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Unseen Labor Redefining Value: The Power of Maintenance Art

The Unseen Labor of Maintenance Art: Redefining Value in Western SocietyIn a world that celebrates innovation and creation, the often invisible but essential work of maintenance often goes unnoticed. This article examines the concept of maintenance art as pioneered by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and explores its significance in challenging societal values and hierarchies.

Revisiting the Manifesto for Maintenance Art

Mierle Laderman Ukeles and the Invisible Domestic Work

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, an artist and activist, is known for her landmark Manifesto for Maintenance Art, which she issued in 1969. The manifesto drew attention to the value of invisible domestic work, such as cleaning, cooking, and childcare, traditionally performed by women.

Ukeles argued that this work was vital for the well-being of society and should be given the same recognition as artistic creation.

Maintenance Art as Institutional Critique

Maintenance art serves as a form of institutional critique, challenging the perception of what constitutes “art” and highlighting societal hierarchies. By focusing on work and maintenance rather than on pure creation or innovation, Ukeles exposed the disparities between different types of labor and the often undervalued contributions of marginalized groups.

This critique extends beyond gender to encompass class and wider societal values.

Maintenance Art and the Preservation of Capitalism

Ukeles’ manifesto also raises questions about the relationship between innovation, creation, and capitalism in Western society. By emphasizing maintenance as essential to the preservation of the existing structure, Ukeles urges a reevaluation of cultural priorities.

She argues that the constant longing for novelty and progress often overlooks the value of maintaining what already exists, ultimately undermining societal stability.

The CARE Exhibition and Personal Maintenance

Exploring Personal Maintenance in the CARE Exhibition

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ recent exhibition, CARE, further delves into the theme of personal maintenance. Through installations, performances, and participatory activities, Ukeles invites visitors to engage with the daily maintenance tasks that are often taken for granted.

By bringing attention to tasks like cleaning, cooking, and repairing, the exhibition encourages a reconsideration of their value and meaning in our lives.

Awareness and Participation

The CARE exhibition includes interviews with individuals engaged in maintenance work, highlighting their experiences and challenges. Visitor participation is also a crucial aspect of the exhibition, as people engage in tasks such as cleaning and repairing using natural materials.

Through these activities, Ukeles fosters a sense of awareness and encourages visitors to reflect on their own contribution to maintenance and the impacts of pollution on the environment. Conclusion:

In a society that tends to prioritize innovation and creation over maintenance, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ maintenance art challenges societal values and emphasizes the importance of work that often goes unseen.

Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art and the subsequent CARE exhibition invite us to reconsider the value of everyday tasks and the implications of overlooking the essential labor that sustains our lives. By elevating maintenance to the realm of art, Ukeles forces us to question the hierarchies and inequalities that pervade our society, ultimately pointing toward a more equitable and appreciative future.

Shining a Light on Museum Maintenance Work

Hartford Wash and the Invisible Work of Museum Maintenance

One striking example of maintenance art in the realm of museums is Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ “Hartford Wash”. In this iconic series of photographs, Ukeles documented herself cleaning the floors and stairs of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

The photographs not only challenge traditional notions of art but also shed light on the invisible work that goes into maintaining a museum. Cleaning and washing, often overlooked or dismissed, become elevated to the realm of art as Ukeles captures the labor that goes unseen by museum visitors.

Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object and The Keeping of the Keys

Ukeles’ exploration of maintenance work extends beyond the physical tasks performed behind the scenes. In her projects “Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object” and “The Keeping of the Keys,” she delves into the realm of institutional critique.

These projects draw attention to the often-overlooked work done by art institution staff and the maintenance necessary to preserve and display artworks. By shining a light on the labor and expertise required to ensure the longevity and accessibility of art, Ukeles challenges the notion that the value of art lies solely in its creation.

Challenging Gender Roles and Visibility through Maintenance Art

Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In: Motherhood, Art, and Domestic Tasks

One of Ukeles’ most personal projects is “Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In,” where she explores the challenges of combining roles as a mother and an artist. This project emphasizes the visibility of domestic tasks and celebrates the often unacknowledged labor involved.

Ukeles highlights the realities faced by many women who juggle the demands of motherhood with their artistic practice. By bringing these domestic tasks into the realm of art, Ukeles challenges the traditional distinctions between art and life, and challenges the notion that only certain activities are worthy of recognition or value.

I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day: Collaboration and Visibility of Maintenance Work

In her ongoing project “I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day,” Ukeles tackles the traditionally male-dominated field of skyscraper maintenance. Collaborating with a team of maintenance workers, she highlights the often invisible labor that keeps these monumental structures safe and functioning.

By foregrounding the collaborative efforts and labor of maintenance workers, Ukeles challenges societal norms that often restrict recognition and value to individual artists or creators. Through her work, she calls for a broader appreciation and understanding of maintenance as a vital and creative endeavor.

In conclusion:

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ maintenance art challenges societal perceptions of value and visibility. Through her exploration of maintenance work in museums, she exposes the often-unseen labor that keeps these institutions running.

By documenting herself cleaning and washing in the Hartford Wash series and shedding light on the invisible work behind the scenes, Ukeles invites us to reconsider the hierarchy of labor and the intrinsic value of maintenance. Furthermore, through projects like “Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In” and “I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day,” Ukeles confronts gender roles and the visibility of domestic and collaborative maintenance work.

Through her art, Ukeles continues to advocate for a reevaluation of societal values, pushing us to recognize and appreciate the often-overlooked labor that sustains our daily lives and institutions.

Recognizing the Vital Role of Sanitation Work through Maintenance Art

Touch Sanitation and the Handshake Ritual

One of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ most impactful projects is “Touch Sanitation”, where she embarked on a five-year collaboration with the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Ukeles not only engaged with sanitation workers but also brought attention to the importance of their work through a powerful gesture: the handshake ritual.

Ukeles would shake the hands of each of the 8,500 sanitation workers, thanking them personally for their labor. This simple yet profound act aimed to acknowledge the vital role sanitation workers play in maintaining public health and cleanliness.

Through “Touch Sanitation,” Ukeles amplifies the visibility and appreciation for sanitation work. By engaging directly with the workers, she breaks down the barriers between the artistic and laboring communities, fostering a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose.

This acknowledgement and recognition of their work resonated deeply with the sanitation workers, who often perform their duties in relative anonymity. Ukeles’ project contributes to a shift in societal attitudes, highlighting the dignity and essential nature of sanitation work.

Follow in Your Footsteps: Working with the Sanitation Department

In her ongoing project “Follow in Your Footsteps,” Ukeles took her collaboration with the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) a step further. This project involved Ukeles’ own personal employment within the DSNY as an artist-in-residence.

By working alongside sanitation workers, Ukeles gained firsthand experience of the challenges and rewards of their profession. This immersive engagement allowed her to develop a deeper empathy and understanding of the daily struggles and triumphs of these essential laborers.

Working within the sanitation department not only led to a greater appreciation for the workers, but it also provided an opportunity to compare the maintenance work performed by sanitation workers to traditionally gendered work. Ukeles noted the parallels between sanitation work and the invisible and undervalued domestic labor primarily shouldered by women.

By drawing this connection, Ukeles challenges societal norms and prompts a reconsideration of the relative worth assigned to different types of work. Ukeles’ presence within the department also led to interesting dynamics with her co-workers.

Initially, there was skepticism and uncertainty surrounding her intentions and motivations. However, as Ukeles diligently carried out her tasks and engaged in open and honest conversations with her colleagues, she gained their acceptance and respect.

This acceptance reflects the power of personal engagement and recognition in bridging gaps and building connections. Through her project, Ukeles shows that by actively participating in maintenance work and demonstrating respect for the labor involved, a greater appreciation and understanding can be fostered among collaborators and coworkers, regardless of their backgrounds or professions.

In conclusion:

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ maintenance art projects “Touch Sanitation” and “Follow in Your Footsteps” bring visibility and appreciation to sanitation work. Through the handshake ritual, Ukeles acknowledges the essential role sanitation workers play in maintaining public health and hygiene.

Her collaboration with the New York City Department of Sanitation, including her employment within the department, allows her to personally experience the challenges and triumphs of sanitation work, fostering empathy and understanding. By comparing sanitation work to traditionally gendered labor, Ukeles challenges societal norms and prompts a reconsideration of the value assigned to different types of work.

Furthermore, Ukeles’ engagement with her co-workers demonstrates the power of personal connection and recognition in bridging divides and building acceptance. Through her maintenance art, Ukeles advocates for the recognition, appreciation, and dignity of all forms of maintenance work, ultimately contributing to a more equitable and inclusive society.

In conclusion, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ maintenance art challenges societal values and hierarchies by shedding light on the often invisible labor of maintenance. Through projects such as “Touch Sanitation,” Ukeles recognizes the vital role of sanitation workers and brings visibility to their essential work.

She also challenges gender roles and explores the value of domestic tasks through projects like “Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In.” By engaging with maintenance work in various contexts, Ukeles prompts a reconsideration of the worth assigned to different types of labor and the importance of recognizing and appreciating the often unnoticed contributions of maintenance workers. Through her work, Ukeles encourages a broader appreciation for the everyday tasks that sustain our lives and institutions.

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