When I first encountered Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ manifesto on maintenance art I was a new student at IDSVA working my way through Art In Theory 1900-2000, or ‘The White Book’ as we affectionately call it, for the first time. I was drowning in a sea of twentieth century art theory, wrestling with the difference between determinative and reflective judgements, mapping Kantian concepts, and pondering the function of art. In truth, the thing I wrestled with the most was a creeping feeling that maybe, just maybe, I was not going to find my tribe in this land of isolated plastic arts. And then a bold manifesto leapt off the pages of the white book, stunning me with its white space and fresh typographic style:
“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 maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.”
What is this fresh idea that living—living with care, engaging with others, cleaning up—is art? Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, Proposal for an Exhibition (CARE) appeared radical in its rearrangement of the function of art and the role of the maker. During last January’s New York residency, first-year students had an opportunity to see Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ first full retrospective at the Queens Museum—an institution-wide exhibit featuring soundscapes, full-length interviews, videos, early sculpture, and wall after wall of photography documenting deep engagement with others and the core concepts of her work.
Ukeles’ manifesto asserts that artistic production happens along two parallel lines of flight: ‘development,’ where individual acts create new work and catalyze change, and ‘maintenance,’ which sustains, preserves, and repeats.
“Maintenance: keep the dust off the pure individual creation; preserve the new; sustain the change; protect progress; defend and prolong the advance; renew the excitement; repeat the flight.”
Best known for her artist in residence role with the New York Department of Sanitation, the Touch Sanitation exhibit occupied an entire gallery with floor to ceiling photography showing Ukeles shaking hands and moving with workers as they hoisted garbage cans up into trucks. Under Ukeles’ gaze, the sanitation worker’s daily movements of undervalued labor became small performances—not of resistance, but of care.
The circling, synchronized bulldozers viewed captured with aerial and ground videography became a carefully choreographed ballet revealing a sensibility for collaboration and delicateness not often thought of in their operators—or in the machines.
Of particular interest to me (an oral historian by training and practice) was a chair next to headphones playing audio of Ukeles’ full-length interviews where the narrator discussed and deconstructed and reconsidered aspects of her daily experience at home with a small child as maintenance art.
Next to this was Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In, a grid of black and white prints featuring her children working to gear up (and gear down) with winter outerwear for a jaunt outside. A rag hangs on the wall, attached by a cord to the framed prints. The piece stretches time, elongating the small moments of the everyday.
“My working will be the work.”
The Queens Museum dedicated a room to the notion of care through an interactive exhibit seeking engagement and contributions from visitors. Birthing Tikkun Olam featured everyday objects and a hand mirror, asking visitors to make a commitment to practice “world repair” through “acts of transfer and exchange.” Sitting at a small desk behind a veil, many IDSVA students took the challenge with a pen and a sheet of seafoam paper. Our working is the work.