Important Art by Mierle Laderman Ukeles
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".
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.
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.