Art: Mierle Laderman Ukeles Maintenance Art Works 1969-1980, Arnolfini

Arnolfini is currently showcasing the first solo exhibition of the early works of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Born in Denver in 1939, the artist was particularly interested in everyday routines in her work and in 1969 wrote a Manifesto for Maintenance Art to question the place of art and aesthetics in the task of keeping the basic systems for survival maintained.

A large portion of this exhibition focuses on her project following the working lives of New York's sanitation workers, displayed in letters, photographs and film footage. Ukeles dedicated eleven months to working alongside 'sanmen' and getting to know their hopes and frustrations as workers surrounded by taboo and social hierarchy. It is moving to experience the passion and efforts she devoted to communicating the men's personalities through this exhibition. Her thanks is genuine and her art respectful.

I was worried that her attempt at hands-on experience in the sanitisation department of America's largest city would come across as patronising. After all, here is an artist that will dip into this way of life for a matter of months before returning to the relative comfort of an artist's studio and the limelight with which it can become lit.

But coupled with the other main part of the exhibition – an exploration of the mundane and everyday routine in her own life through Art (with a capital 'a' of course) – Ukeles comes across as a rather humble and unpretentious enquirer.

'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 cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately), I 'do' Art. Now I will simply do these everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.' (Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969)

Ukeles' Maintenance Art seeks to challenge everyday life. 'The sourball of every revolution', the manifesto states, '[is the question,] after the revolution who is going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?'

This is hugely poignant for me. We may dream, imagine, create, celebrate and fall in love in our lifetime, but what about everything in between? The mundanity becomes a real struggle, indeed according to Ukeles 'The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom'. It is something I have often contemplated and fought against, and I doubt I am alone in that.

'Development: pure individual creation / Maintenance: keep the dust off pure individual creation'

This exhibition perfectly captures Mierle Laderman Ukeles' experience of the fundamental questions surrounding human existence and the difficulty of confronting the tasks that fuel civilisations' advancement. Her's is a powerful achievement.


Mierle Lademan Ukeles, Touch Sanitation, 1979-1980 | Photo: Mierle Lademan Ukeles/Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Mierle Lademan Ukeles, Transfer – The Maintenance of the Art Object, 1973 | Photo: Mierle Lademan Ukeles/Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Mierle Lademan Ukeles, Washing, Tracks, Maintenance – Outside, 1973 | Photo: Mierle Lademan Ukeles/Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Mierle Lademan Ukeles, Art Interviews at A.I.R Gallery, NY, 1973-1973 | Photo: Mierle Lademan Ukeles/Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Mierle Lademan Ukeles, Maintenance Art Works 1969-1980, installation view, Arnolfini | Photo: Stuart Whipps/Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Mierle Lademan Ukeles, Maintenance Art Works 1969-1980, installation view, Arnolfini | Photo: Stuart Whipps/Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York



Mierle Laderman Ukeles Maintenance Art Works 1969-1980 runs at Arnolfini, Bristol until Sunday 17th November. Visit: arnolfini.org.uk



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