An artist continues her applause for essential workers

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An artist continues her applause for essential workers
20 Times Square. Photo: Ian Douglas.

by Jane Margolies

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Murals thanking frontline health care workers have popped up in neighborhoods all over New York during the pandemic. A new art piece, unveiled Tuesday across the city, pays homage to other essential workers: the men and women who run the transit system and pick up garbage day in and day out.

And it comes from an artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who for decades has honored those who toil anonymously in the service of the city.

Ukeles, 80, the artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation, is perhaps best known for a 1979-80 performance piece for which she shook hands with all 8,500 employees of the agency, saying to each one, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive!”

Her new work, entitled “For ———> forever…,” reprises that exact message, via a 15-second animation of a note being handwritten. The message — “Dear Service Worker, ‘Thank you for keeping NYC alive!’ For —--> forever” — will be played on a loop on a digital billboard in Times Square and on 2,000 message boards in the subways.

At the Queens Museum, which initiated the project, the work will take the form of five vinyl banners stretched across the 200-foot-wide glass facade of the building in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

The museum collaborated on the project with Times Square Arts and the arts and design program at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Ukeles’ piece comes at a time when the pandemic has plunged the city into a fiscal crisis not seen since the 1970s, when the artist first took her unsalaried position with the sanitation department. Now, like then, garbage is piling up, as the budgets of city agencies are slashed.

But Ukeles encodes hope in her new work. The animation sequence starts with a flash of orange-red, which conveys emergency, and ends with the neon green of the safety vests worn by sanitation workers. “It swells from one shade to another,” she said, “and we feel optimistic.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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