Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980. Citywide performance with 8500 Sanitation workers across all 59 New York City Sanitation districts. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Marcia Bricker.

One person’s trash is another person’s art, at least for Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the artist who became the New York City Department of Sanitation’s first and only artist-in-residence in the late '70s. She isn’t paid for the position, but she does keep an office within the city agency’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, as The New York Times reports.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art, a retrospective of the artist currently on display at the Queens Museum, displays the fruits of that decades-long municipal partnership. In the museum’s introduction to the exhibit, the curators explain why the Department of Sanitation was the perfect place for Ukeles to create art:

Ukeles’ main body of work flows from a four­ page manifesto written in 1969. In the manifesto she identifies two categories into which Western culture has divided all activity: Development (which is valued) and Maintenance (which is not). As an artist, she considered her work part of the first group but with the birth of her first child she felt—shockingly—relegated to the second. Rather than accepting this, she designated Maintenance as Art and herself a ‘Maintenance Artist.’

Half a century later, America’s crumbling infrastructure has made Ukeles's point about the lack of respect for maintenance even more salient. Deferred maintenance and a dearth of public spending for infrastructure upkeep have created a system of roads, trains, and airports that is out-of-date, and, in some cases, dangerously neglected.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks /Maintenance: Inside, July 23, 1973. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

Some of the works included in Ukeles’s retrospective include Trax for Trucks and Barges II, an audio piece using field recordings of the city’s sanitation system and snippets from the artist’s conversations with the “sanmen” who care for it; Pulse II, a facade of three-light blinkers salvaged from old trash trucks; and photos of her early ‘70s series Maintenance Art Performances, in which she washed steps, raked leaves, and scrubbed sidewalks to highlight the fundamental, overlooked tasks performed by maintenance workers that keep society running.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, The Gates of the City: A Truck Washing Fountain, 1986. Ink and oil pastel on paper, 14 x 11 in. (35.6 x 27.9 cm). Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Vuilniswagendans (City Machine Dance), May 15, 1985. Performance at the International Art Festival, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Six garbage collection vehicles and four mechanical sweepers. Co-created with workers from ROTEB (the Municipal Sanitation Department of Rotterdam). Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Jannes Linder.

You can even see the piece that spurred her collaboration with the Sanitation Department: the 1971 project “I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day," when she took 704 Polaroids of 300 maintenance workers at a downtown office building and asked them whether the photos captured them during a period of Maintenance Art or of work.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980. Citywide performance with 8500 Sanitation workers across all 59 New York City Sanitation districts. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Marcia Bricker.

“I have been very lucky to have officials and workers and the art world willing to open all the doors, to take a risk and say ‘Yes. Yes!’” Ukeles writes in her artist’s statement. “Welcome to the results.”

The show runs until February 19, and anyone who has worked or currently works for the Department of Sanitation in New York gets in free with their family.

[h/t The New York Times]

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