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Mierle Laderman Ukeles

American Sculptor, Photographer, and Conceptual Artist

Mierle Laderman Ukeles Photo

Born: 1939 - Denver, Colorado, USA

"Maintenance has to do with survival, with continuity over time. You can create something in a second. But whether it's a person, a system, or a city, in order to keep it, you have to keep it going. I think that one thing we must do is value and learn from those who provide this service."

Summary of Mierle Laderman Ukeles

For almost half a century, Mierle Laderman Ukeles has been making art across a range of media and processes to challenge our ideas of work, care, and collaborative art practices. In her early work, Ukeles made abstract, messy, bodily sculptures, but it was her entrance into motherhood that provided a catalyst for her most significant and enduring idea of "maintenance art" and the "maintenance artist". Ukeles understood motherhood and domestic labour as a kind of maintenance work, and wanted to make this work visible by framing it as an art practice. Ukeles has documented her encounters with different kinds of care-workers, including sanitation workers and cleaners, and has also undertaken massive environmental care work, in the case of her current long-term project regenerating a landfill site in New York.

Key Ideas

Ukeles' most important and radical contribution to contemporary art is "maintenance art"; the claim that care work is art because it involves creative; challenging; emotional work, just like making art does.
As part of the feminist movement of the early 1970s, writers like Sylvia Federici and Selma James started the Wages for Housework movement, which demanded wages for childcare and housework, the work that women were doing without getting paid. Mierle Laderman Ukeles also thought it was essential to recognise the hard work of motherhood, including childcare and domestic tasks, and her art remains some of the most important and compelling documents of these common tasks that are integral to keeping humans alive.
Ukeles expanded on Marcel Duchamp's idea of the readymade, by stating not only that any found object can become art, but also that found actions, habits, and everyday activities, particularly those performed by women and working class people, can be art too.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles was one of the first artists to work directly with large municipal organisations such as the New York Department of Sanitation and city planning divisions and she believes collaborations with these organisations allow her to make an art that is more accessible and representative of the spaces where she works.
Accessibility is also important to Ukeles in her Land art, or Earthworks, pieces, in particular her long-term LANDING (1989-present) project reclaiming a landfill in New York. Ukeles felt that Land art artworks by people like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer were too difficult to get to and experience, and so is working to make Earthworks that are in or near major cities and are as accessible as possible for locals.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles Photo

Ukeles grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighbourhood on the west side of Denver. Her father was a rabbi. She says that growing up in the 1950s was a "really weird time", especially for a woman. She found the culture very constraining, and decided to pursue her post-secondary studies out of state.

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