Maintenance Work

Andrew Russeth considers the role of art in a pandemic

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979–80, citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all fifty-nine New York City Sanitation districts, April 15, 1980, Sweep, Manhattan 8. Photo: Deborah Freedman. © Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.

THERE HAVE BEEN harrowing interviews with doctors, sobering podcast hits by experts, and on-the-ground reporting, but when it comes to images of the coronavirus pandemic, the defining ones have been almost entirely ancillary, at least a step removed from the actual devastation. That has made it difficult to grasp its human toll. Many funerals occur without mourners, the sick deserve their privacy, and cartoon renderings of COVID-19 baffle. And so the most visible images related to the crisis have been the time-lapse videos of China speedily building hospitals, the footage of Italians singing and playing instruments on their balconies, photos of medical professionals holding signs asking people to stay home, and now Christ the Redeemer, in Rio de Janeiro, blanketed with a projection of the flags of countries dealing with the disease.

From a public health standpoint, the most effective visuals to emerge have been abstractions. It feels like weeks ago, but it was only on March 14 that the Washington Post published its digital simulations of randomly ricocheting dots, showing how different behaviors can flatten the curve of transmission to wildly different degrees. I suspect I am not the only one who saw those tiny flying circles and sharp-edged graphs and thought of, say, randomly generated compositions by François Morellet and paintings by Morris Louis or Ed Clark or Marina Adams. Works produced by aleatoric methods or just riding on a bit of luck—a pour of paint, a slip of a broom or a brush—have a newfound poignancy.

Perhaps to say so risks sounding deranged—or worse, frivolous. But I have derived some solace from thinking about art that seems to imagine—and even to anticipate—our moment. There are the deserted Parisian streets captured by Charles Marville and Eugène Atget, and the vacant subway cars and stores of Duane Michals’s series “Empty New York,” begun in 1964. (As it happens, Michals shot near the popular selfie spot in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn looking onto the Manhattan Bridge, now empty of Instagrammers.) Certain early Cindy Shermans, with their solitary protagonist moving warily through an abandoned city help, too.

Duane Michals, Empty New York, c. 1964, vintage gelatin silver print, 8 x 10''. ©Duane Michals. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York

Suddenly, a lot of art looks very different. The 5,525 toilet paper rolls in Martin Creed’s 2013 sculpture Work No. 1782 now have a dark piquancy, the writer Greg Allen has pointed out, while the art historian Michael Lobel, on Twitter (where only the true masochists, like myself, reside these days), has highlighted unpopulated paintings by Edward Hopper. Critic Deborah Solomon has mentioned René Magritte’s masked lovers.

But even more than any picture channeling this torturous emergency in an approximate or coincidental way, I have been shored up by revisiting works of art that feel engineered for it, that embody what and who is at risk—and maybe even show ways forward.

This art brushes aside the language of armed conflict adopted by so many politicians. “In this war, ventilators are what missiles were in World War II,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the other day. That may be true, but the metaphor elides the full reality of the situation, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel incisively described in a recent speech. “Those who sit at supermarket cash registers or restock shelves are doing one of the hardest jobs there is right now,” she said. To broaden her argument: This awful catastrophe will be overcome only by repeated, prolonged efforts—feeding people, testing them, treating them, cleaning public spaces, washing hands. The heroes are in maintenance. National Guard troops scrubbed children’s blocks in a school in New Rochelle when the virus hit there. All over the country, sanitation workers are picking up garbage and recycling, and workers at public schools are serving meals for children.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Kitchen Maid, 1738, oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 14 3/4''. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

As the wealthy flee to country homes, it as fine a time as any to turn to Chardin’s lonesome Kitchen Maid, 1738, Ramiro Gomez’s tender scenes of janitors and delivery people, and the laundresses, cleaners, and governesses painted by so many Impressionists. But I am also thinking about art that not only depicts such essential labor, but that actually functions as an ethical representation of it.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is exemplary here. In her “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!,” she explicates two contrary human drives. Development, she says, is about “pure individual creation; the new; change,” while maintenance means “keep the dust off the pure individual creation; preserve the new; sustain the change.” The latter is tied to “life instinct,” which involves “the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations…”

For Ukeles, this argument has both aesthetic and political import. “Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time,” she says, in probably her most famous lines, and she underscores that “the culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay.” In 1973, demonstrating the art she was advocating, she washed the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, scrubbing on her hands and knees.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979–80, citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all fifty-nine New York City Sanitation districts, May 14, 1980, Sweep 10, Manhattan 11. Photo: Deborah Freedman. © Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.

In language that startles today, Ukeles argues that “avant-garde art, which claims utter development, is infected by strains of maintenance ideas, maintenance activities, and maintenance materials.” (Emphasis mine.) She chides Process art in particular for obscuring that fact, but maintenance is in operation everywhere in contemporary art, once you start looking. It is the hidden force that makes so much—in art, and in the world—possible.
Think of the labor required to show Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy piles—ordering and delivering the supplies, disposing of wrappers—and for Pope.L to run a miniature factory bottling and shipping lead-contaminated Flint water and for Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room, 1977, to be kept pristine, with nothing growing in its soil. It’s there in the handling of the ecosystems of Damien Hirst’s more fearsome constructions and the use of the makeshift water-filtering system devised by Tiril Hasselknippe, shown last month at Magenta Plains. It’s definitely there in the Franz Erhard Walter clothing pieces that tie multiple people together in a temporary compact, and that require delicate handling. It is in the care given to preserve any artwork.

Tiril Hasselknippe, Braut (detail), 2020, concrete, pigment, rebar, seashells, moss, crab, stones, gravel, sand, coal, water, dimensions variable. Photo: John Muggenborg. Courtesy the artist and Magenta Plains, New York.

And some artists, of course, have explicitly foregrounded such maintenance and care, like Theaster Gates with his efforts to restore buildings in Chicago and run them as cultural centers, or LaToya Ruby Frazier and her project of meeting with and photographing groups of activists, unions, and families—people living and working together, getting through the day.

To put it bluntly, while contemporary art has enjoyed the myth of radical individuality (development, in Ukeles’s parlance), artists—and the art community—are actually pretty good at setting up systems to keep things going. At the risk of sounding like a self-help guru, when we view art from that vantage point, it makes me believe that we’re ready for this. There will be fundraisers, support networks, and relief measures we have never seen before. Now is a time for Maintenance Art.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979–80, citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all fifty-nine New York City Sanitation districts, January 20, 1980, Sweep 5, Queens 60. Photo: Marcia Bricker. © Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of washing the Wadsworth steps, Ukeles wrote, “It was very hard work. Did that make it real work? I think so. And in the saga aspect of the long duration, something else happened, a piercing through the wall of work into a new place.” There’s no telling right now what that new place will be in the case of this pandemic, once all of the necessary maintenance work is done. (Though maintenance work, if we’re being honest, is never actually finished.) That moment of relief is still a long way off.

But thinking about how to one day memorialize our rapidly approaching losses may help us to confront this disaster adequately in the present. In the case of the so-called Spanish flu, the journalist Laura Spinney has noted that there are no major memorials in many cities—“no cenotaph, no monument.” (A traumatic fight against a brutal disease has not lent itself to a statue in the same way a military victory does.) Perhaps, for us, it will feel right to stage new versions, throughout the world, of Ukeles’s Touch Sanitation, 1979–80, in which she spent months visiting with more than eight thousand employees of the New York Sanitation Department and shaking their hands. This time we’ll need to include far more people—those working the registers, administering the tests, staffing the hospitals, the list goes on and on. However, at least in the city where I’m currently hunkered down, we will be able to say to each of those people the same exact words that she said: “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” Then we will listen to them. 

Andrew Russeth is a writer in New York and deputy editor of Surface magazine.