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.