Mierle Laderman Ukeles Made Trash Collectors Feel Like the Muses

THE DAILY PIC: In the Queens Museum retrospective of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, her art gives sanitation workers the props they deserve.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles Snow Workers' Ballet, Japan, 2003 Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY

THE DAILY PIC (#1728): The huge retrospective of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, founder and pretty much the sole member of the Maintenance Art movement, is coming down in a couple of weeks at the Queens Museum. I haven’t waited this long to write about it because I had any reservations—it’s great and fascinating—but because my Artnet colleague Ben Davis did such a good job reviewing it early-on. Read him to get the skinny on Ukeles and her maintenance art.

My most recent visit to the show made me realize that there was one aspect of the work that Davis did not quite emphasize enough: Its simple generosity towards neglected members of our culture—the people who deal with our garbage and keep our streets clean. A bunch of recorded interviews with sanitation workers makes it clear just what pariahs they are made to feel, for the social “crime” of cleaning up messes no one else will touch. By making fine art about and with them, Ukeles proved that they were worthy subjects of our highest cultural products.

Today’s Pic shows Ukeles carrying through with that idea in one of her so-called Work Ballets, in which she got heavy-equipment operators to drive their machines in choreographed—and quite wonderfully pachydermic—dances. No four-year-old can imagine anything better than to operate such vehicles just for the sheer pleasure of it, although such notions are beaten out of our kids as they are told to aspire to the “higher” professions of the law or medicine or finance. Ukeles’s Work Ballets tell grown-up drivers that they are allowed to revel in the skills they’ve acquired and the equipment they ride every day. Why do we imagine that the relationship between knight and mount was noble, but the one between snowplow and driver is barely worth a shrug? (Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, NY)

For a full survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.

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