Mierle Laderman Ukeles 'Maintenance/Survival/and its Relation to Freedom' YouTube. 14 Feb 2013, 2,558 views - 1 hour 32 minutes.
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Professor of Art and Design at Harvard University, who introduces this talk, asks if an artist by working with people can de-alienate the worker whose plight was explained by Marx.
Twelve minutes in Ukeles appears, the screen goes blank disconcertingly but then she is back, an impressive, calm, assured speaker with a wealth of experience and plenty to say.
Useless mentions names familiar from the avant garde of the 60's - Pollock, Duchamp and Rothko, pointing out that that they didn't change diapers and that when she had a baby daughter she was suddenly in a world of maintenance, of both mind bending boredom but also rediscovering the world as her baby did.
In October 1969 Ukeles wrote her Manifesto, unfortunately shown on slides too fuzzy to read, and she found her theme of connecting with the world's maintenance workers and making her art about them and their vital work.
|Ceremonial Arch 4-1988,93,94 and 2016 Queens Museum photo Jillian Steinhauer|
Ukeles explains several projects including the 30 year making of 'Fresh Kills' a park on Statton Island, New York, constructed on top of fifty years deposited garbage, where she is organising that a million people donate valued objects, hand size, to be documented, archived, and incorporated into the walls and paths encased in glass blocks.
She tells her audience about working with snow truck drivers in Japan to make a mechanised ballet based on Romeo and Juliet.
She also met garbage truck drivers to make a display in a Madison Avenue art parade. She describes holding on to get these drivers to come up with their own ideas because, 'it can't be art if I tell you what to do'- in great contrast to Anthony Gormley who used volunteer labour to carry out his instructions for the many terracotta figures made for his 'field for the British Isles'.
She says in that work or in the studio it's the same process of waiting for the ideas 'to rise up, in the vacuum of terror'.
However it is Ukeles 11 month project in the 70's when she shook hands with every one of the 8,700 sanitation workers in New York City, thanking each one and rising early to walk all the garbage collection routes with them that made her famous and which is so relevant now because the worth of all maintenance workers is so apparent in the Coronavirus crisis.
|Book by Patricia C Phillips, 2016|
Ukeles has earned her place in the contemporary canon of art made from social cooperation.
One can argue that she might have been more involved politically in the workers' union struggle but it's certainly worth giving her projects your attention.
In her Manifesto Ukeles said anything was art if she said it was - and I believe her.