Mierle Laderman Ukeles may be the only person in the universe to have shaken hands with every member of the New York City Department of Sanitation. And she recorded the event on videotape.
The act wasn't a stunt. The shaking of all those hands in 1978 was the first in a continuing series of public art projects by Ukeles directly involving sanitation systems.
If this seems a radical shift from the usual view of public art as that big lump of steel squatting in the downtown plaza, that's because it is. Ukeles believes that disposal and sanitation systems provide just about perfect metaphors for the way individuals and society interact. And it sure gets around the charge that art is elitist.
Ukeles' public art consists of much more than documentation, however. She has completed a monumental installation called "Flow City" at a midtown garbage transfer station on the Hudson, and participated in the reclamation of Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. She has also had installations in Pittsburgh, Tallahassee, Seattle and Los Angeles.
Currently, Ukeles is in town to visit our plentiful dumping grounds. She'll visit area solid and hazardous waste disposal sites and consult with waste industry representatives and environmental advocacy groups.
Ukeles will speak today at 4 p.m. on "Art, the Environment and the Public" at the University at Buffalo Law School, North Campus, O'Brian Hall, Room 106.
During her two-day stay, Ukeles will also participate in meetings with UB's Environmental Policy Clinic, law school faculty and art and art history students.
Ukeles' visit is the final segment in the Castellani Art Museum's five-part series "Art in the Community," which aims to "put the public back into public art." The planning project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Castellani (on the campus of Niagara University). When the planning is complete, artists will submit proposals for possible future implemention.
Ukeles' theories developed when early in her career she had a child and realized that she was a round-the-clock "maintenance worker" who didn't get a coffee break, let alone a full night's sleep. In 1969 she wrote her "Maintenance Art Manifesto."
Local sponsors were the UB Law School and George Spira, manager of government affairs for Chemical Waste Management.