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A World of Art

Biographical Sketch: Mierle Ukeles

Mierle Ukeles
Mierle Ukeles received her Bachelor of Arts degree in History and International Relations in 1961 from Barnard College in New York, writing her graduation thesis on "checks and Balances in the History of Tanganyika Territory." This training led her to conclude, early on, that every society shapes its own space, and that the shape a society makes of its space is its "work." Ukeles began to think of such work as a kind of art, and to define her own "work" as an artist in terms of helping us rethink and reshape our space as a society.

In the late 1960s, two events occurred in Ukeles' life that had a profound effect on her career. First, she gave birth to her first child, and the responsibilities of raising children led her to question the polarization between life and art. Secondly, she wrote her "Manifest for Maintenance Art," in which she defined all of her activities, all of her "work"--as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, and as an artist--equally "art."

Since 1970 she has been the unsalaried artist-in-residence for New York City's Sanitation Department where she builds and orchestrates major public projects that explore the social and ecological issues of waste management. Her work asks the community to rethink its common disregard of waste and its disrespect for those who work with it. Such reexamination of our cultural space will allow her, at Fresh Kills Landfill, for instance, literally to reshape our environment. Her Flow City, begun in 1985 and closely tied to the Fresh Kills project, is a walk-through installation for observing the maintenance process that raises questions about waste removal and relocation, and the relationship of the nation's fragile river systems to the problem.


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