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Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Washing (1974)

Monday, November 7, 2016 14:31
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excerpt from Not Just Garbage, 1990

On the occasion of MIERLE LADERMAN UKELES‘s retrospective at the Queens Museum in New York, here is an excerpt from the documentary Not Just Garbage (1990) in which the American artist is explaining her performance Washing (1974). Her action consisted of scrubbing the sidewalk of the AIR Gallery in SoHo.

MIERLE LADERMAN UKELES is best known for her performances in which she is taking on the tasks of cleaner or maintenance worker. The core of her work is actually a text entitled Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! that she wrote after the birth of her first child.

I worked for years to become a free artist. Then in 1968, we were blessed to have a child. We fell madly in love with her. I became a maintenance worker, not only to do the work necessary to keep her alive but to do the work to help her thrive! I learned that Jackson, Marcel and Mark didn’t change diapers; I fell out of their picture. Also, my Air Art in atable works that were to be free- ying symbols of freedom, leaked! I fell into a crisis. I didn’t want to be two separate people—the maintenance worker and the free artist—living in one body. In October, 1969, an epiphany! If I am the boss of my boundless freedom, then I call necessity art. I name Maintenance – Art. In a quiet rage, in one sitting, I wrote the Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969! From the beginning, I name three levels of Maintenance as Art: Personal; Society/the City; the Planet. With limited resources from our nite planet, how do we do this? How do we survive? I got new eyes. I looked out in this new world and saw that most people were working to get along, to survive. They had to. At that time, there was no language, no culture, no recognition, and very little honor for service work and service workers: those at home and those who work outside. So I set out to make this visible, i.e. to make a revolution with everyone in the picture. After making maintenance art myself and with one or two workers, then 300 maintenance workers, I got a call from the Sanitation Department: ‘How would you like to make art with 10,000 NYC sanitation workers?’ ‘I’ll be right over,’ I said. I entered maintenance heaven at the time of the maintenance hell of the NYC scal crisis of the 1970’s: the housekeepers of the city-as-home. I have been very lucky to have of cials and workers and the art world willing to open all the doors, to take a risk and say ‘Yes. Yes!’ Welcome to the results. — MIERLE LADERMAN UKELES, 2016 (from the press release of the Queens Museum)

MIERLE LADERMAN UKELES: Maintenance Art is on view at Queens Museum, New York until February 19, 2017. A review of this exhibition is available in french via

Please note also that the manifesto is online here .


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