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Art Performance and Conceptual

Mierle Laderman Ukeles

“So this has been my whole professional life! Public art can create permeable membranes between the inside and outside of systems, spaces, and even the souls of citizens. Public artists need more breathing space to experiment and do R&D. They need to be brought in at the very inception of projects, so they can do their first work as a certain kind of thinker.” — Mierle Laderman Ukeles, 2001

Mierle Laderman Ukeles produces environmentally sustainable art. The emergence of words such as green andeco-friendly in our contemporary lexicon is probably due in part to Ukeles’ manifesto on maintenance art in the 1970s. Her recent lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute on May 3, 2010, included a discussion of ideas such as gesture, viewer participation, and intentionality. Ukeles’ lecture established her as not only an artist, but an archaeologist, ethnographer, and excavator of culture.

In her talk, Ukeles drew comparisons between sanitation workers, who occupy a very male-dominated field, and homemakers, who are generally female. This comparison was the beginning of her art practice, which she coined Maintenance Art. It also served as a marker for the evolution of feminist art at large. Ukeles’ Maintenance Art forces the viewer to broaden his or her scope of perception and understanding to a universal spectrum. The artworks Ukeles highlighted during her lecture provided the viewer with an intimate look into how she approached the granular notions of “self” and “other,” extending to the greater symbiotic relationships between the two on a universal scale.

In her work Touch Sanitation (1979-1981), she shook the hands of thousands of sanitation workers and thanked them for their service to New York City. Documenting the workers’ initial animosity, then curiosity, and eventual acceptance of her work, she showed the progression from this particular piece to other more participatory works. Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Service Economy (1988) consists of an archway fashioned from a collection of gloves and steel pillars donated by New York City agencies.

Originally published to Art Practical for Shotgun Reviews May 2010

By Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos (b. 1978) is a Filipina American writer, artist, and educator whose academic and research interests include feminist media histories, critical medical anthropology, race and technology. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco and received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She is a Ph.D. student in Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz as a Eugene V. Cota-Robles fellow. Her work as been exhibited at Ars Electronica, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the GLBT Historical Society.

Her writing appears in art21, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, Ars Technica, Vice Motherboard, and SF MOMA’s Open Space. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” was published in The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture. She is a co-founder of REFRESH, a politically-engaged art and curatorial collective and serves as the program manager for the Processing Foundation.

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