Hello, hello baby you called? I can’t hear a thing
Or, a funny thing happened to the funny thing that happened to Mierle Ukeles
At the Kitchen’s spring gala last night, The Awl’s Choire Sicha reports, honoree Philip Glass told a story about how John Cage performed a piece so crowd-unfriendly he managed to empty the room. The point was that artists need space to experiment and fail—something ever more difficult to come by these days, as even the most evanescent performances are hyper-documented for purposes as varied as scholarship, social networking, and selling.
Then, Sicha continues, Cabinet editor Sina Najafi told him a story that “really is something of a game of telephone and may range in accuracy anywhere from ‘apocryphal’ to ‘entirely accurate,’ the failures being mine.” That story concerns a performance that supposedly happened one night at the Wadsworth Atheneum, when Mierle Laderman Ukeles ended up cleaning a mummy case, alone, observed only by a lone art handler who grew up and turned out to be Mike Kelley.
Niborama loves a good game of telephone, so she sent the link to Ukeles. Here is her response:
When I read this link, I laughed out loud. There are wisps of truths here, but it didn’t ever happen like this. Sina or whomever started this truly telephone story has put together 4 performance works at the Wadsworth with another at the Boston ICA all in 1973 and 1974. The cleaning, the keys, the mummy were all elements of the 4 performance works at the Wadsworth, but NOT in the dark, because I wanted to bring it all out of the dark, number 1 and do this work in broad daylight during “open” hours. And not emptying the Mummy case (which actually was on loan from the Met). I made the Mummy Case the art by doing a dust painting. I picked the Mummy case because she still had her breasts even though she was over 2000 years old. Once I turned the Mummy case into art, the maintenance worker who had always cleaned it could no longer touch it and the museum had to call in the conservator to do a condition report and a “cleaning of the artwork.” Basically, we all copied the maintenance worker’s actions, even though he was knocked out of the picture by VALUE.
The curator did stick around for the first Mummy Case performance, but left town before I locked up the whole museum, gallery by gallery, by taking each key from each guard and then came back on Sunday to wash the outside and inside all day long.
I did do a performance work at the Boston ICA titled “SOME KINDS OF MAINTENANCE CANCEL OUT OTHERS: KEEP YOUR HEAD TOGETHER - 1000 TIMES”
I hung up several hundred pieces of paper, individually, on a clothesline that crisscrossed the gallery. Each time I read 4 statements. I did this again and again all day long (so maybe then I could believe them). Yes, it was very boring, but highly durational and obsessive. The statements were:
For the good of my family, I must do my work
To do my work I need a babysitter.
It’s OK to have a babysitter, so I can do my work.
For my good, too, I can do my work.
Each time, I stamped the page with the ORIGINAL MAINTENANCE ART stamp. Then started the recitation again.
The piece began with my calling home in NYC and asking the babysitter if my 3 little kiddies were OK. It ended with a call to the babysitter: Are they OK?
High 1970’s feminist anxiety.
There was no audience. This didn’t bother me at all. Remember, this was the early 70’s. No P.R. no thinking about press. Maybe 1 or 2 people passing through during many hours. But there was a painter who worked in the gallery, painting the hall next to the gallery. He stayed there for several hours and he became my audience. He told me he really liked this work. Someone told me later that he was Paul McCarthy. Not Mike Kelly.
RE: Failure: very important. Actually when I teach, especially grad school, I always say to the students, make a mess, take a chance, fail. Here’s your time to do this.
Thanks for asking.
[Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance, Outside, 1973, part of “Maintenance Art Performance Series,” 1973-74. Performance at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. ©Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York]