to her dropping out after one more semester.
Speaking about leaving the school and these early works she says, "I almost fell apart. But I knew I was onto something very important. The work had value because it was my work." She rejected the idea that these visceral abstract works were "pornographic" and considered these "bindings" to be like "energy pods," stuffed to the point of bursting with rags, "like images of energy captured".
Cheesecloth stuffed with rags and newspaper, dye, and aluminium foil on canvas
Maintenance Art Manifesto
The tension she felt between her role as an artist and her role as a mother led Ukeles to write her three-and-a-half page Maintenance Art Manifesto in 1969. The manifesto emphasizes maintenance (domestic, as well as general/public and earth maintenance) as a creative strategy. In the manifesto, she also challenges the domestic role of women, and proclaims herself a "maintenance artist". She explains that the manifesto came about when she "felt like two separate people...the free artist and the mother/maintenance worker.... I was never working so hard in my whole life, trying to keep together the two people I had become. Yet people said to me, when they saw me pushing my baby carriage, 'Do you do anything?'...Then I had an epiphany... I have the freedom to name maintenance as art. I can collide freedom into its supposed opposite and call that art. I name necessity art." She reiterates this view in the manifesto, writing, "I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order). I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I 'do' Art. Now I will simply do these everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art."
One part of the manifesto is a proposal for an exhibition titled Care, a show that "would zero in on pure maintenance, exhibit it as contemporary art." The show would be divided into three sections: personal (with Ukeles performing household chores in an art museum, thereby elevating domestic maintenance to the status of art), general (with Ukeles conducting interviews with members of the public about their relationship to maintenance), and earth (with various sorts of refuse being delivered to the museum, and then "rehabilitated" and "recycled"). The exhibition was never realised, as every institution she proposed it to rejected it. However, the proposal was pivotal in her career, as it laid the groundwork for the themes that would come to define it. The manifesto was one of the first artworks to make the work of the home, and mother, visible and to frame this work as art, and remains one of the most important text-based artworks in feminist and conceptual art histories - where the idea of the work is more important than what it looks like, or even if it was made at all!
The manifesto was published in Artforum in 1971 as part of a Jack Burnham article about the end of the avant-garde. This publication led to a relationship with important feminist curator, Lucy Lippard. Lippard invited Ukeles to be in c. 7,500, an exhibition of female conceptual artists she curated in 1973. The exhibition started at CalArts, and then travelled all over the USA.
Typeprint on paper
Dress to Go Out/Undressing to Go In
Expanding on her Maintenance Art Manifesto, Ukeles began exploring maintenance as art by documenting her labour in the home and as a mother, including everyday, repetitive tasks like cleaning a dirty diaper or dressing her children to leave the house. By elevating domestic tasks to the realm of art, she brought attention to the importance and difficulty of domestic labour and the work of motherhood.
This series of photographs provides a moment-to-moment account of the task of dressing and undressing the artist's children, four-and-a-half year old Yael and two-and-a-half year old Raquel, in shoes, jackets, and scarves. There is a hurried quality to the sequence, which demonstrates the painstaking, repetitive, invisible work of being a mother as well as the intimacy that exists within her family. Art Historian and Cultural Theorist, Andrea List, writes that "the beautiful interplay of bodies touching, intertwining, and moving apart subtly describes the intersubjective knowledge of a mother who is in the act of working out how much of her own presence and support to give to the ever-changing development of her children ."
In this work, Ukeles uses black and white, artistic photography techniques to show us her everyday life as a mother. The careful and creative, but repetitive and exhausting work she does in looking after her children is very similar to the kinds of work that artists do, and these photographs tell us this by using the serious, sombre black and white colors, composition, and display we usually see in galleries and not family photo albums.
95 gelatin silver prints mounted on foam core with chain and dust rag
I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day
In later work, Ukeles extended her practice to encompass maintenance tasks outside of the home, in art institutions and the public sphere more broadly.
This performative work was exhibited as 720 Polaroid photos covering an entire wall. The photographs capture 300 maintenance workers (maids, security guards, and repairmen) at work inside a skyscraper at 55 Water Street in New York's Financial District. Ukeles spent five weeks in the building photographing the workers and asking them to classify what they were doing at that moment as work or art. She asked each worker to devote an hour of every shift to making Maintenance Art (which, by all outward appearances was identical to their customary work) and to wear a pin announcing their participation in her project. In this way, she was offering them some authorship of their own lives and actions, as well as "The Duchampian freedom to rename something, to switch something". Like earlier work, I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day makes visible otherwise hidden and essential labour, which is otherwise rarely respected as important work done by diligent workers.
Building on her work with maintenance workers, Ukeles met with over 8500 employees of the New York Sanitation Department for Touch Sanitation. She shook the hand of each employee, saying, "Thank you for keeping New York City alive". She documented these encounters on a map, and meticulously recorded her conversations with the workers. In exhibitions of the project, she also presented documentation of some of the workers' private stories, in the hope of altering public perception and negative attitudes toward sanitation workers. In order to assist the artist, the sanitation department provided her with a driver and a guide for the entire year.
Ukeles referred to the (at that stage all male) sanitation workers as "the housekeepers of the city" and expressed a desire to shatter misconceptions about the importance, and intelligence of sanitation workers, through making their labour and their stories visible.
This artwork successfully challenged ideas about who is important enough to make art about; what art can be (performance, conversation, stories, transport); and also made possible a new kind of social arts practice, which continues in contemporary art today.
Since 1989, Ukeles has been working on a reclamation project at the 2200-acre site of the Fresh Kills landfill on the borough of Staten Island, New York, which aims to make the site accessible to local people as both an artwork and open space. The landfill was closed in 2001, and the City Planning Department and Municipal Art Society began working with Ukeles and outside designers to envision an end-use design for the site, although this was hindered by the reopening of the landfill in the same year to receive the waste and debris material (including incinerated human remains from at least 300 people) from the World Trade Centre disaster.
Currently in production, Ukeles experiential artwork on the site, LANDING, will comprise of three components, which invite visitors to "land" in this newly public space in different ways: to "perch and float" on the cantilevered footbridge, Overlook, stand on the land itself (Earth Bench) and existing within, or inside the land, in Earth Triangle. The artworks are more like outdoor architectural elements, and can be walked on; sat on, or stood inside of by visitors.
This work has shifted over time, and is a unique project in that it acts out a long-term partnership between an artist and City Planning divisions. Ukeles was critical of other works in the Land Art movement, as many of them are difficult to reach and experience. Landing is an intervention in the earth which is specifically made to be accessible and enjoyable for people living in Staten Island. The city will even provide public transport to get to the rehabilitated site.
Biography of Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Childhood and Education
Ukeles grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighbourhood on the west side of Denver. Her father was a rabbi. She says that growing up in the 1950s was a "really weird time", especially for a woman. She found the culture very constraining, and decided to pursue her post-secondary studies out of state.
Ukeles studied her undergraduate degree in history and international studies at Barnard College in New York City. She later began her artistic training at the Pratt Institute in New York. She says about attending art school in the 1960s, at the height of Pop Art, assemblage, and other artistic developments, "There were many teachers that couldn't handle the change. And a lot of them couldn't handle women." She was told by a sculpture professor at Pratt that women shouldn't be in sculpture.
After dropping out of the Pratt Institute due to feeling unwelcome and limited, Ukeles moved home to Colorado, enrolled in an art education program at the University of Denver, and continued making art, mostly working in fabric sculptures. She then moved on to creating larger inflatable works. Both of these sculptural practices frustrated the artist as they demanded excessive amounts of time and upkeep, or maintenance, and also required a lot of materials.
While Ukeles was working on these sculptural pieces she became a mother. At the time, she felt that her life was "divided in half", between being a mother at home with her children, and being a practicing artist working in her studio while someone else cared for her children. In October 1969, she says she "had an epiphany," wherein she told herself, "You're the boss of your freedom. You're not a copier of Marcel [Duchamp], who can't help you anymore. If you're the boss of your freedom then you have the right to name anything art. Marcel gave me that right. So that's how I turned my maintenance work into maintenance art. That was it. It was a way to keep my life together. I said to myself: I'm an artist. I need to be who I am, and this is who I am."
It was also in 1969 that Ukeles wrote her Maintenance Art Manifesto, in which she proclaims that maintenance tasks (such as domestic chores and childrearing, as well as public/general and earth maintenance) can be performed as creative acts. This pivotal moment laid the groundwork for the focus on maintenance work, including caring for children, families, cities, and the environment, that has defined her career ever since. After Ukeles' Maintenance Art Manifesto was published, feminist curator Lucy Lippard called her up to check if she was actually a real person, and not an invention of the editor. This phone call led to a long friendship between the artist and curator and through exhibiting on shows Lippard curated, Ukeles also formed friendships with other American feminist artists such as Suzanne Lacy and Jenny Holzer.
Ukeles' subsequent performances and exhibitions, including I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, (1976) and Touch Sanitation (1978-1980), critiqued the low cultural status of maintenance work, with maintenance workers usually earning minimum wage (or no wage at all as in the case of housewives).
Since 1977 she has been the unsalaried Artist in Residence at the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY). According to Johanna Fateman, journalist for Artforum International, this collaboration came about after art critic David Bourdon joked that the city's sanitation department should apply for artists' grants to resuscitate its slashed budget in his review of Ukeles's I Make Maintanence Art One Hour Every Day (1976) . The artist then cut out the review and mailed it to DSNY Commissioner Anthony Vaccarello, asking if he might be interested in having an artist in residence at the DSNY. Shortly after, she received a call from his assistant, who asked her: "How would you like to make art with 10,000 people?" To this she responded, "I'll be right over."
The Legacy of Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Ukeles has played an important role in the development of the practice of artist as activist, using artistic ideas and processes to pursue the feminist aim of empowering marginalised people and altering societal attitudes, particularly those considering what is important and proper work under capitalism.
Along with her feminist artist contemporaries, including Judy Chicago (The Dinner Party (1979)), Martha Rosler (Semiotics of the Kitchen (1973-1974)), and Mary Kelly (Postpartum Document (1973-1979)), Ukeles challenged the notion of the independent artist as male. Ukeles' work is important in expanding Performance art to include working with non-artists, as well as challenging the male-dominated Conceptual art movement and practices by expanding the readymade from found object to found event, chore, and hidden act.
Ukeles collaborative work with municipal organisations and other maintenance workers has been hugely influential on artists like Suzanne Lacy's socially engaged or 'participatory' art practices, and it is now common for municipal organizations across the world to invite artists to work with them in residence.