I think of Mierle Laderman Ukeles

I’ve been thinking of Mierle Laderman Ukeles a lot in recent weeks. At the supermarket checkout, passing the post deliverer in the street, receiving a hand-delivered book from Gleebooks, putting the garbage out for collection, seeing a childcare centre that has stayed open, and especially when being tested for Covid–19 by a young man in a mask and a blue gown several sizes too big for him, I feel the urge to say, ‘Thank you for keeping us alive,’ and think of her.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles {Wikipedia entry here) has been the unsalaried artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation since the late 1970s. I first heard of her when the Emerging Artist was doing her MFA and regaling me with stories of public art projects. One of them was Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation. In this performance art project, she spent eleven months in 1979–1980 visiting each of the New York Sanitation Department’s districts and shaking hands with every worker who would accept her handshake, roughly 8500 of them. She looked each worker in the eye and said, ‘Thank you for keeping New York City alive.’

The conversations didn’t stop there – she also listened to the workers, and documented their personal stories. There are some wonderful photos (for example, here, here, here and here).

Plenty of people have commented that in Covid-19 times the poorly paid, low-esteem jobs are being recognised as essential and offered more respect if not better remuneration. Artists help us make sense of our times. Mierle Laderman Ukeles did this major performance 40 years ago: it speaks directly to our circumstances now.

5 responses to “I think of Mierle Laderman Ukeles

  1. This is genuinely moving – and there is a lot of Studs TERKEL – oral historian (The Good War, On Work, Coming of Age, etc) about the intent of valuing those who carry much of the burden of allowing us to live in clean regulated urban environments yet who are ironically given least possible recognition for it. jas h duke – the Melbourne poet – his writing explored similar kinds of themes too. Thanks for this Jonathan – and to the Artist, too.


  2. I’ve never heard of Mierle Laderman Ukeles but I’m with you 100%. I make it part of every transaction to thank the people who are still working. I don’t know how we can ever thank them enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She’s not exactly a household name, Lisa, but maybe she should be. In one of her early performance pieces she scrubbed the steps of an art museum. I’ve just seen that there was an exhibition of her work in Brisbane in 2014. I’d still be thanking people if I didn’t know about her but I love that she has made art from it


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