Friday, September 9, 2011

"Is Work Art?"

Touch Sanitation, Performance, 1978-1980.
Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles spoke with candor, compassion and common sense during her lecture last night at the Kansas City Art Institute. Her work centers around maintenance, labor (both personal and communal) and the environment. For 30 years, she has cultivated a connection with, and created work about, the New York  Department of Sanitation. In addition to her long-standing role as artist-in-residence with DSNY, Ukeles has installed public art and put on performances both nationally and internationally. She has also been the recipient of many prestigious awards and fellowships.

Ukeles’ work derives its power from ritual, repetition, compassion for others, and sensitivity toward the life cycle of objects. Anger with how dismissive people were of her after she became a Mother inspired a new body of artwork. Her indignation led to her “Maintenance Art Manifesto,” written in 1969. Since then, Ukeles’ work has been preoccupied with the systems that make our lives run smoothly. She asks, “Is Work Art?”

In her well-known performance, Touch Sanitation, 1979 - 1980, Ukeles sought out and shook hands with each of New York City’s 8,500 sanitation workers. She told each worker as she took his hand, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” During this eleven month project, she spent 8- to 16-hour shifts with the workers, getting to know them, how they position themselves, and how they are positioned by others, in our society. 

Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Service Economy, Steel arch with materials donated from New York agencies, 1988.

Ukeles’ artwork makes clear the disconnect between the making of trash and the dealing with trash. Cleaning up after others does not make one garbage, but people often overlook, or treat as trash, those who perform dirty work. I know this from personal experience. I worked as a housekeeper in a hotel one summer during college. Even though some people were polite to me, there were just as many people who either discounted me or treated me badly. These people did not know me, yet assumed they were better than I was, due to the role I performed in their lives. Ukeles turns that notion on its head by making us conscious of who takes care of the trash we create. The life cycle of trash continues after it leaves our homes.

I very much admire Ukeles’ respect for and connection with an overlooked population. As some of you know, I teach art and other skills-building classes to adults with intellectual disabilities, and I think the general public is equally dismissive of these amazing individuals, too. I know better than that, though, because I have spent time getting to know my students and their thoughts. Each of my students has as much depth as any other person on this earth. Like Ukeles, I love the group I have adopted as my own. Because of my experience, my students, the other teachers, the student aides, teachers’ assistants and I together make a we. This is a very important aspect of Ukeles’ work. She transforms they and them into we and us, essentially erasing the stigma attached to one’s work or the words with which we define a person. 

The Social Mirror, Mirror-covered New York Department of Sanitation truck, 1983.

Ukeles also makes transparent the relationship between what we do and how it affects what we do it to(meaning the Earth). Her relationship with Fresh Kills is a good example of this. Fresh Kills is a “retired” landfill on Staten Island. At 2,200 acres, it is the largest landfill in the world, and a section of it is being developed into Freshkills Park. Ukeles is essential to the process. She has spent years considering, conceptualizing, walking, filming and photographing there. She has reflected upon the nature of this place and has planned permanent sculptures. Sadly, and confusingly for Ukeles, part of Fresh Kills was reopened less than a year after its closure in 2001 to become the resting place for the wreckage and debris from The World Trade Center after 9/11. In fact, Ukeles’ brothers and sisters at the DSNY performed a lead role after the attack on the Twin Towers. They cleared debris from the streets so first responders could access the site. The wreckage from the The World Trade Center fills 55 acres at Fresh Kills. Ukeles had been involved with the site before 9/11, but she knows the presence of its wreckage, including the dust left from incinerated human beings, changes what the site means to people. The renewal and re-balancing that takes place here will have to be psychic, as well as physical. This space, reliant upon natural cycles and human ingenuity, will grow over time into a place of healing, in more ways than one.

Ukeles is a storyteller extraordinaire and a generous spirit. I feel so lucky to have heard her speak. Her lecture was incredibly moving and meaningful to me. After the lecture, I made sure to shake HER hand and tell her just how inspiring I thought her words and works were. Throughout her lecture, I noticed ritual was apparent in all of her works. Because repetition and the ritualizing of repetitive actions are important in my own work, I just had to ask her which came first - an interest in ritual or an interest in repetitive labor which led to ritual. She told me her father had been a rabbi, and ritual was something she had always known and been inspired by.

As a last thought, we (I) often refer to art making as work - it’s either what you do or the product of what you do. As anyone who creates can tell you, art making IS work, work of the most fulfilling sort. 

What kind of art do you love? Which artists inspire you? What can you "work on" for 8 hours at a time?

Alison :)

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