Much like beauty being in the eye of the beholder, everyone has a different perception of trash, its degree of household practicality and its overall level of worthiness in our lives. In so many cases, varying standards of what our society deems as legitimate “waste” can be partially to blame for why landfills across the nation are continually filled to capacity. Are the items that we cast aside truly useless, somewhat inoperable, potentially reusable or so poorly made that we never should have purchased them in the first place? Or are we simply just tired of them because we want to indulge our next new consumer fix? The story of how our purchased stuff ends up cluttering city streets, grassy parks and the middle of the ocean is best explored at another time, but suffice it to say that a stunning volume of it is easily recyclable. There will always be objects that we think are worthy of a trip to the curb on garbage day (whether they are slightly worse for the wear, dilapidated to the nth degree or somewhere else along the spectrum), but when a DIY enthusiast or artist lays his or her eyes on the very same things, they are suddenly deemed as a limitless canvas of creative opportunity. Can the same be said of ugly, flattened, weatherworn, funky-looking trash? Brazilian artist Leopoldo Plentz’s series, entitled “Useless Things,” turns the common cultural notion of waste on its head by transforming typical bits of consumer detritus into artifacts meant to be appreciated upon hallowed museum walls. One look at Plentz’s vast photographic collection of random trash rescued from city streets forces us to question whether what we casually cast aside is truly useless at all. Upon closer inspection, all of the items that Plentz has immortalized could have easily been placed in a recycling bin, so what does that really say about us? Are we really that lazy and apathetic about the condition that we leave our planet in? Plentz offers an almost poetic interpretation of these “ghosts of our own existence,” explaining that by looking “at what no one notices” one can “find in the ordinary the extraordinary.” Another artist who highlights the sad reality our pervasive, wasteful attitude is New York City’s Justin Gignac, who has added an ironic consumer twist to his presentation. For the past nine years, he has been hawking clear acrylic cubes filled with “100% authentic, handpicked New York City garbage,” proving that people are apparently instinctually predisposed to acquiring kitschy dust collectors. Gignac has gained such an enthusiastic following that he’s branched out into limited edition collections of artfully arranged waste gleaned from particularly garbage-prone events such as baseball opening days, New Year’s Eve celebrations and the Republican National Convention. Considering that there is no other species on our planet other than us that produces garbage, it seems oddly fitting that we are willing to cough up $50-$100 to add a neat little sealed box of the stuff to our ever-growing collection of knickknacks that will eventually meet an equally untimely demise. Plentz and Gignac may take different approaches to their art, but they both arrive at the same telling statement regarding our eco-attitudes. Furthermore, their artistic efforts help us to take a more introspective approach toward our relationship with the items that we are ready to kick to the curb. Waste not, want not!
When Garbage isn’t Trash at All
The garbage you toss in the trashcan may just be an inspiration for artists out there.