Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation, 1979-80
Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Touch Sanitation

After the birth of her first child in 1968, Mierle Laderman Ukeles (*1939, USA) began to break away from her male artistic role models Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp and Mark Rothko, whose artistic freedom and development had never been constrained by the ‘banal’ responsibilities of a mother and caretaker. In a radical manifesto published in 1969, she declared “maintenance work”, or reproductive labour, to be art and criticised the traditional concept of the freelance artist as a completely autonomous individual. Her performances, which occasionally last for several years, combine ecological, feminist and labour issues. Her work (often unpaid) placed her directly at the heart of public services, such as museums or the Department of Sanitation. In “Hartfort Wash: Washing / Tracks / Maintenance” (1973), for instance, she cleaned the Hartford Museum inside and out, turning invisible labour into art. “I Make Maintenance Art One hour Every Day” (1976), was a performance spanning many weeks, during which she asked several hundred cleaners in a public building in New York to define their work as art for one hour a day.

Touch Sanitation:
Sanman Speaks, colour, sound, 58:21min
Waste Flow, colour, sound, 57:37 min

In 1977, Ukeles became an artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation (which she still is to this day). For one and a half years, she conducted research that resulted in the performance Touch Sanitation (1979-80). For 11 months, she shook hands with every sanitation worker (all 8,500) of the City of New York, thanking them for their labour, following their routes and routines, and “remapping the entire city from its underbelly up”, as Ukeles states, connecting what is separated through singular gestures.

Courtesy Mierle Laderman Ukeles & Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Document media
2 videos, colour sound, 58:21min / 57:37 min

Issue date

To be seen in
Centro Cultural Montehermoso, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, 7 October 2011 – 15 January 2012

durational performance, extended body, housework/carework, labour, manifesto