Mierle Laderman Ukeles – Maintenance Art Works 1969-1980 – Arnolfini, Bristol

Review by Hannah Bailey This quiet, yet absorbing and powerfully affecting exhibition explores the overlap between the creative and the domestic in the human mind. Trained in America in the middle of the last century, Mierle Laderman Ukeles became frustrated by how her role as a wife and mother seemed to get in the way of her work as an artist. In a very ordered, methodical and almost scientific way, she set out to examine how the different tasks in her life affected and overlapped each other. In doing so, she ended up constructing a passionate defence of those who carry out menial tasks through a ground-breaking series of performance art projects encompassing film, text and photography.

The exhibition traces the evolution of her thoughts and feelings on the subject of maintenance, beginning with a written exhibition synopsis. Her anger and passion pop out from the page with exclamation marks, emphasis and the memorable line: “after the revolution, who is going to pick up the garbage of Monday morning?” This provocative approach runs through the exhibition like a jolt, leavened with occasional humour which saves it from becoming worthy or earnest. As an example, her logs of ‘everyday activity’, recording thoughts and tasks (a sore back, a hungry baby, a work deadline) every 30 mins, show a gap where she forgets to update the log for a few hours – the surprise evident in her exclamation marks. There are also some questionnaires sent to the general public for their views on maintenance which wryly apologise for the ‘lack of time to meet’. Although Ukeles is clearly feminist, this is far from the most dominant theme in the exhibition. Instead she seems to relish the confrontation that her presence provides in her performance work. She cleans an exhibition herself to make visitors think about the invisible work which goes into making a building look presentable. She spends 11 months working with in dangerous and dirty conditions to shake hands with as many of New York City’s (predominantly male) sanitation workers, delivering to each one the mantra “thank you for keeping New York alive”, and finds reward in breaking down the barriers of suspicion that these men have erected. Her delight at earning their trust and listening to their thoughts and secrets is palpable – and the series of photos depicting this all feature Ukeles’ distinctive shock of auburn hair, striking against the dark hair and muted tones of the clothing worn by the male workers. Being much more naturally attracted to bold colours and shapes, I didn’t expect to like this exhibition. And while there are some less successful works – for me the project to bury earth from America in the soil around the Jerusalem museum didn’t have the appeal of the others – overall this show is powerful, brave, thought-provoking and well worth an hour of your time. Maintenance Art Works 1969-1980 is at the Arnolfini till 17th November 2013. For more information visit www.arnolfini.org.uk