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Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Cleaning the museum—maintenance art

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a pioneering artist, challenges traditional art norms with her "maintenance art" concept. She blends motherhood and artistry, spotlighting often overlooked tasks like cleaning. Her work, performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, highlights the importance of maintenance staff in museums and everyday life. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(tranquil piano music) - (Beth) We're in the Wadsworth Atheneum, looking at a series of photographs by Mierle Laderman Ukeles. And this is her work, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance. Outside. From 1973. What we're looking at is the artist scrubbing the outside staircase of this museum. - (Patricia) Mierle came here in the summer of 1973 and performed four different performance art pieces, each of them associated with the authority and power within the art museum, and also about domestic maintenance. - (Beth) In these photographs, we see the artist going outside of the museum. - (Patricia) This is where people enter the museum, so she's front and center at this institution where everyone who visits the museum has to pass, so she's cleaning the front steps by hand. It's quite a grand staircase, and pours the water down, moves it around in front of the museum in very dramatic strokes. In a way, it's like being an action painter like Jackson Pollack, but her palette is water and her surface is the concrete sidewalk and the stairs in front of the museum. - (Beth) And I read that this took hours. I mean, this is backbreaking work. - (Patricia) I believe it was a four-hour performance, so that's no small undertaking. - (Beth) And we also see her laying out cloth diapers. - (Patricia) Our conservation department uses diapers to clean the surfaces of glazing on artworks, and it also has a parallel with a mother who is changing diapers, so it does fill a role in both the museum world and the domestic world. - (Beth) She coined this term, "maintenance art." She had been a practicing artist, she got married, she had children, and found herself spending her day maintaining the life of a child and thought, I can do art or I can be a mother, and in fact, that's how people approached her about it. They said, "oh, now you're a mom, you're not an artist anymore." - (Patricia) Mierle had a crisis of identity as an artist at that time and became very angry about her position as a mother having to be completely responsible for the care and maintenance of children who were completely dependent on her. - (Beth) And she said when she was in her studio, she thought about whether the child was being taken care of, and when she was with her children, she thought about her art. And so, was there a way to make caring for something, maintaining something, art. - (Patricia) She created a manifesto and a whole new area of art-making, which she called "maintenance art." - (Beth) And if you think about this in the context of twentieth century art, going back to Duchamp and the idea of the readymade, of taking something that's already out in the world and naming it art, and by naming it art, transforming it, changing how we look at something, and Ukeles calls our attention to maintenance. - (Patricia) She approached a number of different museums about performing these tasks as performance art, and was turned down by virtually every museum, except for the Wadsworth Atheneum, so the Wadsworth took a chance on something that they didn't know how successful it would be, or how visible it would be, or what kind of institutional critique might be wrapped up in this whole project. - (Beth) You use the term "institutional critique." This is a way we think about some art which criticized the very institutions of art. The museum was opening itself up, potentially, to some criticism. - (Patricia) She's shedding light on the invisible workers at an art museum that, perhaps, we all take for granted, and are the workers who are not paid as well, they are not on the front line like a director or a curator would be, but people who are maintenance staff invisibly keep the museum in perfect working order. What she's doing as a performance piece during the hours that the museum is open is to expose a worker like this in a way that would highlight their actions. - (Beth) As a mother, there's a maintenance system that's within the family, and then here we have the maintenance system of a public institution, like the Wadsworth Atheneum, a museum, but then later on in her work, she also looks at the maintenance system of a city. - (Patricia) We can relate to this on so many different levels, because in our personal lives, we have to maintain our own homes and laundry, and then there are people who are the workers who get paid for such things, and then there are city operations where there's a whole sanitation crew, and she became the artist in residence for the Department of Sanitation in New York. - (Beth) We often think about the work of artists as creation. We don't think about it as maintenance. - (Patricia) We're so involved in thinking about art as an object, and so to think of art as something that's more associated with everyday life, where there's a maintenance aspect to it, is a very different way of thinking about art. - (Beth) She talks about how she saw the incredible freedom in the work of the abstract expressionists, in Jackson Pollack, for example, and the way that he made art into gesture, into movement through space. And wanted to have that kind of freedom in the way that she thought about art-making. But found herself very constrained, and yet found this way to turn what she was doing into a new way of thinking about art and thinking about motherhood. She says, "Jackson Pollack never changed diapers." And so this bringing together of these worlds that are otherwise so far apart, and this making visible of labor clearly has a political aspect to it. - (Patricia) To really bring this forward as real work and possibly even real art was a brand new thing in 1973. (tranquil piano music)