“The critical thing to understand about being a maintenance worker is that you make a decision that something has value and should be sustained, maintained, kept alive,” says Ukeles of the connection between mothers and maintenance workers. “Once you make that decision, you have to do the work that it takes to keep that person, system, or city going.” Western culture has never celebrated maintenance work in this way; as she points out, “it’s done behind the scenes, downstairs, after hours, unseen.”
Because of her interest in both creating work and how our society receives her work, it is unsurprising that this connection has led Ukeles to the Queens Museum. “Thinking about the city, thinking about our culture, enlarging who has a voice in our culture—that’s what the Queens Museum has become famous for,” says Ukeles, who will be the first artist to have a show occupy the entire building.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Inside, July 23, 1973. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.