Life is a Circus

Mierle Ukeles - Maintenance as Art

Artist in Residence at… the New York City Department of Sanitation.

What is art? Who gets to make it? And who gets to decide what constitutes art and what doesn’t? Mierle Laderman Ukeles has been asking these questions for more than 50 years. She challenges us to rethink our attitudes towards gender roles, and towards the meaning of maintenance work. 

As an artist and a mother in the 1960s, Ukeles began to question society’s distinction between making “pure” art – traditionally a male domain – and the daily practice of maintenance work, usually the domain of women and considered drudgery. Why, she asked, should one be considered an elevated pursuit, and the other, on which vastly more time is spent, of little or no importance? 

In response, she wrote the Manifesto For Maintenance Art 1969! and began her mission to encourage the public to rethink its relationship with maintenance and waste. Her performance art included cleaning displays and floors in museums in public, elevating maintenance to the status of art.  

Her maintenance-related art took on various forms, including photographing herself cleaning her house, titled I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day. Eventually she started collaborating with the New York City Department of Sanitation and its workers, gaining a deep understanding of the city’s sanitation system. She calls garbage “the ultimate mixed media.”  

Like Marcel Duchamp before her. Mierle Ukeles challenges us to rethink our relationships with art and the material world around us. She expands our minds, our perceptions, and the limits of creativity itself.  

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