Why does Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Touch Sanitation Performance make me cry? In Andrea Fraser’s 2006 essay, “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?,” Fraser suggests that she was moved by her fellow artist’s extreme restraint, in which she sees “extraordinary generosity.” Ukeles has built her long career on a much more literal form of generosity: her commitment to acknowledging the people who clean up after us.
Touch Sanitation Performance is the high point of the Queens Museum’s rigorous, and unexpectedly moving, retrospective of the work of this underrated artist, for the past 40 years the NYC Department of Sanitation’s artist-in-residence. The piece began with Ukeles’s vow to personally thank every DSNY employee in New York’s five boroughs; starting in 1979, she spent eleven months crisscrossing the city, shaking hands with thousands of sanitation workers and telling each one, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”
In 1969, a new mother with no time for her painting, Ukeles sat down and penned “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!,” which divides all labor into two forms: development (“pure individual creation”) and maintenance. “Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time,” she lamented, adding, “the culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wage, housewives = no pay.” And so she decided that she would make art that involved maintenance—the opposite of just about all the other art in the world. She wrote, in an ingenious transposition of Duchamp’s readymade from objects to labor, “MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK,” a statement that still feels radical today.
Abandoning her earlier canvases built up from dyed cheesecloth, stuffed to bursting with newspaper, rags, and aluminum foil, Ukeles began to document herself performing routine maintenance tasks, from Rinsing a B.M. Diaper (1970) to Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Inside and Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside (1973), for which she mopped the floors and steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. These are performances with razor-sharp edges, celebrating the unpaid, rarely recognized work of parents, usually mothers, and the typically poorly paid labor of the maintenance staffs that keep cultural institutions functioning.
In terms of sheer guts and vanguard sensibilities, Ukeles’s pieces of the early to mid-1970s outdo just about any other contemporaneous performance work. She continued to push her ideas in the ensuing years, collaborating with office cleaning crews and other workers before taking up her position with the Department of Sanitation, a job that came about after critic David Bourdon snarkily suggested in a 1976 Village Voice review that the DSNY—then suffering through the city’s fiscal crisis—hire an artist and apply for an NEA grant. Ukeles wrote a letter to its commissioner, suggesting he hire her, and enclosing the review. Astoundingly, he took her up on it, giving her an (unpaid) position and an office so that she could begin meeting with workers.
At the Queens Museum, Touch Sanitation was presented via newspaper clippings, memos, and photographs, which show Ukeles grinning as she thanks the Sanmen, or out on the street, accompanying them on their routes, learning their methods. Most ingeniously, the show commandeered the museum’s glorious Panorama, a miniature scale model of New York City, installing lights that traced the artist’s odyssey, mapping the full scale of her achievement.
Ukeles’s generosity is manifold and indefatigable. She not only shows gratitude for work that is all too often looked down on, but changes our perception of entire groups of workers. In Touch Sanitation, against long odds and through her own hard labor, Ukeles makes the work of keeping the city clean visible, and New York suddenly looks entirely different—the product of thousands of hands, holding back the deluge.
On the other side of Queens, Aki Sasamoto is also taking on the subject of cleanliness, in “Delicate Cycle,” her show at SculptureCenter. Sasamoto has filled one room of the museum’s basement with washing machines and shows a video of one of them in operation, intercut with images of birds. In a voiceover, she reads a text from the 1920s about the scarab beetle. Considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians, this beetle rolls a ball of dung around until it can find a place to safely occupy the ball and feed off it, Sasamoto tells us, “for a week or a fortnight at a time.” The artist’s delivery is variously halting, comical, and as biting as that of a stern schoolteacher.
The scarab beetle has to pick through its dung ball for sustenance, we learn, and often has to deal with rival beetles that help push the ball, only to run off with it. “He rubs his cheeks, sniffs the air, flies off, and begins his work all over again,” Sasamoto says of the suddenly ball-less beetle. “I admire and envy his character.” The insects are a good deal like humans, it seems, striving to maintain themselves in an inequitable world.
The artist placed a hulking ball of her own, made of various pieces of snarled white fabric, like a balled-up load of laundry, in the basement’s long central hallway, just waiting to be pushed, played with, and dirtied. Other compact sculptural installations with blue tile floors and oddly angled walls looked like parts of bathrooms that had been rebuilt as climbing walls. Through both oblique metaphors and in-your-face sculptures, Sasamoto highlights the immense physical labor involved in remaining, in myriad ways, clean.
Ukeles has said that her ambition was to take everyday chores and “flush them up to consciousness.” As it happens, her show is on view at the same time that Maurizio Cattelan, after some production delays, finally installed his 18-karat-gold commode on the fifth floor of the Guggenheim Museum. Crowds have lined up, waiting more than an hour on some days to use it.
Never one for subtlety, Cattelan titled his work “America” (2016), and the piece earned a place on the cover of the New York Post, alongside the headline “We’re No. 1! (and No. 2).” Freud, as artist John Miller long ago noted in his work, equated gold with feces in his study of anal-retentive personalities. Another obvious joke is that wealth is squandered in the United States in absurd ways, but I think it’s more fun to read Cattelan’s piece as an optimistic vision for the country: that America really can restore its aging infrastructure and flush various distasteful elements (the alt right, Trump, white supremacy) down the crapper.
As an actual art object, the toilet is a winner. Solid gold, rather than merely plated, it glows under the harsh bathroom lighting, its finely wrought bowl shimmering with psychedelic beauty. It is cold to the touch, and its seat is heavy. It is not exactly nuanced art, but it does offer a rare and uncanny experience—coming face to face with a jaw-dropping amount of precious metal. (The exact cost of the sculpture, which is being shown “Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery,” has not been disclosed.) Flushing it feels, in some way, miraculous, calling to mind Duchamp’s old quip, “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”
The toilet joins Damien Hirst’s diamond-covered skull, For the Love of God (2007), and Thomas Heatherwick’s forthcoming public work Vessel in a portfolio of frivolities willed into being by a bullish group of big spenders. Like those works, it is ultimately a painfully (and pointlessly) on-the-nose spectacle, and also a defining artwork of our time. To think it a great one, you need to have a very special attitude toward vast sums of surplus cash.
Shortly before I got my turn with Cattelan’s toilet, a British woman in line asked the guard how long “America” would be on view. His poignant response: “It will be here a little while, but not forever.”
Meanwhile, downtown, at the dependably adventurous Lomex gallery, Mathieu Malouf showed three sculptural installations resembling prison cells, each housing an outhouse-style toilet—basically a slab of wood with a hole in it. Unlike Cattelan’s, the toilets in Malouf’s show were not strictly speaking functional, in that they had not been hooked up to the plumbing system. However, Lomex’s proprietor was quick to point out that each of the installations—little wooden rooms, basically—had copper floors, so by urinating through the hole you could create a Warholian “Oxidation” painting. Will a bold art collector follow through on that aspect of the piece?
Malouf’s jail-cell structures are a little ramshackle and more than a little creepy, but also strangely earnest. They are lovingly fashioned and outfitted with bondage cuffs and chains—the type of things you might expect to find in a serial killer’s basement, or an S&M dungeon. The most impressive work was the Trump Tower jail cell, measuring more than seven feet tall, painted gold and white, and titled Make American Great Again? (all works 2016), but the other two were almost as inventive and perverse, the mostly black Donald’s No. 8 Bench seeming to reproduce a panel of one of Liam Gillick’s brightly colored angular sculptures as an element within it.
Black wires stretched between the pieces and over a wall into the gallery’s (actual) bathroom, connecting closed-circuit cameras in each cell to a video monitor near the toilet, over which loomed another faux Gillick panel. The exhibition incisively and wittily channeled today’s ubiquitous commingling of corporate architecture, corporate art (a charge that has been levied against Gillick’s work, despite the polemics that undergird it), corporate surveillance, and corporate politics. It added to that stew the paranoia and violence that seethes beneath the surface of American society, and that took on human form this election year in The Donald.
Imagine the runoff from these various artworks—water from Sasamoto’s machines, effluvia from Cattelan’s toilet and Malouf’s Trump Tower, and even the waste handled by the Department of Sanitation—meeting and flowing together under the city, out of sight but no longer out of mind.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 124 under the title “Around New York.”