Randy Kennedy

After the Revolution, Who’s Going to Pick Up the Garbage?

The Existential Meaning of Trash

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, at 77, is nothing if not patient. She understood many years ago, she said, that the highly idiosyncratic art she was making — about so-called menial labor, about scrubbing and picking up and about the existential meaning of garbage itself, pieces that confused many of her peers and unsettled fellow feminists — was not sexy and might never get the recognition it deserved.

“People didn’t understand why I was so interested in one municipal department, especially this one which really got no respect, especially back then,” she said. “But I felt like it was perfect, conceptually and practically. For me, the Sanitation Department was like the major leagues.”

The road that led there started with the birth of her first child in 1968, a dozen years after she had moved from her hometown, Denver, to New York to make it as an artist. She was stunned to discover (“I was so naïve”) that becoming a mother “instantly made me into a different class of human being.”

“People stopped asking me questions, stopped thinking of me as anything other than a mother,” she said. “I was in a crisis because I had worked years to be an artist, and I didn’t want to be two people. It seemed like I could be an artist only by being two people.” And so she sat down and in a single session typed a cri de coeur — “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!” — that became a touchstone of conceptual and performance art, questioning not only gender and class in the art world but the foundations of the avant-garde itself.

Among its choice lines: “The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” She wrote that she planned to continue doing the things she had to do as a mother and housekeeper, but to “flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.”

To earn the respect of the department’s workers and to learn its byzantine system for vanquishing millions of tons of garbage per year, she conducted what became one of the most ambitious performance pieces in the city’s history — “Touch Sanitation Performance” — in which she spent a year visiting each of the department’s districts and shaking the hand of every one of the 8,500 workers who would accept the gesture.

“I think her main idea — that so much happens in this world because of labor that is not acknowledged — is really powerful,” said Ms. Harris.

When I told her that the neighborhood where I live in Brooklyn is part of the Sanitation Department’s pilot program for collecting compostable food waste, she beamed: “And do you know what that means? It means the system is backing up into your house, making you responsible. Which is what should happen— because you’re part of the system!”

Randy Kennedy in “An Artist Who Calls the Sanitation Department Home,” The New York Times, September 21, 2016.