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Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Relatable politics

by Mya Berger

I first heard about her in class. They put up photographs of her work on a large screen.

It resonated with me. Her hands digging into dirt with a ripped rag. Her nails scraping unidentifiable black gunk. Her spilling water on the steps of a museum with a neutral, focused expression. 

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ practice is cleaning and cooking, and caring. She cleaned the insides of a museum and the street in front of an art gallery. She cleaned her home and cooked for her children. She followed 8500 sanitation workers in New York City, meticulously documenting their work and routes, and shook hands with them while telling each one of them, “Thank you for keeping NYC alive”. Ukeles called it all maintenance. She called it art.

When I first saw the photographs of her work, I felt like they had been simmering in the back of my head for months, maybe even years. 

Maintenance ignites something personal for everyone: childhood memories, things your parents taught you, an old habit, or a coping mechanism. Everyone knows the smell of soap, the feel of a sponge on a dampened hand. The vacuum cleaner’s noise or the feeling of a broom going over a surface. 

Photo: Mya Berger (scroll over to view in color)

Make your bed every morning. Open the window and pull the curtains right after waking up. Wash your own body, face, feet, and ears. And then your teeth. And brush your hair if it is long enough. Check your nails. Find clothes to get dressed, put on your shoes and make sure you close the door right behind you because taking care of your property is an act of maintenance too. And then you have to drink enough water and eat correctly. You clean the stain you got on your cheek or your shirt. And you put the plastic box from which you ate your salad or sandwich in the recycling bin with a tinge of regret.

You do your breathing exercise. You walk away from your desk out into the sunlight, so your eyes stay focused on your screen longer. Once you get home, you make sure there’s no pollution on your face. You wash vigorously, hoping water and soap will get it all out. You make dinner, do the dishes. You even vacuum your living room carpet if you are in a good mood. Sometimes, you wash the floor with water, soap, a few drops of essential oils and a rag, so it feels fresh again. Put the pile of books back in order. Fold your clothes. Close the windows. Shower. Face cream. Get into bed with a hot cup of tea. Read a book. Make sure you are off your phone. 

It’s all maintenance. Your body, your house, your clothes. Everything that belongs to you is your own responsibility. You must uphold it. Erase time. Erase use. Erase it all. 

But then there’s the city. People are vacuuming leaves, trash and even your cigarettes right after you toss them (counter-maintenance) into the street. Some clean out their storefronts or terraces with a broom, soap and water. Other people repair the broken public light next to your supermarket. Gas checks in the neighbourhood, drilling the pavement to verify god-knows-what. The trash bins are emptied every week. Sometimes, from your bed, you hear glass breaking. Your chair in your office is always nicely tucked into its desk. There are fresh coffee beans in the machine. The dishwasher has been emptied. Windows are cleaned, façades are being repainted, buildings renovated. There’s always some form of construction. It’s never-ending. No, it never ends. You don’t remember all that; those won’t be the memorable moments of your day. Do you see the people who make sure your world feels real

That’s why you thought it was magical when you saw Ukeles’ picture, her cleaning the pavement in front of an art gallery: how it turned out to be a piece of art. She weaved in meaning, rehabilitated memory where time and life had brought holes. Where we collectively decide to forget, not to care

But then there’s the rest of the world. There are protests, and news about pollution, climate, food shortages, rising prices, and natural disasters. Stories about private jets. Or fashion industry debacles. And it comes as no surprise that we have to really think about our waste flows, about how we care for our environment and other people for our own sake. Yes, we. You and I. 

Solidarity and meaningful action start with empathy. One way to understand empathy is to embody, to viscerally feel another person’s reality. What I love about Mierle Laderman Ukeles is that she did that without a weird fetishist-saviour taint to it. She created a crossroad between the life of sanitation workers, people cleaning in offices, stay-at-home parents, of anyone who isn’t in the public eye but whose work is visible to all, with artists and activists. She did it with lightness and a bit of humour. She did it in a way that feels relatable. She highlighted other people’s work while acknowledging their dignity and agency. 

She showed that personal memories could easily translate into collective experiences and revindication. Everyday actions and activism can be the same. Maintenance questions the very roots of productivity, labour and work. But it also highlights how little we know about our environment and its fragility. Reality as we know it can change any day. We must consider it as something to collectively value and commit to.

Questionnaire: 

Have you ever thanked someone for keeping your city alive?:

Yes
No

What do you clean your house with?

…………………….………………………….……………………………………

Have you ever dug your hand into a clogged sink? Describe the experience:

…………………….………………………….……………………………………

What do your fingers feel like once they’ve come in contact with bleach?

…………………….………………………….……………………………………

Can you describe the sound of cleaning a window with newspaper and glass cleaner spray?: 

…………………….………………………….……………………………………

Have you ever cleaned a trash can overflowing with suspicious liquids and worms?

Yes
No

Describe what you would do if you were cleaning the street outside your house: 

…………………….………………………….……………………………………

Have you ever carried the same heavy object (let’s say one of those large plastic bins) over your head everyday for work?

Yes
No

What does waking up at 3AM to go to work feel like?:

…………………….………………………….……………………………………

What can you do to make your own environment better today? : 

…………………….………………………….……………………………………

Will you do it?:

Yes
No

Mya Berger is a Moroccan and Swiss writer, artist and curator based in Brussels. She is interested in maintenance art practices and their relationships to North African Diasporas. Her research also revolves around non-linear and experimental ways of approaching archival records and histories. Through her practice “Postcards”, she explores ways to communicate her research interests in fragments.