Year of Publication


Competition Category

Humanities: Critical Research


Fine Arts


Art and Visual Studies


In Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation Performance (1979-1980), the artist shook hands with over 10,000 trash collectors from the New York City Sanitation Department. As a self-proclaimed “maintenance artist,” she compared the domestic maintenance work of archetypal mothers to the public maintenance work of waste management crews, illuminating the analogous marginalization of the two groups. In order to further analyze Ukeles’ maintenance art, this paper will investigate the general repugnance toward sanitation work while engaging the approaches to feminist and environmentalist thought present in Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror,” William Rathje’s theories of garbology, and ecofeminist theory. This analysis finds that the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality of consumerist culture which has caused the exhaustion of resources and overabundance of landfill waste operates under the same fear of abjection that has pushed women’s work and livelihood into the private sphere and out of the sphere of public recognition.

Ultimately, Ukeles communicates that the foremost shared aspect between mothers and maintenance workers — their marginalization in a hyper-consumerist society — can be traced back to the culturally implemented fear of decay and waste produced by bodily functions. By exposing this societal mythology conceived by patriarchal institutions and enforced by the people in positions of power within them, Ukeles disputes their abjection and degradation of the very people who manage the cultural vestiges we leave behind. Her most recent project, the landfill restoration initiative titled Landing (2008-present), asks that we scrutinize the true nature of our waste through intimate engagement, and furthers her initiative to portray maintenance work and the management of post-consumer waste as an integral deferment of the negative effects of hyper-commercialism on the world’s ecological state.


Haley Drake won the first place in the Humanities: Critical Research category.

Dr. Miriam Kienle was the faculty mentor.