Uncontrolled waste production is one of the most concerning problems of our time. Almost every aspect of our lives entails some kind of waste, forcing us to develop ways to reduce it or recycle it into other functions. One of the most unsettling features of uncontrolled waste is the sheer amount of space it occupies, often in specific areas designated for the purpose of accumulating and dismantling used goods, especially in the Global South. Waste, however, is not just a physical plague but also a metaphorical one: a conundrum that torments our actions and constantly questions our habits. We (especially the Global North) take up too much space, use too much, and waste too much. The labor required to dispose of everything we throw away sums up to the labor necessary to produce food and goods in the first place. In our daily life we are usually asked to separate our waste to simplify the work of the people who take care of recycling, but knowing how imperfect and recycling actually is, our little precaution often feels quite pointless. Exceeding waste easily becomes a symptom of moral failure, leaving little to hope for future generations. It’s worth reminding that most waste is caused by overproduction, a fundamental component of our economy, often depicted as unavoidable. Are we stuck into a system that doesn’t allow for sensible consumption and a level of production that does match the needs and not exceed it just to allow a few to reap an exaggerated profit?
What might give us comfort and some peace of mind is reducing and refusing bulky packaging, especially if it’s plastic. But in all of these reflections and paranoia, in part justified and in part fueled by the increasing climate anxiety which seems to linger over any conversation about the state of the world, we might find comfort in art.
The employment of waste and scrap materials in the arts has a long history. Art can make waste into a noble substance, giving it a new function, untied to practical use and free to exist as something with no end and no goal. Art allows us to ask: Where does waste begin? When does a material become useless? How can we reimagine waste as potentially creative material? And when can we stop calling it waste?
What is sometimes called sustainable art is actually a quite diverse ensemble of practices that tackle different issues related to, for example: air and water pollution, climate change, global warming, extraordinary climate phenomena, coastal erosion, melting glaciers, and the uprooting of indigenous communities. While historically land art was considered an environmentally concerned artistic movement, nowadays artists and critics tend to agree that a sustainable artistic practice usually encompasses techniques that not only avoid disturbing natural environments but also actively promote a healthy relation to the world at large. Some artists use non-polluting agents and pigments to compose their works, others incorporate messages in defense of animal rights or philosophy of communion and cohabiting with animals and plants directly taken from their indigenous knowledge. Employing waste, though, is quite a unique case. It’s a way of incorporating in the artwork itself the very same matter that triggered its conception in the first place.
Making artworks out of waste is almost a transformative process, where scraps are turned into gold, and where useless or harmful material (that we don’t even call objects anymore) become an artistic element, with dignity and a reason to be.
Observing artworks made of recycled materials one might notice that they can usually can be divided into two main categories: the artworks in which waste is visibly the main component and the ones in which waste has taken a completely new form, after having gone through a transformation process that not only altered its function but also its looks. The feeling of a sculpture obviously made of discarded rubber parts is quite different from a fluid construction achieved by melting plastic and molding it into a new, impeccable, seamless form. The reasons are various and always stimulating. Sometimes waste doesn’t mean “waste”; it might be shorthand for joyful reinvention, the unavoidable brevity of life, or other daunting aspects of the human experience. Let’s dive into some examples of artists that employ waste in different ways and to express different issues, starting from quite illustrious, historical cases.
Starting in the 60’s, Daniel Spoerri would immortalize the remains of meals and fix them on the table on which they were consumed, making vertical artworks from leftovers. The American artist Jeremy Butler has more recently taken on a similar task by composing assemblages of miniscule particles of many types of waste. The result is a colorful mosaic of debris that recalls a bird-eye view of cultivated fields or a maquette for a retro futuristic space station. You can see both maniacal order and liberating chaos in these recuperated patchworks.
Eliana Heredia collects many kinds of waste to make unseen environments from scratch. In her hands 50 rolls of magnifying foil and 400 rolls of toilet paper turn into a hypnotic grotto populated by stalagmites and floating mirrors entitled Anableps and the water. The ephemerality of paper is exploited to channel infinitely long temporalities, allowing the visitor to lose themselves in a dream-like location. Waste can be used to explore concepts like overproduction, overconsumption, the longevity of materials and their perishability. What is “use” and when does the transition from useful to useless happen? And then when does waste become aesthetically significant through the creative process? These artworks seem to ask all of these questions, while also tackling themes of impermanence and the relative importance of small objects and shared moments.
Rain Wu artistically manipulates waste and perishable changing objects displaying them on a vertical metal grid in Facsimile of a Breeze. This object, constructed on an island in the Azores, ignites conversations about the flimsiness of man-made conventions. The artist’s research into the history of the island uncovered that “Sabrina Island was an islet formed in 1811 by a submarine volcanic eruption off São Miguel in Azores. The first person to land on the new island was Commander James Tillard, a British captain who hoisted the Union Jack there. Following his claim of sovereignty for Great Britain, Tillard returned to the Azores but the island had disappeared”. Confines and flags are arbitrary and limiting but insignificant compared to the unrestrained surface of the sea.
Sometimes artworks using waste can be quite unsettling, like Stomach Contents by Swaantje Güntzel; a gumball machine loaded with plastic containers carrying plastic waste found on Kure Atoll in Hawaii. There is a difference between knowing what plastic waste is and experiencing what it entails, seeing a representation of its uncanny consequences. It seems that such artworks can bridge the gap between the abstract notion of overconsumption and the very real, ghastly phenomenon of trash islands.
Lizzie Kimbley’s textile work is a celebration of care practices and the collection of precious memories. Walking Blickling is a series of baskets made with twigs and leaves collected during walks around Blickling Hall in Norfolk, an emotionally significant place for the artist. The act of weaving to form nest-like vessels reflects the act of recounting tales and experiences, making art out of naturally available elements.
In some cases art can even challenge the meaning of waste itself: Song Dong’s installation Waste Not at the MoMA in 2005, composed by every little object his mother accumulated during her life, gives us a moving outlook on the outstanding amount of apparently insignificant trinkets that pass us by in a lifetime. A woman’s life condensed into 10000 objects of different sizes, spread out in a way that makes you sure that none of them can be speared in order to tell her story.
Using waste instead of traditional artistic material or very specific objects also means reducing the use of potentially polluting coloring agents and glues, and the usage of large amounts of energy for both transportation and for the treatment of substances. The term “sustainable” can be potentially applied to any practice that is mindful of its impact, making conscious choices about the process that leads to the creation of the oeuvre, however explicit those expedients are in the finished output. All artists can adopt environmentally conscious solutions following resources like the Waste and Materials Ki Book or even the Energy Ki Book, when attempting to reduce the energy consumption of their studio. Artists whose poetics doesn’t directly address questions of overconsumption or climate change can use services specifically dedicated to artists. For example recycling centers like Materials for the Arts in New York, Work and Play Scrapstore in London, Recreate in Dublin, the Zentralstelle für wiederverwendbare Materialien (Central Office for Reusable Material) in Berlin, or even residencies like Recycled Artist in Residency in Philadelphia where artists can immerse themselves in a truly regenerative environment.
A tip we can all take from the experience of artists and their willingness to improve their resource management is to take life slowly and fully appreciate everything we use. Although there are no fixed rules on how to practice sustainable art, keeping work context-sensitive can be the key to respecting the possibilities of the location you are operating in. Creating or joining communities in which it’s easy to reach out and share resources (and waste) can be a good way of diffusing our impact. At times artistic contributions can be simple instructions that will give us a mission to fulfill and the opportunity to feel part of a good-meaning community; Martino Gamper wrote this score in 140 Artists’ Ideas for Planet Earth:
- Go for a walk or swim and pick up a small item of plastic waste (or other material) from nature: park, forest, mountain or beach
- Recycle and dispose accordingly
- Repeat daily, increasing quantity
- You’ll quickly become an expert
- Collect with your patron friends, or start a collecting group
Equipment needed: a reusable rubbish bag, gloves and tongs. No previous experience needed. Warning: this might become addictive!”
Ultimately art is a powerful vehicle for ideas and positive examples that can branch out in many different directions, inspiring creative endeavors or more mundane activities. Who knows where art can take us in the current environmental challenge?
By Valentina Bianchi — a Brussels-based curator working with local and international organizations in the field of contemporary art in connection with science and sustainability.