Throwaway Culture

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Why the visual world is in love with waste

Rue de Provence by Jacques Villeglé (photo by Francois Poivret)

After a recent lecture, a British artist and publisher named Tony Hayward approached me with a slender book in hand, containing some fine sepia photographs of Indian-made rat traps. In the Hindu faith, the rat is regarded as a sacred animal and a bringer of good luck, despite the great health risks posed by rodents. The traps in the photos were intuitively conceived and beautifully fashioned by local craftsmen from waste materials. They mainly used wire, but in a few cases the walls, ramps, and flaps were cut out of old tin containers. The last thing an inquisitive rat would see before its incarceration would be promotional graphics for engine parts, Fujicolor film, or Cuticura talcum powder—a popular brand in India.

There is something immensely satisfying about objects made from materials that would otherwise have been thrown away. These gently subversive inventions intrigue, charm, and gladden the heart. As the great Patti Smith sings in “25th Floor,” “The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest preoccupation of man.” Even before we started to worry so much about “sustainability,” the process represented a kind of everyday alchemy: the base material of garbage—spent, downgraded, discarded, and unloved—is ingeniously transmuted into something splendidly useful. But it’s almost always more than that. The new hand-forged artifact possesses an allure, an artfulness, an air of the unexpected, a magic and mystery that often make it far more desirable than the manufactured version, which offers the same, or even superior, function. If I ever find myself in need of a rat trap, I’d much prefer to buy a recycled Indian one.

The strange thing about garbage is that the trick of transformation can be worked irrespective of function. All that’s necessary is to extract the detritus from its usual context. When it’s underfoot in the street or consigned to the dump, every kind of garbage looks redundant, negligible, and impure. Most of the time, we prefer not to look at trash at all, assuming that it is unworthy of our attention. When the trash can overflows, and the waste matter breaks out of its allotted area, we want order restored as soon as possible. If dirt is “matter out of place,” in the famous anthropological formulation, then garbage out of place is just as likely to cause offense.

Yet put a frame around the trash (implied or actual) and it can be become a compelling object of interest. In 2001, a School of Visual Arts student named Justin Gignac began selling garbage for $10–$100 a pop. Gignac wanted to show the importance of packaging in making something—anything at all—impossible to resist, and he started enclosing carefully chosen trash samples “hand-picked from the fertile streets of NY, NY” in clear plastic packages dignified with the legend “Garbage of New York City.” The project continues, and Gignac—a former advertising man who is now an artist—claims to have sold more than 1,300 of the hygienic little cube sculptures to garbage aficionados in 29 countries.

Garbage of New York City by Justin Cignac

Although Gignac is clearly onto a good thing, only the scale of the enterprise and the populist price are new. Artists have been reclaiming lowly trash and upgrading it into collectible gallery art for the last century. One of the purest examples of this tendency (if “pure” isn’t a misleading word here) is the 1960s French-born, naturalized-American artist known by the single name Arman.

Arman had a genius for reclamation. One piece of his, Poubelle (1971), consists of the contents of a trash can displayed in a vertical glass case like the crushed and half-obscured revelations of some future archaeological dig. He also liked to direct our attention to the distinguishing features of particular kinds of castoffs. One early Arman consists of nothing but used dentures. Other pieces ask us to consider the insistent, peculiar, utility-stripped “thingness” of watch faces, electric razors, vials, doll hands, squeezed-out toothpaste tubes, gas masks, and women’s high-heeled shoes (title: Madison Avenue).

Arman’s fellow New Realists were just as attracted to waste. Jacques Villeglé built a career out of tearing down the thick layers of tattered street posters that accumulated on Parisian walls, finding in these brutalized surfaces images of beguiling delicacy. His pieces, presented in the gallery like paintings, were a form of collage composed largely by the invisible hand of chance, then given a bit of assistance by the artist. Looking at Villeglé’s trash-pictures, which never fail to entrance me, I find myself wondering how something so ripped to shreds could come out looking so good.

For graphic image-makers, collage remains the instrument by which defunct printed matter is reanimated into strange new life. “Cut and paste” is one of the great cultural ideas of the modern era, with applications across all the arts. The history of collage spans the 20th century, and based on present evidence, it looks likely to run through the cultural production of this century, too. The more visual things we make, the more material we have lying around to cut up and reassemble into pleasing and meaningful new shapes. It’s hard to imagine a time when the urge to transform this kind of waste would simply wither away. If anything, our increasingly textureless digital existence (could there be a less haptic surface than a touch screen?) has encouraged designers to reengage with the physicality of things. The more we try to limit the use of paper in the coming decades—because we should—the more appealing the substance will look and feel.

Petit Déchets Bourgeois by Arman

The transformation of waste by means of collage, though comparable to the use of bits of old wire and tin to build a trap, is not the same kind of recycling. An Indian rat trap redirects existing materials and puts them to new use, and its fabrication requires few resources. However appealing it looks, it exists only to catch unwanted intruders. In a society that regularly built its traps in this way, there would be much less need for manufactured traps that consumed new materials. Though making a collage has the small virtue of being an inexpensive way to construct an image, anyone concerned with paper as a finite resource would do better to collect waste-paper and return it for processing so it could be used again.

The impulse to make a collage serves a different purpose. The collagist is usually engaged in the symbolic, rather than actual, rearrangement of reality. Elements of the collage—a hand, a bird, a bicycle, a chair—come from the world we know; we can often identify their provenance and date them to a decade. But their new setting is a kind of proposition in compressed visual form that pictures an idealized or even utopian dimension. In the combinatorial space defined by a collage, colors change, ordinary perspective collapses, the usual scale and relationship between things is inverted (a flower dwarfs a person, a head becomes an eye), different eras in history fold together, and figuration and abstraction merge together on the same visual plane.

The idea of waste matter is intrinsically displeasing. But the collage-maker knows otherwise and refuses to allow waste to go to waste. In plan chests and filing cabinets,
lovingly assembled hoards of cutout pictures and torn paper strips await their moment. Their chance combinations, as they repose in the drawers, will often suggest new images. By a paradoxical twist, the collage’s surface area becomes an arena of intensified aesthetic attention. In a successful collage, superfluous and otherwise unwanted visual matter—trash by any other name—is transfigured and redeemed, and the garbage comes back to us as a paper jewel.

This article is from the August 2012 issue of Print, which is devoted to trash. You can also view the table of contents, purchase the issue, or download a PDF version.