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TRASH AESTHETICS

“I hoard therefore I am”, was the statement that I used to present my self-branding research at Artez in 2014. In the leaflet that I created because of my research into Obsessive Compulsive Hoarding I imagined myself as a packrat “burrowing into the fabric of experience to extrapolate treasures through consumption and digestion of my habitat”. I used this imagery because this animal reminds me of my own practice of hoarding and creating my environment. Packrats are nest builders. They use materials from their environment to build nests that may preserve the materials incorporated into them for up to 50,000 years. Thus, enabling scientists to study the environment that persisted at the time the nest was built. Similarly, to packrats, I collect objects that are signature for the time that I live in. I use these objects as material for storytelling.

The visual stories that I create follow a certain aesthetic that I developed during the self-branding course. Initially I was inspired by observations of strategically placed garbage and placement of objects in art exhibitions. It is fascinating how random objects gain museum value through means of presentation. Objects are put against white walls, on pedestals, on elegant mannequins and inside long glass cases with backlight. In this way a space is created that focuses attention in the centre. It is this aesthetic practice that I appropriated into my own artistic work and would like to examine in this essay. Furthermore, I will focus my attention on discussing the work of artists that influenced my artistic practice and the mechanism at work that adds value to trash – objects and places of no or low value – and transforms it into art. 

Bag Lady, 2013

Trash is the chaotic residue of human systems that remains after order has been removed (Snake-Beings, 2015). However, artists transform trash into art by establishing a new order. The aesthetic potential of trash is a well-established subject in art practice. According to Stacy Boldrick “waste can be reused in artworks which are bought, sold, collected, and conserved, and its preservation can be considered another form of commodification”. Trash has had a place in avant-garde since the early twentieth century, when Marcel Duchamp introduced the idea of the readymade that is any slight modified, often discarded, manufactured object selected and displayed as an art work (Boldrick, 2015). Since then the reuse and recycling of waste materials have become conventional economical practices for artists, but once transformed into an art commodity, what kind of effect does the work have on viewers? In gaining some sort of aesthetic value, does trash no longer signify trash? Is it simply a reconfiguration and relocation of waste? Does the form of its representation register for the viewer on the same level as trash, or has it become something else?

Social anthropologist Michael Thompson has tackles these questions in his writings on the status of art and rubbish in relation to production and consumption in the 1970’s (Boldwick, 2015). He distinguishes three categories of value that is granted to objects that are interchangeable, dynamic and can be created and destroyed: “durables” are valued objects held in museums, “rubbish” is discarded objects, and “transient” are objects in circulation that are not yet classified as either durables or rubbish (Boldrick, 2015).

ARRRGH! expo at Centraal Museum, 2014

In 2014 I stumbled upon a peculiar case study related to these theoretical concepts during the exposition ARRRGH! Monsters in Fashion at the Central Museum in Utrecht. In one of the rooms there stood a large flat television screen featuring an art film by artist Bart Hess. However, it was a pile of, what I assumed to be, strategically placed trash that caught my attention. I distinctively remember that there was a stack of, seemingly random, rectangular shaped building materials placed next to the television screen and a stack of UV lights placed in the outer corner of the room. Although it is not clear with what intention these objects were added to the design of the exhibition, in that setting they became “durable” because they were presented in a museum next to actual artworks. Read apart from the exhibition they could be classified as “transient” or “rubbish” based on the setting that they would be placed in. Found in a hardware store the UV light tubes could be considered as “transient” or possible material for an artwork, just as the pile of building materials. Discarded at the local garbage facility these objects would clearly be understood as “rubbish”. So, it becomes clear that these concepts are interchangeable depending on the setting that adds value to them.

Melanie Bonajo, Future Bondage 2007

Another example would be the art project Future Bondage by artist Melanie Bonajo that was published as a limited-edition book by Kodoij Press in 2009. It consists of a series of photographs that “focus on how our domestic life creates our identity and shapes our future, the relationships that human beings have with the environment, both private and public, and the desire to create harmony within this” (Bonajo, 2009). The images in this series combine “seemingly opposing elements, nude figures with disposable objects, but when combined these figures become a fusion of the individual and the material, becoming a hybrid that expresses our modern age” (Bonajo, 2009). In the image’s bodies are bound up together by rope with various objects as furniture and household appliances. Again, the objects are presented as “durable” because they are documentations of situations that represent artworks, also known as performance art, and published in an art book. However, the practice of collecting invaluable objects could also be read as hoarding.

Charmaine Eddy describes hoarding as a “psychopathology that manifests in terms of peoples relationship to objects”. In her article ‘Trash and Aesthetics in the Hoard’ she studied the television programs Hoarders and Hoarders: Buried Alive and concluded that the shows evolved around the practice of teaching hoarders to evaluate objects based on their economic value and dispose of everything else (Eddy, 2015). I have reason to believe that the same guidelines apply to artists that chose to transform trash into art, as there seems to be a certain logic in the kind of objects they present and the way in which they present them.

Esther Kokmeijer, Dolf Henkes Prijs 2014

For example, Esther Kokmeijer exhibited a collection of random objects as an artwork that was part of the Dolf Henkes Prijs at TENT Rotterdam in 2014. She filled a temporary wall with 49 objects that she described in the complementary pamphlet. These objects were somehow related to her various journeys across the Globe and could also be classified as travel paraphernalia or relics. Although completely random in nature they were meant to prove that her journey took place.

Another collection of random objects titled PROJECT 000 004 Hypertrichosis bow tie 2.0 was presented by artist Anouk van Klaveren in the exhibition HAIR in fashion and art at Central Museum Utrecht in 2016. The project aimed to expose the mass consumption of the fashion system. A range of people have donated hair that has been collected in plastic bags bearing a number rather than a name. In an almost ‘industrial’ and surreal way these locks of hair form part of an impersonal system of databases, test tubes and colour analysis, ending up as cheerful bow ties. It featured several collections of random items arranged by the artist on a white wall into a series with locks of hair in plastic bags, a series of pieces of fabric grouped by colour, a series of gentleman’s bowties and a series of laboratory equipment presented on a thin white shelf.

Anouk van Klaveren, Centraal Museum 2016

Both installations resemble a hoard, which is an overwhelming heap of trash, however in stead of abjection, the means of presentation enables the viewer to behold the secrets hiding within. The artists have saved, curated and archived objects of no or low value and transformed them into an artwork that is presented in a museum. The question remains how do artists determine which objects are worthy of transformation?

The answer may lie in Charmaine Eddy’s observation that “hoarders identify the hoard itself as a non-human ‘actant’ with a ‘material agency’ or life of its own”, and they “experience the hoard as having its own momentum or drive to persist and grow” (Eddy, 2015). This transformation from an “object” collection to a “thing” was coined by Bill Brown as “thing theory” in his like named article in 2001 (Eddy, 2015). Within this framework Jane Bennett argues that there is “a form of agency manifested by the totality of objects within the collection of the hoard”, and that “the individual object can also exhibit ‘thing-power’ when seen from the point of view of the hoarder” (Eddy, 2015). When “seeing potential in objects that served their purpose, we witness the move from ‘object’ to ‘thing’, as the hoarder makes something out of nothing, producing what does not even count as an object – the non-object one might say – as having legitimate ‘thing power’” (Eddy, 2015). If we imagine the hoarder as a thing theorist, rather than a person with disorder, then we may be able to perceive the objects in the hoard outside of the cycle of human consumption and waste since thing theory demands that we view the object apart from its relation to human subjectivity (Eddy, 2015).

In this way a potential emerges that transcends waste “because there is something about trash that has moved beyond function and human purpose and entered the realm of the sublime[1]” (Snake Beings, 2015). When words fail to describe, we have what Immanuel Kant calls the feeling of the sublime: an anomaly, or rupture in the power of language to encapsulate the world, an experience that cannot be placed within an overriding system of representation or visualization (Snake-Beings, 2015). Then there is Lyotard’s idea of the sublime, as a realm outside of the limitations of the rational mind in which: “art does not imitate nature, it creates a world apart […] in which the monstrous and the formless have their rights because they can be sublime” (Snake-Beings, 2015). Because of this Emit Snake Beings argues that an individual human artist is not necessarily central in the construction of works that engage in trash aesthetic.

Billboard, Emit Snake Beings 2015

In his paper ‘Trash Aesthetics and the Sublime: Strategies for Visualizing the Unrepresentable within a Landscape of Refuse’, Emit Snake Beings uses a series of photographs of empty billboards that in his opinion embody a landscape that follows a trash aesthetic “for it seems we can only visualize trash once it has been transformed into something that is more useful in the generation of meaning” (Snake-Beings, 2015). Although he claims that it is strange that “images that represent the mess behind human structure”, and, “are part of a trash aesthetic that displaces human intention”, appear in a book – that is an intentional object of representation – media is being used here to provide accessible examples of the actual objects themselves (Snake-Beings, 2015).

But there is more to the use of media in the trash aesthetics of the artists that I mentioned earlier. These artists collectively use a certain object aesthetic in presenting trash as an artwork. As I have mentioned earlier, objects are put against white walls, on pedestals, on elegant mannequins and inside long glass cases. In this way a space is created that focuses attention in the centre. Moreover, light is being used in a specific manner to create a contrast between the object and its surrounding. I am referring to the use of spot lighting that is often placed on top of artworks or aimed at them. This manner of lighting is enhanced by a snapshot aesthetic in the photographic representation of the artworks.

In fashion photography a good example of the snapshot aesthetic can be found in the work of Terry Richardson. Although this artist mainly practices the portrait genre, his work can be read as an interpretation of the trash aesthetic as his photographs feature models and celebrities dressed and presented to look like they are inhabitants of a trailer park in the mid USA. These snapshots are fortified by a flash light that adds a strong contrast between the model and the surrounding. This aesthetic is also prevalent in the documentation of artworks, such as in the work of Melanie Bonajo and me.

Fast Fashion, 2013

The collective use of these centring aesthetic through means of presentation in museums and photography could be attributed to what Amos Vogel described as “visual literacy” in regarding to film. In his talk ‘Film as Art’ he explains that “obviously as one gets more and more exposed to such images or the multiplicity of techniques that are being used in these films, one becomes more attuned to them and that is an inevitable process, and the reverse is also an inevitable process. The less you get attuned to such things, the less literate you are, the less you are able to understand or appreciate, or to see, or to read, or to grasp whatever” (Vogel, 1980). This point of view suggests that there is a collective language that artists develop through repetitive exposure to the prevalent aesthetic.

In his book ‘The Courage to Create’, Rollo May presents another theory of what makes such collective aesthetics possible. He suggests that “the symbols only dreamt about by most human beings are expressed in graphic form by the artists”, and goes on to say that, “artists can portray these experiences in music or words or clay or marble or on canvas because they express what Jung calls the ‘collective unconscious’’ (May, 1975).

According to Carl Jung the collective unconscious is “a part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition” (Jung, 1936). Furthermore “the contents of the collective unconscious have never been in consciousness, and therefore have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence exclusively to heredity. Whereas the personal unconscious consists for the most part of complexes, the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes” (Jung, 1936). This theory suggests that there might be more to the centring aesthetic that is being used by artists than visual literacy or what I would also like to call a trend. If read from Jung’s perspective a trend would be an example of individually acquired personal unconscious because it is an emerging practice learned through repetitive exposure and imitation. However, there could also be an archetype that the artists pursue.

Jung ratifies his theory of the archetype by drawing examples from other fields of study. He claims that mythological research calls it “motif”, in psychology of primitives it corresponds to Levy-Bruhl’s concept of “representations collectives”, in the field of comparative religion it has been defined by Hubert and Mauss as “categories of the imagination”, and Adolf Bastian called them “elementary” or “primordial thoughts” (Jung, 1936). However, it is difficult to pinpoint archetypes that belong to the collective unconscious because insufficient research has been done on the subject. Jung suggests that examples could be distilled from dreams, mythology and religious sphere (Jung, 1936).

Patch, 2013
A snapshot of my neighbourhood, 2013

In my opinion the most obvious archetype of centring aesthetic would be the Sun, which is something that all life on Earth treasures because it is crucial to our survival. Moreover, it is always central in our view from Earth during the day even though it rises in the east and sets in the west. And thus, all the centring practices through placement and lighting in my opinion subconsciously represent the Sun. These practices centre an object like the Sun, place it on a pedestal above ground, and present it against a clear background or create a contrast between the object and the background so it becomes more visible. All these elements in my opinion serve to create a Sun-like treasure.

As Rollo May writes, “by the creative act, we are able to reach beyond our own death” and I would like to expand this to include the death of objects. Through the creative act a potential emerges to transform trash to treasure that I explore in my own artistic work. I combine camera standpoint and lighting elements of centred presentation to transform objects of no or low value into art. Moreover, I use myself – an average looking 30-year-old of 1.73m tall with a size 38 – as a model, while I fall out of the model category – beautiful teen or young adult of at least 1.75m tall with a size 34 – and my direct surrounding does not resemble a glamorous photo set. However, through the object aesthetic that I developed by imitation of the before mentioned artists, I present myself as an archetype of the Angel or the Virgin Mary that is also being centred in religious iconography. This can be noticed in the elegance with which I chose to engage my body that adds a divine element to my otherwise plain surrounding.

In my artistic work I transform the accumulation of things into a hoarding symbolism from which a subjective trash aesthetic emerges. My work can be read by others through a shared visual literacy that is further informed by a collective consciousness and explores the open-ended potentiality within the realm of the “thing” as well as the ambiguity between objects and intention. I take the viewer on a journey of my habitat through which I move as the packrat in search of shiny objects that I will instantly swap for whatever I was carrying in my mouth to take back to my nest and preserve it for generations to come.

[1] Sublime: awe-inspiringly grand, excellent, or impressive.

Bibliography:

Boldrick, S, 2015. Trash as Trash as Art: Reflections on the Preservation and Destruction of Waste in Artistic Practice, [e-journal] Issue 7: The Aesthetics of Trash, Available through: New York City College of Technology http://www.nanocrit.com/issues/7-2015/trash-trash-art [Accessed 13 April 2016]

Bonajo, M, 2009. Portfolio. Downloaded from the artists website http://melaniebonajo.com [Accessed 15 April 2016]

Eddy, C, 2015. Trash and Aesthetics in the Hoard, [e-journal] Issue 7: The Aesthetics of Trash, Available through: New York City College of Technology http://www.nanocrit.com/issues/7-2015/trash-and-aesthetics-hoard [Accessed 13 April 2016]

Jung, C, 1936. The Concept of the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works vol. 9.I, 1959, pp. 42.

May, R, 1975. The Courage to Create. First published in 1994. New York: WW Norton & Co.

Snake-Beings, E, 2015. Trash Aesthetics and the Sublime: Strategies for Visualizing the Unrepresentable within a Landscape of Refuse, [e-journal] Issue 7: The Aesthetics of Trash, Available through: New York City College of Technology http://www.nanocrit.com/issues/7-2015/trash-aesthetics-and-sublime-strategies-visualizing-unrepresentable-within-landscape-refuse [Accessed 13 April 2016]

Vogel, A, 1980. Film as Art. Port Washington Public Library. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XXzTUCtnZek [Accessed 13 April 2016]

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