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Economy

The Artist Who Made Sanitation Workers Worthy of a Museum

A retrospective of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work argues that maintenance should be valued as art.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, 'Touch Sanitation Performance,' 1979-1980.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, 'Touch Sanitation Performance,' 1979-1980.Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. (Photo: Robin Holland)

“Maintain” comes from the Latin root “to hold in the hand,” which conveys more tenderness than the word usually connotes. It’s a definition that might resonate with the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who held and shook the hands of all 8,500 sanitation workers employed by New York City between 1979 and 1980.

For 11 months, with the official support of the Department of Sanitation, Ukeles arrived at 6 a.m. daily at a processing facility to devise a cross-town route that put her in contact with as many “san men” as possible. Aboard a DSNY truck, she swept through the city, stopping to shadow workers at garages, landfills, offices, and street corners. Ukeles physically mirrored the work of these laborers, hauling trash and tromping through dumps. And she grasped the palms of each one, saying: “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”