Trash Transformed into Art: Exploring the Art of Reclamation
Issue #55, May 2001
Garbologists William Rathje and Cullen Murphy begin their fascinating study of trash with a disclaimer: "To understand garbage you need thick gloves and a mask and some booster shots." They go on to catalogue a typical pile of discarded objects at the local dump:
You have to pick through hundreds of tons of it, counting and weighing all the daily newspapers, the telephone books, the soiled diapers, the foam clamshells that once briefly held hamburgers, the lipstick cylinders coated with grease, the medicine vials still encasing brightly colored pills, the empty bottles of scotch, the half-full cans of paint and muddy turpentine, the forsaken toys, and cigarette butts. You have to sort and weigh and measure the volume of all the organic matter, the discards from thousands of plates: the noodles and the Cheerios and the tortillas; the pieces of pet food that have made their own gravy; the hardened jelly doughnuts, bleeding from their side wounds; the half-eaten bananas, mostly still within their peels, black and incomparably sweet in the embrace of final decay.
I encounter a similarly complex and not entirely unappealing sort of collage when I lift the lid of the stainless steel trashcan in my pantry. I open it and see...a collage of my life. There, nestled between the banana peels, the expired grocery store coupons, and soiled paper towels, is the empty box of chocolate covered cherries my husband and I finished the night before. I smell pizza, Windex, chocolate, a musty, unmistakable foot odor, and the sickening sweet of old bananas. I feel the dryness of paper and the mushiness of banana peels and the roughness of dried bread as I rummage through the trash. Pizza crusts, broccoli stems, assorted junk mail, a lone sock with a gaping hole in the heel, a note that says, "call your sister in New York," cellophane wrapping from something forgotten, an empty box of Uncle Ben's wild rice, a broken pencil, a chewed-up pinecone the dog brought in from the backyard — each of these discarded objects tells a story. Fitting the collage together — the cellophane, the notes, the chocolate box, the pinecone, the pizza crusts — is the archeology of garbage. It requires making meaning of the gaps, reading narrative in absence.
Collage is the art of juxtaposition — like Claude Levi-Strauss's bricoleur, the collage artist depends on the audience's ability to make connections. Diane Waldman, in the book that grew out of the 1988 exhibition at the Guggenheim entitled "Aspects of Collage, Assemblage, and the Found Object in 20th century Art," traces collage, assemblage, and the found object through Cubism, Futurism, the Russian Avant-Garde, Dada, Surrealism, Matisse, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art. She suggests that "Collage also layers into a work of art several levels of meaning: the original identity of the fragment or object and all the history it brings with it; the new meaning it gains in association with other objects or elements; and the meaning it acquires as the result of its metamorphosis into a new entity." Reclamation and transformation endow collage with its sense of celebration, its sometimes disturbing sense of juxtaposition, and its often cunning irony.
In the beginning of the century, collage signaled a radical departure from traditional art forms, though it was present in other cultures before the 20th century. At the end of the century, it has become the art form of our times. It provides space for fragments, for humanity, for indeterminacy, for anarchy, for absurdity, for absence, and for immanence. As Waldman points out, collage embodies "the noise, speed, time, and duration of the twentieth-century urban, industrial experience." If garbage is itself a collage, as I would like to suggest, then it embodies the same characteristics — it exists as a record of our humanity, it captures the speed and transitory nature of our world, and it reveals the material reality of living. Judd Alexander's In Defense of Garbage takes this common-sense understanding to another level. In exploring waste, Alexander examines complex issues surrounding garbage and the nature of memory and perception and in so doing, he suggests powerful reasons for the study of garbage as a cultural artifact. Alexander asks, "Are discarded books, magazines, directories, and correspondence trash, or are they knowledge, education, and entertainment? Are castaway bundles of letters tied with pink ribbons, champagne bottles, wilted bouquets, candle stubs, and wedding slippers junk, or are they memories and romance?"
Objects as Art
In Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience, Iain Chambers suggests, "Official culture, preserved in art galleries, museums, and university courses, demands cultivated tastes and a formally imparted knowledge. It demands moments of attention that are separated from the run of everyday life." The aesthetic recycling of discarded objects subverts this process, making the object itself the subject and allowing the viewer to connect the art object to daily life. I discovered this in the fall of 1998 when I walked into a stunning show at The Arvada Center for the Performing Arts (in Arvada, Colorado). Entitled "Déjâ vu: Artists Reuse Refuse," the exhibit made me understand why discarded objects excite the imagination. Walking through the colorful, textured rooms, I understood the connection between being an artist and being a scavenger: it is the ability to see things in a new way. One piece rose from the smooth floor, silver and sparkling, a huge abstract sculpture made of thousands of compressed aluminum cans. Another reached the ceiling in a forest of newspaper trees. Many used "found objects" in whimsical and ironical ways, while others made intense political statements. I recognized all of them because the materials came from my everyday life. I needed no "formally imparted knowledge" to understand what the artists were trying to communicate. This is the beauty of the art of reclamation. It is accessible and rich with possibility. It can embody the strict aesthetic principles of more traditional art (as did the aluminum can sculpture), or it can communicate a strong political statement (as did the newspaper forest). In reclamation art, politics and aesthetics are often combined. More importantly, the materials of reclamation art create what L. Alloway — in his essay "The Development of British Pop" — calls an "aesthetics of expendability" that "aggressively counters idealist and absolutist art theories." What makes some art expendable and some art permanent? Is it the materials? The weight of time? The way it is preserved? If we encountered an aluminum can sculpture behind glass and protected by red rope at the Louvre, would that make it seem permanent? Speaking of permanence, when I asked the curator at the Arvada Center what would happen to the aluminum can sculpture when the exhibit came to an end, she told me that as far as she knew, if the artist didn't find another venue, he was going to take it apart and redeem the cans for cash.
What happens to objects when they are appropriated from the world of the everyday? In her essay, "From Junk to Art," Lea Vergine argues that the "preservation and reconstitution of refuse" gives us the pleasure of recognition and a window into the past. In her preface to the 1996 MART exhibition called Trash: From Junk to Art, Vergine lists the various forms of art created out of discarded objects, including: art with "classical results"; art which creates a "symbol of hyperbole"; art with "savage irony"; art that has a "psychotic vein"; art with "obsessional catalogues" and "satirical touches"; art that is "ferociously cruel"; art that is "aesthetically and poetically unsightly"; and art with "romanticism and lyricism." The motivations and meanings of such art are endless. According to Vergine, what they share is an attempt to tell the "story behind the discarded object." This kind of storytelling is not new. Its presence in many aesthetic movements in the last 100 years speaks to a deep understanding of the symbolic and aesthetic power of objects.
Trash: From Junk to Art includes discussions of literary garbage as well. In his essay, "Trash Literature," Filippo La Porta provides a brief but helpful history of the use of refuse in literature (specifically Italian literature), beginning with the period between the wars. After the First World War, he argues that "the end of the world is prophesized, craved (with anarchic insolence). Refuse becomes a symbol of scandal and provocation; a kind of (dismal or mocking) chronicle of desolation." Following WWII, "Refuse now comes to be interpreted as a criticism and demystification of affluent society, a mimetic and estranging reproduction of alienation, but also as a redemption of consumer goods, of the dizzying ephemeral nature of so many things." While his study is limited to the maritime literature of Italy, the general shifts he describes apply to other art forms from other countries during other periods. In general, early use of garbage in literature and figurative art reflects La Porta's description in that it is, more than anything, dismally provocative — think of Eliot's "The Waste Land." Later uses embody a sense of mocking irony and criticism of the culture of consumption — think of Warhol's Campbell's soup can. Waldman traces an even later shift in "found object" art in the U.S. when she writes, "Artists of the early 1980's...demystified the object and stripped it of most of its political and social meaning" and later, other artists "deglamorized [the object], even cheapened it, and replaced the wit and whimsy of earlier objects with a new, ruder demeanor." Like any art form, art of the found object shifts and changes over time in order to accommodate cultural change.
However, a general definition is required. Waldman defines art of the "found object" as art containing "usually a mass-produced item selected by the artist, which might be altered or combined with other objects." In his seminal essay, Walter Benjamin examines the presence of mass-produced materials in art and concludes, "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual." The connection between ritual and art creates the authenticity of the work, for the ritual embodies "the location of its original use value." Authenticity and use are directly related. Mechanical reproduction in art — which Benjamin traces through imitations, woodcuts, lithography, photography, and film — removes the "aura" of authenticity from the work of art. The "aura" of the work of art is "outside technical reproducibility" because only "the original preserved all its authority." When great works of art are reproduced and distributed throughout society, Benjamin argues, the "aura" of the work of art withers. What happens when the work of art is not mechanically reproduced but is not infused with the "aura" of originality either? The art of reclamation is original, but its materials are recycled. Does reclamation art wither because it does not represent the original, ritual use of the objects it collects? No — Benjamin's theory of authenticity does not apply to the art of reclamation because unlike mechanical reproduction, reclamation art requires an artist. Art that recycles and reclaims discarded materials is not immune to the mechanical reproduction Benjamin finds so dangerous (again, think of Warhol's Campbell's soup can). But it transforms rather than replicates — and, in this way, it conforms to Benjamin's notion of original, authentic art.
All of this talk of "aura" and originality applies to reclamation art in a fundamental way. Like Levi-Strauss's discussion of the original use of the bricoleur's materials and Marx's insistence on the importance of the "use-value" of commodities, Benjamin's ideas are, in the most fundamental way, about objects — the symbolic and social power of objects. Benjamin feared that mechanical reproduction of art would lead to a world in which the "distracted mass absorbs the work of art" without thinking. His fears do not seem to apply to the art of reclamation — I was anything but distracted when I stood looking at the thousands of aluminum cans and the forest of newspaper trees. Solid objects have a way of grabbing our attention.
When she's not up to her knees in garbage exploring the local dump, Kira Stevens enjoys working with book groups and hosting literary seminars with goodbookslately.com.