Wednesday, February 17, 2010

M is for Maintenance

Today at The Department of Homeland Inspiration, Art Ranger pays tribute to another little known American Artist named Mierle Laderman Ukeles. We were well into our third decade before ever hearing of her work and still don't know how to pronounce her name.  In 1969, she wrote a very gutsy essay: “Manifesto for Maintenance Art”. It was not only a manifesto, but an art exhibition plan in which she coaxed viewers to look directly at our culture’s waste system, our feelings about labor, about the maintenance and preservation of life and the roles of women in this process. The show included audio-taped interviews with fifty different sorts of worker occupations: librarian, sanitation man, mail man etc... asking them questions such as: What is the relationship between maintenance and freedom?

Here are a few fragments culled from her Manifesto:

Two basic systems:  Development and Maintenance.  The sourball  
   of every revolution:  after the revolution, who’s going  
   to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?

Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.)
  The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom.
  The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = 
  minimum wages, housewives = no pay.

Clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor,
  wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s
  diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the 
  fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking 
  garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what 
  shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t 
  litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets,
  go to the store, I’m out of ...

I am an artist.  I am a woman.  I am a wife.
           I am a mother.  (Random order).

  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.
       I will live in the museum and I customarily do at home


At this very instant in twenty-first century time, her version of art activism is still necessary and contemporary. Considering our pace of growth in consumerish behavior since 1969, and the context of our more recent economic meltdowns, her ideals and processes seem even more relevant than usual.  
Part Three:  Earth Maintenance
 Everyday, containers of the following kinds of refuse will be delivered
      to the Museum:
       -the contents of one sanitation truck;
       -a container of polluted air;
       -a container of polluted Hudson River;
       -a container of ravaged land.
  Once at the exhibition, each container will be serviced:
 purified, de-polluted, rehabilitated, recycled, and conserved
 by various technical (and / or pseudo-technical) procedures either
      by myself or scientists. 

In 1976, Ukeles also named herself Artist-In-Residence at The New York Department of Sanitation, Fresh Kills Landfill where she has undergone a number of long term projects. 

 Art Ranger was drawn back to Ukeles work when husband mentioned the word TAXES. Yes indeed, this yearly maintenance tally. This T word inspires a number of procrastination-related side projects, such as cleaning and re-installing the hummingbird feeder. Golly we need an oil change, don’t we. And knitting a hat that looks 80% good, and of course, finishing the dang chicken coop. Or re-researching artists such as Mierle. Taxes require that we think about money in this detailed way, using the word itemize or unit price. Kind of like getting bloodwork done to see your nutritional balance. Or re-living your entire year by spreading receipts across your bedroom and labeling them with posit-notes. (It also leads us to think about our tax dollar usages and the daunting fact that we still have the largest appetite for military activity in the history of the earth).

Not only that, but when discussing my admiration of this artist’s work with my mother, she said, "oh sure, I know her mother" (who has since passed). Ukeles was also born in Denver, Colorado which probably makes us even more partial to her work. But really it's that "flush them up to consciousness" line that gets us going.

If this art interests you, please read a more detailed and proper biography while learning about an excellent link:
Exhibition History and great images:
And find her complete “Manifesto for Maintenance Art” there too.


  1. Read the Green Museum article about Ukeles, and was happy about everything, especially about her shaking the sanitation workers' hands.


    Heck yes! your mother has probably met her mother too. Above is a link where you can participate in her "piece" going on at a museum in San Francisco. I have no idea whether you get that I comment to your comment or what.

  3. it's pronounced YOOH-kah-lees