What's That Trash You're Selling? - Dirty Week


Photo courtesy of Roberto Ventre.

In 1916, a most avant-garde art movement called Dada surfaced in Zurich, Switzerland and although hated by many, the art world has never been the same since. Initially a knee-jerk reaction to the horrors of WWI, Dada eventually came to embody a way of looking at the world. With a Nietzsche-like abandon, Dada sought to create seemingly random montages that reflected what the movement’s leaders saw as the emptying of meaning that daily life was undergoing. Artists like Alice Bailly, Hans Arp, and Salvador Dali created mish-mash, convoluted artistic works that shook up previously conceived notions of what art was “meant to be.”  While these artists may not have been liked by the masses, they certainly succeeded in arousing strong reactions, which is perhaps all they really meant to do in the first place.

Fast-forward and the circumstances of the 21st century have given birth to a new type of untraditional art- Garbage Art, a relatively new art form that has materialized which can be seen as a descendent of the Dada movement.  Certainly on the surface “Garbage Art,” or “Trash Art,” has some strong similarities to the Dada movement. One could easily understand the use of refuse in the making of art as a way to submerge elitist artistic tendencies.  Indeed some trash artists might see it this way, but the majority of these artists working today have a more positive and conscious-laden view of their garbage artworks.

One popular trash artist, HA Schult, is described as “creating attacks against an impassive and waning cultural institution using garbage. Garbage used as a material of refusal and provocation.” Schult’s evocative installation, “Trash People” is known world-wide. “Trash People” was a construction of one thousand life-size ‘people’ made from crushed cans, electronic waste, and other refuse from human consumption. Originally shown in Germany, the exhibition traveled around the world and was exhibited in Moscow’s Red Square, at the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza as well as Rome, New York, Barcelona, Brussels, and Antarctica. For many artists, using detritus in this way seek to comment on the excessiveness of waste in human cultures and to confront us with the ugly and unavoidable consequences of our rampant consumerism.

HA Schult’s “Trash People” in Germany. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But for others still it is just a matter of convenience — trash is a most ubiquitous and cheap material. And while both Dada and Trash Art reflect on the often ludicrous nature of a social norms, they do so in very different ways. Where Dada is nihilistic, Garbage Art speaks of promise. Where Dada says we’re hopeless, Trash Art says we’re redeemable.  Dada speaks of the emptying of meaning, but trash artists comment on the anatomy and potential vilification of man’s waste.  One is an emptying, the other, a glorification of the ever creative spirit of man; a comeback, and a renewed life for our discarded. This perspective is nothing if not relevant in consideration of the current enormous buildup of trash across our planet.

Of course, long before all this talk of garbage art so-called “eccentrics” were building houses out of discarded bottles in the name of architecture, novelty, or necessity in places like Nevada and Prince Edward Island. Perhaps these trailblazing spirits helped to unwittingly inspire our modern garbage artists. However, the energy behind these past endeavors seemed more of a playful type as opposed to the condemnation on humanity’s wastefulness that seems to motivate many modern trash artists.

In the award-winning documentary, Waste Land, well-known Brazilian artist Vik Muniz used materials from Jardin Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage landfill, to create portraits of the dump’s employees known as the “pickers.” For this project, Muniz chooses one of the most seemingly downtrodden of landscapes to serve as a stark juxtaposition against the dignity of man.

Waste Land director, Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground, Blindsight), had this to say about Muniz’s project, “Seeing garbage turned into art can help people to re-imagine the potential latent beauty within themselves. ‘Trash art’ can have broader implications than aesthetics, or even cultural commentary. I believe it can be inspirational, and have even a type of metamorphosis effect on people’s minds due to its unique nature as a work of complete rejuvenation.”

Through his portraits of the “pickers” who help him with his creations, Muniz is able to relay the transformative power of art and self- reflection, and all through the handling of garbage.