A well-known figure in New York City’s Department of Sanitation as its 36-year-long artist-in-residence, Mierle Laderman Ukeles started her artistic journey at the Pratt Institute and went on to publish a feminist manifesto, Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969!, where she first coined the term ‘maintenance art’.
Part of what drove Ukeles to write the manifesto was her experience with motherhood, having had her first child in 1968. During this time, she encountered the public’s inability to accept her as both an artist and a mother; instead she was labeled as one thing over the other. After challenging this assumption that women couldn’t have complex identities, she also started to explore the labor associated with the household, and then eventually the manual labor performed by sanitation workers in the city.
Over the course of her professional career, Ukeles has consistently focused on bringing to light the work of maintenance workers in the city in an effort to challenge society’s perceptions of their trades. Now at age 77, Ukeles still takes an active role in bridging the gap between city dwellers and their municipalities.
The exhibition at Queens Museum showcases her substantial body of work dating back to the 70s, including a mirrored garbage truck titled The Social Mirror, and photographs and documents from Touch Sanitation, a performance art piece where she shook hands with an impressive 8,500 sanitation workers in the city’s five boroughs. There are also two introductory pieces included in this installation – Ten Sweeps Light Path, which involves a series of moving lights, and a reimagined Trax for Trux and Barges II, which was originally performed in 1984.