This is a past paper I wrote and just found while at uni doing my BA , on waste , art and its human connections, let me know what you think?
The World Gone To Waste
How do our obsessions with objects and our relentless desires to 'have it all' impact on our understanding of waste objects and ruins? This will be examined through the art works of The Wilson sisters, Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.
We live in an age where technology and its achievements are far greater than any previous society could have imagined. We have at our disposal, the Internet, genetic engineering and space travel, yet in spite of this we have become helpless in our understanding of how nature works and how we are connected. Never before has industry and the amount of production we create threatened our very existence, through mass global warming, nuclear disasters and many kinds of political, social and religious wars around the world. This was talked about by German philosopher Karl Marx’s at the Speech at the Anniversary of the Peoples’ Paper, “On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors of the Roman Empire […] The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want…” (1856)
This theory of alienation was developed by Marx to show the impersonal activity that has been dominating human society, since the growth of the industry. Marx saw this separation as being rooted in the material world.
Throughout this essay I will be looking at how important material waste and ruins are in articulating time and connections to both humans and our natural environment. By narrating the coming and going of ‘things’ in this world, as described through Object Orientated Ontology. This is a philosophical movement introduced by American theorist Graham Harman that explores how things, animals and other non-human entities experience existence. Through exploring the agency and hidden side of “objects” and opposing human beings as the central most important element in existence.
In this enquiry I am looking to examine how objects make people as much as people make objects, and furthermore how in time these objects become waste, detritus, and obsolete. Every day we develop and build relationships with objects, buildings and monuments. These everyday things switch from being passive to active, use and non-use gaining and losing status and meaning within this physical world. Introduced by American theorist Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory” dissects the human-object interactions. Browns theory talks about human-objects relations, which focuses on the differences between “object and thing”. His theory states that when an objects stops working or ends its use value, as we know it to be, it then becomes a “thing”. Humans allow these objects to become imbued with symbolism, power, and agency. As we live amongst this growing pile of things and objects, it is “time” that generates a multitude of emotions from the objects, our connections, narratives and discourse with these objects once they cease to work and become things, even as they become waste they are still creating narratives.
Contemporary curators and artists alike often deal with the subject of environmental issues in their work, specifically where waste and objects are the focus. One question that is raised is, how do artists display and convey their work to a general public, to bring the message of global issues to the forefront of contemporary art. That is the very question that has been asked by several institutes around the world for the past 10 years, such as CIWEM (chartered Institute of water and environment management) policy and action “arts and Environment” 2007. Arts, Environment and Sustainability by Asia and Europe foundation Connect 2 Culture 2008-11 and The Tate in London had a conference in June 2010 to discuss new research between visual art and the material environment, called “To the Ends of the Earth: Art and Environment” where artists, writers, historians and other practitioners explored the changing meaning of waste, and environment in the practice of the artist and the ways it could be encountered though the wider processes of social and environmental ruin and transformation.
This essay will examine the work of British artist Cornelia Parker who transforms objects to create narratives, as well as the work of American artist Mark Dion who creates scientific and archaeological styled installations from found objects and spaces. I also intend to examine the British artist duo Jane and Louise Wilson whose installations contain a mix of photography, sculpture and filmed ruins, objects and places. These artists in question are linked through their individual take on the use of the found object as both waste and ruin. Their work will be looked at through the themes and critical debates of waste, ruin and the anthropocene posed by American theorist Graham Harman in his essays on Object Ontology and critical debates posed by Polish geologist Prof Jan Zalasiewicz in his essay ‘ The Anthropocene Review’. Whilst Harmans’s Object Ontology is a discussion of Objects being on a level playing field as humans, The Anthropocene Review examines humanity’s impact through the objects and things we consume. Leaving them to waste upon the Earth as being so immense, that the profound changes that have occurred, as a result mean that Principal geologists at the British Geological survey state the ‘Holocene’ (12,000 years of stable climate) must give way to this new Epoch.
Chapter 1 . Waste is changing our planet, how have artists responded to it.
From the start of geological recordings, fossils, remnants and waste of the natural environment have been used to recognize and record certain evolutionary moments, stages of development and periods of our history. Most of them have been biological markers. However ‘The Anthropocene Review’ explains about periods in time since the evolution of humans, where new ways to use fossils as geological time markers have become available. These are largely due to the physical objects, and things made by humans beginning at least 2.5 Myr (million years) ago. (Ambrose, 2001; Kimbel et al., 1996). Cultural changes and the consumers growing want of new things have been the deciding factor in the progression of these artefacts and not biological evolution. Specifically Zalasiewcz states “The rise in plastics since the mid-20th century, both as material element of modern life and growing environmental pollutant […] are key geological indicators of the Anthropocene”(2015). These changes have given artists material for tackling the subjects of ecology and the environment in very different ways, from community projects to revival of traditional ways of living with the earth to more radical protest work at the actual companies involved with the exploitations within industry.
An artist working in this way and ahead of his time was German Artist Kurt Schwitters who also used objects and waste materials to produce his work, as both a protest and a need for materials during the War. His work fused collage and abstraction influencing the likes of Rauschenberg, Johns, Beuys and art movement such as Happening, Fluxus and conceptual work. He was an artist that allowed the viewer to interpret and create their own narrative within the work, allowing them to see truths but also escape a reality that was not pleasant during the depression after World War One.
The way he worked with found objects around him is what makes him interesting and relevant to my exploration into object art and the environment. He collected ephemera and rubbish and mixed these with various texts to create collages of aesthetic, political and narrative experiences. He would start with one found object and then it would grow into telling its own story creating a narrative that the audience had to experience, rather like a performance, which is why his work boarders Dada, the Surreal and installation art. His ideas that art wasn’t merely for the canvas was a prerequisite for the Happenings movement too.
To create the work called Merzbau, Kurt Schwitters collaborated with colleagues to create a collage of objects and letters that had been collected and referenced events happening at the time. Again allowing the viewer to interpret his or her own meanings on its significance. It was said, Schwitters work was considered by his contemporaries such as Dutch artist and writer Theo Van Doesburg and German Dada artist Hannah Hoch to be radical as he created art from the destruction of found objects instead of more traditional methods.
In the piece ‘Revolving’ he combined the broken objects and detritus to produce a smooth circular surface that was both aesthetic and questioning the objects meanings. This was his way of questioning societies associations with objects and things, rejecting what he called the ‘hypocrisy of society’ as Germany’s socio-economy was crumbling after WW1. His work and his ideas behind it could also have been seen as a forerunner for Object Ontology as Schwitters said “ Art is a primordial concept, exalted as the godhead, inexplicable as life, indefinable and without purpose” This could explain his reasoning’s behind his ever changing tableaux of his large Merzbau installation within his home. Schwitters is an artist who did not get the recognition during his lifetime for his work, but his influences can been seen through many genres of the art world.
During the early 1990’s environmental and eco art has speculated on the way the world hangs together, and provides metaphors that allow humans to understand such speculation. A more recent artist that does this is the American Eco artist Rachael Champion a recent graduate of the Royal Academy who combines nature and the man-made, through the analysis of the book ‘The Human Condition” (1958) by German born, American political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Champion draws our attention to the social and cultural aspects of climate change through a representation and exploration of how Arendt categorises our connections and conditions in which man lives on earth, through labour, work, and action.
Rachael Champion, Raze Bloom, 2015, turf, rubber bark chipping, gravel, pebbledash, concrete, aluminium scaffolding, liquid storage tanks, aquatic plants, CO2, solenoid valves, air pump, vinyl tubing, air stones, dual-spectrum grow lamps and reflectors, 3.4 × 3.8 × 8.2 m.
Chapter 2 Objects waste and ruin. Understanding how we disconnect ourselves from our waste.
During the space mission of the 1960’s we saw the awe-inspiring view and vulnerability of the earth. Viewing the planet in this way symbolizes the “great disengagement” spoken of by German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the possibility of its destruction. It is debated that capitalism’s growing cycle of production and obsolescence is adding to the problematic relationship between waste, nature and humankind.
Society has found a way for us to disguise and continue this cycle of consumption and disposal of objects, called the refuse collection or bin day. The outcome is the same; one-day a week the rubbish is whisked away while we sleep. Taken to either landfill or the recycling centre where only around forty percent of that rubbish is actually recycled. (The Recycling Guide UK 2003/4).
Each year we acquire more bins to fill with more waste, as the pace at which we dispose of material objects is growing. Even before the bins are emptied the cycle of accumulation begins again. Discussions on waste spark debates about society and mass consumerism, which is on the increase in both Western and developing countries. It is stated that the average person in a developed country drives 10,000 miles, and as a household produces more than a tonne of waste each year. . (The Recycling Guide UK 2003/4). We have become accustomed to using planet earth as both raw material and dumping ground.
As products are being produced the ever-consuming citizen is persuaded to both purchase and discard products in equal measures creating a detachment from the object. This is one reason that the landfill and dumping ground or refuse collections are performed predominantly out of sight, built at the edges of our ever-growing cities and towns. Therefore because of the amount and speed the wastes is growing smaller cities are running out of space. This waste is now being shipped to undeveloped countries to dispose off. This type of removal allows companies to push us to buy more so the consumer can be in a constant perpetually expanding, disposable society. This has produced a society used to thinking in a way that allows a creation of order distinct from nature, blinding us to the fact that we cannot escape the natural processes of decay and disorder.
The relationship between modern life and waste becomes clearer to understand when we question our desires and the conditioned mindset of modern man to want and desire the new. As consumers we are never encouraged or shown the decay, malfunction or temporality of an object before we own it. We are convinced that the object is desirable not because it is useful or valuable, but because society has spiritualized it beyond its function as an object to become an object of desire. This has been done through marketing, sales, offers, branding, celebrity endorsement, and companies driving sales people to sell us more through target driven wages. These desires are played upon through out society, via advertising, industry and peer pressure. Yet it is waste that suggests a dark history of a modern being, a trace or footprint of our past.
There is a fine line between piles of waste objects and wanted objects. How do we distinguish between the museum piece and the rubbish pile? That difference is the labels or ideas of nostalgia, vintage, retro and time that is associated with the history of waste objects. How we react to objects is determined by how we have been conditioned to think about objects in relation to both the human need and our relationship with the earth. The Political Philosopher Hannah Arendt argues that ‘Men are conditioned beings because everything they come into contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence’. This also comes from our own learned ideas of hierarchy, ideas of what is valuable and what isn’t. We all accumulate piles of things, objects, papers, and ideas throughout our lifetime and it is how we arrange and purge these items that become the deciding factor of what is waste and what is valuable.
There are certain labels or language we use to give to things we don’t want to throw away, either through a collection or archaeology. It’s these labels that give objects and ruins new meanings and narratives. Through resisting contextualising an object within the everyday routines of consumption, it could be argued that the artist is much like the hoarder in realising a different possibility and meaning within an object, one that unconsciously relates to ‘Thing’ theory or ’Object Ontology’.
It’s the labels and our own memories that allow us to keep hold of objects and interpret ruins as aesthetic or sublime. On the other hand labels of distaste allow us to get rid of objects more quickly words such as ‘obsolete’, ‘shit’, ‘detritus’, ‘garbage’ and therefore creating the throwaway society of today. It’s these words that un-categorize an object rendering it waste, but even as it is called waste it still does not disregard its labelling as material, resulting in the object or thing as having neither value or wastes status. German Philosopher Karl Marx stated, “Only when an object is consumed does it shed its material nature and become a product.” Consequently as this object is then discarded and reused by the artist does it then take on its previous material being or become something new, or carry the burden of its identity acquired though its existence in time? That is what the artists are trying to navigate when they use objects to create narratives.
Once disposed of or broken down to become things as Brown has described, these objects then become separated or removed from society. In some instances the objects are simply re-ordered and re-classified and become part of a different time. This is what we are considering when we decide to label an object or thing as being rubbish or not. It is whether the time it has used within its history is worth holding on to and at this stage of re-ordering where the artist can become part of its reinvention.
The objects that feed these desires, we accumulate on mass due to industries mass and cheap production and as Marx’s describes in Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867) Commodity Fetishism of how we put value on products. Objects are all around us now to the point that they are becoming second nature; they are over taking and controlling our connections with nature. A major issue facing the world today is the accumulation of waste objects and how human activity is constantly battering the eco system, the effects becoming more prevalent than ever. This idea has been discussed since the early 1980’s but it is only now we are seeing research to back up these ideas.
How objects remain unknown through the Object ontology approach and how artists who use objects are bringing new thought processes to art. Allowing for a better understanding of how art connects us to the world we live in.
It seems that the Anthropocene Epoch that Zalasiewicz has introduced has a number of connections with object ontology according to Harman they are ‘important connections’ (email-2017) referring to it being an independent force separate from humans. Yet Harman has also used the Anthropocene to discuss objects that require a human connection such as art.
It is not that society values objects too much its that it does not really value them enough, it is only when you look at the third world and deprived societies do you see the value of what we throw away when they are living amongst and reusing all our detritus. Our relationship to these objects and the material world has out stripped our relationship with the natural world; thus allowing environmental disasters or Hyper objects as they are called in Object Ontology to happen. When we are confronted with these disasters via our televisions, newspapers or the Internet, the transient nature of our being through the towns, cities and consumable objects allows us to sweep these events to one side.
We still assign value beyond the function of objects, as an object decays time gives and takes agency from the object, which seems to play a role in how objects help us to create memory and identity. The very moment we decide to keep a dysfunctional object instead of throwing it away replaces its value as a functional object to that of sentimental. The object evokes a time in our memory that keeps an attachment between human and object. Allowing the objects to become vessels for artists and collectors to repurpose and create new ideas of fact, fantasy and nostalgia. Assemblage, collage and installation are some of the way artists compose waste and founds objects to repurpose these meanings of the object. When an object is found its original function is still known although it is no longer an important element to it.
Object Orientated Ontology (OOO) was coined by Graham Harman in his third book Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (2002) where Harman examines Heidegger’s theories finding a framework that “gives birth to an ontology of objects themselves” (2002,1). Although we are taught to call an object by a certain name giving it a certain set of values, this is only on the understanding that we believe what we are taught. Believe, faith or understanding of an object is what artists like the Wilson Sisters, Parker and Dion play with. If for example we us the word Apple we then have ingrained ideas of what that word could be, in our heads we have a visual idea of many parts that make up the whole ie; red, sweet, green, bitter, or now ever a device or a company. We associate a word with what that word makes us feel about that object and not actually what the object and its relationships with other objects could be.
This is how an object can become useful for an artist. In Harman’s essay for Documenta (13), artists “attempt to establish objects deeper than the features through which they are announced, or allude to objects that cannot quite be made present” (Harman 2013, 14). To Harman, the artist grapples with objects on a more fundamental level than that provided by either scientific or constructivist accounts of reality. This is because art is never simply an index or image of the real but a real thing in-and-of-itself. Art creates new entities born of the interplay of physical and cultural processes but not limited to them. This makes a work of art a different class of object, one that acts not simply as a representation but a manifestation of the complex ‘depths’ of objects. In a recent email Harman explained “The object remains something unknown and unknowable, without being a mere negative ‘X’ or the object of a negative theology. An artist is a pioneer of new cognitive approaches that do not adopt the pretence of teaching us easy doctrine” (email -2017). This approach therefore gives artists today that are using the found object a way of becoming a voice that encourages new ways to approach climate change and waste that isn’t purely driven by capitalism.
Chapter 4 How the documentation of the human impact of waste and ruin on earth can become the sublime through the photography and film of Jane and Louise Wilson.
It seems inevitable that as we live in a technology dependent society, we would see the world mediated and interacted with through all technology be that Internet, T.V or Mobile. It is only when these machines break down and fail, that we see the world for the reality that’s in front of us, it is then that the sublime can creep into our understanding and experience of things. The sublime is found in the formless, a truth that cannot be conceptualized, an immense turbulence of nature and our reactions to it, all define what the sublime can be.
When technology stops working it is possible to experience a range of emotions, frustration, loss and disappointment. If we put these things to one side and forget about them or we completely abandon them. We temporarily exit the predictable nature of the technological world and embark on another time. As in a power cut, we revert back to candles, where we may experience an air of the sublime, something not structured or as didactic as technology. It is this abandonment, which the Wilson sisters use to create their installations of film, photography and sculpture to be encountered as experiences of looking, that crosses genres of the sublime and the conceptual installation. They explore time, ruin and dystopian histories, unearthing and directing the viewer through the footprints and traces of political destruction and war.
Through the accumulation of broken technology, politics and ruins, human activity has been constantly battering the eco system; the effects becoming more noticeable now with the onset of natural disasters that are being called Hyper-Objects. Officially we are still in the Holocene era according to the International Geological Congress, but more recently a group of geologists including Prof Jan Zalasiewicz from Leicester University, stated, “The significance of the Anthropocene is that it sets a different trajectory for the Earth system, of which we of course are part.”(Guardian, 2016). These ideas have been discussed many times by geologists and scientists but it is only now we are seeing research to back up these ideas. Zalasiewicz states that this epoch didn’t really take hold until around the 1950’s, due to the speed at which pollutants from industries like plastics, power stations and nuclear testing grew.
These changes that are occurring in our ecosystem and earth, are being documented in many different ways. Artists are in the perfect place to bring these issues to mind, as in the work of Mary Mattingly who built a boat-based eco-system called water pod from waste materials, or the book Learning to die in the Anthropocene, Reflections on the end of a civilization by American ex soldier and writer Roy Scranton. Scranton witnessed the collapse and ruin of Baghdad during a US invasion. In his book Scranton talks about civilisation having to learn to adapt and live with a new reality that climate change and capitalism is inducing. It is argued that this type of artwork and creativity or protest is an area some political powers would rather forget. Through their practice whether intentionally or not the Wilson sisters also broach these issues of war, politics and ruins through disasters.
The works in question for this essay are Atomgrad 2010 and The Toxic Camera 2012 these are what they created around the Chernobyl Power plant and the city Pripyat. This place was once a proposed utopian city, for workers of the industrial plant in Russia, that is until the nuclear accident in 1986. It is still the site of the worst nuclear disaster in the world and which is one of many Anthropocene - human created disasters and techno fossils.
Since this disaster artists and writers have had a fascination with the area, including the Wilson sisters. Approaching this subject in an eschewed way, the sisters didn’t investigate the plant itself, but the haunting and ruined forgotten surroundings and public buildings, cultural spaces and objects. As did Cornelia Parker’s ‘Exploded shed’ or Mark Dion’s ‘The ship chandler’, the sisters explore the traces of life and people through the fragments of their material beings that has been left behind.
These traces are the footprints of a past, a history of evidence of human and non-human actions of both past and present, visible and invisible. By exploring these traces of ruins and, waste or forgotten materials and places, the artists create a body of work through a process of investigation and re-construction of their findings, into films, photography and installations.
The Wilson sister’s first works involving Chernobyl are a series of photographs called “Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a vacuum), 2010. These photos examine the city Pripyat, created for the workers of the power plant, a creation of a proposed utopian ideal until the incident occurred shattering the communist dream.
Exploring the act of looking into a ruined space of a toxic city, decayed and absent of people, with only the traces of waste and decaying objects as evidence of them being there. The photos were created to explore the way we are measured within society through spaces and objects in those spaces within the city, as a form of surveillance.
These photos show a waste city in decay being reclaimed by nature. Within the photographs are images of decaying classrooms, theatres and swimming pools, waste building with slight signs of life from the nature visible through the broken windows, creeping into the spaces, claiming back what society took. Within these photos they place a yardstick, this is to represent and replaces the human figure and to measure the scale of the disaster and space allowing a narration of time and meaning.
They do not show any kind hierarchy only consistent observations of objects that have become things through ruin and hyper-disaster. The nature seen through the buildings are slowly claiming back the space and trying to correct what humans have destroyed. This claiming back of nature is also shown in a recent BBC Four documentary about the same area called “Inside Chernobyl’s mega tomb”, where surveillance cameras were placed around the city, the reactor and the surrounding forest. This showed many animals taking back the spaces and living among the ruins and toxic waste. Allowing the scientists to assume this sublime area may be reclaimed.
This transformation of the technology is discussed in British writer John Scanlan’s book On Garbage where he writes, “garbage does not strictly refer to an object, but is a jumble of inexactness […] garbage is the remainder of the symbolic order”.(2005,16) This suggests that the transformation of tech to waste is moving away from human intention, when this removal of language happens; it creates a lack of form and inherits qualities of the sublime. The Wilson sisters also portrayed the idea of reclaiming by creating another twist to these photos, through the addition of the yardstick. This brings back the language and takes the sublime ruin from the past to the present, by putting the human form back into the area of desertion.
The photographs are a collage as with an image of a yardstick added later. These yardsticks have featured in the artists’ sculptural work since 2009, functioning as markers of scale, the yard being an outdated standard of British measurement. Photographed in situ at nuclear testing sites or power stations, they point to the unreliability of official measures of radioactivity.
As Russian postmodern filmmaker Tarkovsky created a dystopian fictional film around the Chernobyl area called ‘Stalker”, the Wilson sisters go one step further as Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester said “Jane and Louise carve out a utopian space in places that others would regard as failures”(Art news,2014), she highlighted the sisters “steely feminism” that isn’t obvious but is the backbone of their work.
The work called part of a series called “The Toxic Camera” is where the viewer encounters the space, through film, installation and sculpture of the camera. Again their works relates in kind to that of Mark Dion, whose work is also research based to then create a collection of objects to tell a narrative. The sisters acquired footage and documentation of a film that was never made, by the Ukrainian filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko. By using these remains and traces of conflict and disaster, which also happen to be environmentally poignant, become points of interest for ecological issues and juxtaposing the sublime with ruins of disasters.
Shevchenko was the first on the scene when the incident occurred and intended to document the explosion. Only on editing did he realise that the film was damaged, due to the radiation. Infiltrating his equipment rendering it a toxic waste object. It was unusable for its intention, to the point that the authorities declared it had to be buried. This toxic radiation also brought about his early death.
It is at this point that the object becomes linked to the sublime as this camera has ceased to be a useful object in its present state, yet it is in this case then the waste object being the camera only becomes an object of representation when it becomes useful again and part of the human language. This happens by re-appropriating it, as either a functional object or as an artwork into human-orientated language. The sister’s documentation and research along with the discarded objects from the event explore this story behind the camera a story of dark tourism. This coexists with the yardstick, the scientist, and the voyeur, that the sisters explore and awaken within the film “Toxic Camera”.
It is as old pieces of tech turn to trash and fall out of our memories and line of vision that they become ruins and wastelands, waiting to be given new meaning and a new language. When words cannot describe what we are experiencing it becomes what German Theorist Immanuel Kant calls feeling of the sublime (Observations on the feeling of the Beautiful and sublime 1764), an experience that cannot be visualized. Kant links the sublime with the landscape, falling between known emotions and feelings such as pleasure and distaste and denying a logical understanding of the world.
The photography and film documentation of the Wilson sisters, sits between the sublime and wasteland, recording how nature is overtaking the ruins of political disasters caused by human hands and technology of our time. They then document these wastelands, although it has this uncanny way of drawing the viewer to become a part of the work, to experience the places destroyed by humans and changed by nature.
There is a strong argument for industrial wastelands and trash to be reclaimed by nature, and many wastelands do get re-used, but they will never be the same, as these wastelands become part of the Anthropocene epoch through the techno fossils they are creating and in some cases change the very DNA of what is growing there.
Chapter 5 . Mark Dion appropriates the art of collecting and ordering of the found, waste object through the reinterpretation of archaeology and the museum, comparing this to Cornelia Parker and her deconstruction of found objects.
As a form of existence the waste, obsolete objects might be said to be in stasis or hibernation. It exists in a type of suspended animation that changes its trajectory when the object is found again and given new narrative as nostalgic, found or as an exhibit in a museum. Collecting is a powerful way to do this and to make sense out of our material waste. Collecting and the collection rely on the system of ordering, accumulating, cataloguing and classifying everyday found objects. These can be re imagined as single unique objects even though they could be part of an endless supply of similar objects. To collect an object is to change its meaning and possible narrative.
Collecting has become a strange form of accumulation that exaggerates the identity between object and collector. Collecting such things as we call waste interacts with the ordering of objects as a presence within historical records. Collecting is very different from consuming, hoarding or accumulating. Collectors are selective and protective of their collections wanting to show them off and give them value, pacifically searching out certain items. Where as consuming and hoarding is a practice where the person can accumulate items, be ashamed of them or simply amass so many things they themselves become consumed by the objects. The DCP department for Clinical Psychology guidelines states that “Hoarding is now being recognised as a distinct mental health difficulty of it own [..]Affecting the persons ability to function independently.” Thus confirming ideas of objects consuming and over running people.
One aspect of waste being readily available is that it allows the collector, be that artist, archaeologist or scientist to structure its recovery, collection and analyse its being and meaning. Collecting processes and collections are key elements to several artists' practices as in the work of American Artist Robert Rauschenberg, Swiss artist Thomas Hirschorn and English artist Tacita Dean. Sometimes known as archival artists, eco/environmental artists, even protest artists. They seek to create and interpret historical information, from lost, obsolete and found objects and ephemera. By bringing the objects back into a physical presence, through installation, montage or collage. Some artists who create this type of work, like to collaborate with other disciplines such as scientists, anthropologists and archaeologists, as with Dion’s “Thames Dig” or The Wilson sisters “Toxic Camera”.
Collections more broadly are integral parts of both the museum and gallery institutions and waste management industries, as well as practices of everyday life. British and Polish Artists Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewendowska published in 2000 the book “The value of Things” as both an art project and an insight to the interpretations of how the museum and retail outlets collect, classify and display objects. The museum is a controversial place. Where artists for many years have strived to dissect its dominating critique of what is an artefact is. Through re-presenting its techniques of arranging, classifying and deconstructing the objects.
Mark Dion is an artist who works in this manner; of trying to explore our connections to the natural world of which we are currently becoming less and less connected to. Although at the start of his practice he found it difficult to access the usual routes into contemporary art. That was until he came across Palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Donna Haraway, which allowed him to access the museums of natural history and how they classify the objects within. His work involves collecting any amount of obsolete and waste objects whether bought at flea markets or junk shops as in the work “The Ship chandler”.
A theory as object ontology can allow us to disconnect any original meaning to an object, specifically when an object looses its original function we can then give these waste and broken object new narrative or function, as is done many time in recycling for example an old bath tube being used as a plant pot. Dion represents his finds as a possible usable object again, allowing his audience to interpret what they are.
Dion could be foraging around the beaches or digging in mud to create collections of waste, lost objects. What Dion’s work does is investigate and narrate time, as in ‘Ship Chandler’. He identifies with the past and museums, looking at how museums are a window into another time and another way of thinking. Time being a big factor in how he narrates his objects within his work. Time is also how British writer and Professor, Dr William Viney seeks to explain waste and objects in his latest book “Waste, a philosophy of things” 2014, he talks about how the value of an object is determined by how much time we give to it, and how that time is used up to render the object or thing waste. “[…]’Waste’ and ‘time’ do not stand in naked isolation; they require translation, description and mediation.[…] the stories that are told about things, we should also consider the way in which time, objects and narrative coalesce”(2014,5). This is how Dion brings a narrative to the objects and reminds us that we are still part of this waste and obsolete object. In an interview he explains that museums give time continuity to objects and this continuity is something we seem to have lost. “…Museums really are windows into another time and another way of thinking […] its the closest thing you can ever do to time travel.” (Hyperallergic 2014). He works with other professions to bring continuity to his work showing that as humans we have a past, present and future that is connected and continues even after we are gone.
We are constantly connected through ‘time’. Scanlan explores the ideas that things are made to become obsolete before their time so we are constantly removing these objects from our presence before the decay intrudes into our everyday experience of objects. Dion is reconnecting earth, objects and humans through his art. These connections we have to objects when discarded are never truly gone, as we have imbued a history to them, so on re-finding or digging up as in Dion’s work with the “Tate Thames Dig” this history is brought back into being and re narrated into an art work or collection.
The “Tate Thames Dig” is where he gave teams of people instructions to use a ‘scatter gun’ method of collecting objects that interested them, creating a bricolage. This is a similar method used in early archaeology and also how Rauschenberg worked with collecting and assembling his work. This non-scientific method of working creates more mystery with what would be found and ultimately narrated within the work. Allowing the history that was buried with them to be realised again and re-interpreted, as many of these objects and waste materials may never have been intentionally lost or discarded. That is part of the allure with lost objects for Dion’s work, the ideas that someone has had that item before him, using it, loving it or hating it. His work is about connecting us to the continuity again and showing how we can learn from the knowledge embodied within the things even if this narrative is slightly risky and open to interpretation.
Another relevant piece of Dion’s work is his part in an expedition in June 2013 called Gyre, which was collaboration with artists, scientists and marine biologists. To explore an area of the North Pacific Garbage Gyre, where the waste of many countries is being naturally deposited by the tides. Despite there being no human settlers on the islands, this waste congregated there and was predominantly plastic. This is a contributing factor to the Anthropocene epoch, as discussed by professor Jan Zalasiewicz in the “Anthropocene Review” papers. Here Zalasiewicz talks about how plastic is becoming a techno fossil, through the distribution of waste in landfill and sea sediment and beaches. He also explains that this level of pollution is not restricted to land and sea but is now becoming evident in our atmosphere “in the case of extra-terrestrial satellites and landing-craft, some are now distributed among other planets and moons […] this phenomenon makes a new transition in history of not just Earth but also of the Solar System.”(The Anthropocene Review 2014) as space exploration becomes mainstream.
Dion’s work especially from the Gyre research does follow the ideas for the Anthropocene and agrees it can be used as a tool to for naming geological time periods, but he also states that “ it is yet another conceptual framework which highlights our artificial separation from the environment”(The Brooklyn Rail 2016) which is the same explanation Slovenian critical theorist Slavoj Zizek talks about regarding ecology and the notion that objects are never gone simply changed into something else. That we as a race have to learn to live with the ruin and rubbish we leave behind. However living with it also means we have to acknowledge it and create ways of evolving not just ourselves but also our waste by learning from our mistakes.
For this exhibition Dion’s work was called; A Cabinet Of Marine Debris a collection of items found washed up on the beaches and islands. Dion does point out that seventy to eighty percent of the debris or Flotsam, was made up of the industrial waste of marine businesses mainly the fishing industry.
Here Dion not only collects the waste that has been strewn around the islands, he also arranges and orders it via colour, shape and type, instantly giving the found objects a new identity and hierarchy. They are no longer unwanted objects they are objects that have been given a place among and in relation to other objects.
Dion thinks of his work as an expression of how we are as a society where science gives us the facts of how things work, art gives us the social context of the pieces. This is how Dion feels many artists should be working too, but he also argues that this won’t be happening among the art fairs and auction houses in the more affluent areas of art. These seem to be miles apart form the artists that deal with ecological or social issues. This is where Dion and Cornelia Parker’s idea and thinking is similar, as Parker also believes in art as a way to deal with ecological or social issues. Through a dissection of found and waste objects that are then reconfigured in such a way as to show the flip side or as in Object Ontology the dark, unseen side of an object. These fragments of waste that Parker uses gives us partial perspectives of matter and changes pre conceived ideas or definitions of an objects original meaning. As with Thirty Pieces of Silver 2011 where Parker collected waste items of silver and the put them through a process of change and destruction to release the potentials within the objects creating a change within the meanings and our relationships to the materiality of the objects.
Parker states, “I like the idea of material already being loaded, or clichéd. By trying to unpick or dismantle something to remake it, somehow the perimeters are changed […] trying to find the flip side or the unconscious of it”(Narrating Waste blog, 2013). This is how some of Dion’s work is seen; bringing new ideas to the objects that is already imbued with a history. All his work is based on collections of things that come from our culture of materialism.
Dion is not being nostalgic with his work and neither is Parker as this could so easily be read as harking back to the “good old days” or a “golden age” as that is really a time when there were more class divides and poor conditions. In that regard we have progressed, may by not as much as we should have, but Dion seems to keep his distance on that regard within his work. Parker like Dion seems more concerned with instilling a sense of time and loss. Where both these artist differ is in the type of waste object and how it is displayed Parker assembles and changes a found object using the spaces or frictions she creates when processing an object. Where as Dion orders and creates collections of objects without changing their found forms only changing the way we see these forms to create his narratives.
Governments within our society have allowed us to consume objects at an alarming rate, this has given us a false sense that simply separating the glass from the paper, and sending back our tech for upgrading will suffice in correcting the imbalances within the eco system.
To waste is to bring about the end of an objects use for us personally, we have had enough time with it, and it has served its purpose or function as an object, it is then discarded and becomes a thing of waste. We have looked at how these waste objects are not simple disappearing but are amassing at a rate that is affecting the world we live in. It seems never ending, and as modern society creates and convinces us to consume more the gap between the natural world and the human manmade is continuing to accelerate. Using the ecological viewpoint of object ontology will help develop an understanding of objects and our relations to them and an understanding that we are no more special than anything else on this planet. Just as many indigenous people have always held the view that objects, nature and animal communicate on a different level with each other and no one thing is more important.
Graham Harman points out that we should be cautious of blaming climate change purely on capitalism he states, “it ought to be an irritant that encourages new approaches to political theory”(email 2017). We should be looking at both sides of the argument. As human interactions with nature are so profound that we are now finding it difficult to see what is changes are due to nature and what are due to culture.
Artists and scientist working together are in the perfect position to bring this understanding to the public as their work and time involves investigating and re presenting objects, through creating and translating meaning. They bring to our attention the amount of waste and political ruin that is out there not being dealt with, Whether that’s through installation and photography of political disasters as the Wilson sister do, or through collections and re interpretations of objects as Dion and Parker create.
As a society industry is pushing us to puts the self first and still sees art as something to be looked at as aesthetically pleasing and to gain monetary value from, by denying that waste can become art. They don’t want to be confronted with the very things they are trying to make us forget.
Thinking about waste without the comforting fictions of perfect recycling in more important than ever as global consumption grows ever larger. The new findings regarding the Anthropocene epoch are helping artists; writer’s activists and scientists to try and find new and compelling frameworks to challenge us to acknowledge waste.