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Museum-Worthy Garbage: The Art of Over-Consumption

Artists are combining art and advocacy by creating beautiful, disturbing work about American excess.

Jun 29, 2010 4:07 PMNov 20, 2019 9:40 PM


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Photo Credits: All text by Nancy Averett; Image: Chris Jordan

While many of us remain oblivious to the scale of our collective daily consumption and waste, a growing number of artists are finding ways to call attention to this problem.

They are hanging out in landfills and recycling centers, gathering up the trash that washes up on beaches and digging through their own garbage cans. What they find is then transformed into statements on American consumerism, deceptively beautiful images and sculptures that both entice and unsettle their viewers.

In this remarkably obsessive work, Chris Jordan arranged 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the United States every thirty seconds, to mirror French Neoimpressionist painter George Seurat's masterpiece: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette.

Photo Credits: Image: Chris Jordan

"One of the challenges I face is there's a kind of defensiveness people have toward my work," Jordan says. "They don't want to hear about this stuff because it's an internal conversation that's difficult to have."

Says Jordan: "I try to sneak up on the viewer a bit. Each piece (appears) at first as an innocuous piece of modern art that draws you closer because you sense something else is going on."

This close-up shows a detail from the Seurat-inspired work: a parasol against the sunlit grass.

Photo Credits: Image: Lawrie Brown

Brown has spent time photographing other personal parts of her life. She did a series on her laundry and another on plants. She says her inspiration for this project came as she was sorting her recycling and realized how much of her daily activities involve packaging.

"I decided I wanted to make a photographic statement about my overconsumption," she says. "By chronicling my own everyday life, I wanted to make people stop and examine the things that they do."

The project has had a lasting effect on Brown, who says that, among other things, it made her much more aware of her reliance on processed food. "I eat much better now," she says with a laugh.

Photo Credits: Image: Chris Jordan

Jordan stumbled across his subject matter when he began photographing big piles of garbage at a Seattle landfill in 2003. At first he was entranced with the color schemes he found. Later some friends remarked that he was making a portrait of American culture and Jordan seized on that idea, quitting his job as a corporate lawyer to devote himself to documenting American excess.

His photographs attempt to illustrate the immense scale of our consumerism, depicting how many plastic cups the airline industry uses every six hours (1 million) or how many brown paper grocery sacks are used in the U.S. every hour (1.14 million), as is portrayed in this photograph.

Photo Credits: Image: Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang

Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang create photographs, sculpture and jewelry from plastic found on Kehoe Beach in northern California.

During winter, currents carry the items, which have been floating far out in the Pacific, up onto the sand. The Langs gather hundreds of pounds a day, hauling their finds back home where they wash and sort them. Later, they arrange the pieces into designs: a wreath of hair clips, perhaps, or a bracelet made of white milk tabs.

"Our work has a powerful environmental message," says Judith. "But the conveyance of it is through beauty. We want the viewer to be enticed and mystified by how it looks then move closer and begin to identify the objects."

Photo Credits: Image: Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang

It took time and a little luck for the Langs to identify a mundane item they kept finding on the beach: a three-inch-long, half-inch-wide red plastic rectangle.

After they'd found nearly 80 of these rectangles, Richard's daughter, Amelia, remarked: "Duh! Those things are in everyone's lunch box." Turns out they were cheese spreaders from Kraft Handi-Snack products.

"A lot of what we find has been at sea for a long time," Richard says. "The color has faded. It's been buffeted by sand. Rhizomes have attached to it. You can really sense the history of the life of the object. So one of the things we like to do is show a larger collection of one single item."

Photo Credits: Image: Eileen Doktorski

Two years ago, Eileen Doktorski became enthralled with capturing the aesthetic and symbolic value of garbage.

It began on a routine trip to the dump with her husband. "The whole time we were unloading the truck," she recalls, "I was staring at the ground, thinking: 'Oh my God, there are more diverse textures here than I've seen in my whole life.'"

Doktorksi gained permission to roam around the landfill and made plaster casts of small sections of the debris. Later back in her studio, she turned the casts into bronze sculptures for her "Artifacts of Affluence" series. This piece reveals the corner of a mattress poking out of a rubbish mound.

Photo Credits: Image: Eileen Doktorski

Doktorski's sculptures are small and irregularly shaped to give viewers the sense that they are looking at a tiny part of something much larger.

Her work zeros in on the specific and the familiar: a doll's head juxtaposed with crushed soda cans, the corner of a mattress next to a tattered book.

"There's a Where's Waldo aspect to it that keeps people looking for a while," Doktorski says. "They're seeing things they've thrown out, that they might have at home in their own garbage can."

Photo Credits: Image: Matt Eskuche

Glass artist Matt Eskuche picks up trash in the street that catches his eye. "Many times it's the particular way it has been crumpled," he says, "or just the way it lays as it comes to rest on the ground."

These pieces of litter then become his models. He spends hours in his studio painstakingly creating glass and cardboard sculptures that depict such things as the aftermath of a fast-food binge or the detritus of a night spent drinking beer and eating pizza.

For this piece, titled "99 Billion Served," Eskuche replicated all the bottles, food containers, and cigarette packs from raw materials.

Photo Credits: Image: Matt Eskuche

Eskuche says individuals react differently to his pieces. "The work deals with waste and recycling to one person," he says, "capitalism and corporate lobbying to another, graphic and industrial design to yet another."

He says viewers occasionally react with hostility to his work, wondering: "Why the hell anyone would bother to waste their time recreating something they could just pick up on the street?"

Photo Credits: Image: Lawrie Brown

Lawrie Brown saved containers and other items from her garbage for two years--some things like Chinese takeout containers piled up quickly, others like toothpaste tubes took months to empty--then sorted it into aesthetically pleasing arrangements, sometimes by color, other times by meal or activity.

"I wanted to reveal the surprising beauty in images of leftover garbage," she says.

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