America’s First Litter

LOOK CLOSELY…IT’S IN THE DETAILS

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William Merritt Chase painted Prospect Park in 1887.

The Trashman and his Faithful Companion take the time to look closely at this small landscape by William Merritt Chase whenever they visit the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton. Chase was a well known painter of Gilded Age social celebrities at the turn of the century–the 20th Century, that is. But he’s just as famous for documenting the enormous changes in public life made possible by the rise of America’s middle class. He had a special interest in depicting leisure time–people walking in parks, strolling on beaches, playing games, just shooting the breeze because, for the first time in history, they had the money to do just that.

Chase painted Prospect Park, Brooklyn,  in 1887. On the surface, the painting captures a perfect day and perfect people. That’s probably his elegant wife and daughter on the path. They often posed for him. But Chase has included off-kilter elements too. The man lurking by the fountain is literally a dark figure, and he may be smoking…uh oh…no smoke-free zones back then. The Trashman, with his eagle eye, sees something even more disturbing: litter. There it is. Unmistakable. On the grass. Two discarded paper wrappers and  a child’s abandoned ball. Leisure-time litter, as it were. Was. And, alas, still is.


Artist of the Week: Jose Luis Torres

BIGGER IS BIGGER AND BIGGER

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In a recent Torres installation, plastic consumer goods explode from a shipping container.

Trashman and his Faithful Companion agree that plastic is the enemy. Like nuclear waste, it isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. So we applaud artists who make plastic garbage interesting and eye-catching. After all, we’ll be looking at it for a long, long time.

Trashman sees a lot of art made out of trash–so many artists, so much trash–that he has become quite the connoisseur. Sad to say, most trash art puts him to sleep. Nap time…again.  But no snooze button is needed when it comes to Jose Luis Torres. He’s an artist from Quebec by way of Argentina who creates monumental sculptures that invade space with explosive energy.  They all force viewers to stop, stare and start cataloging the infinite variety of plastic stuff we consume. “Bright, Shiny…,” says Faithful. And that’s the problem. Plastic is attractive and convenient on the outside–but a danger forever at its core.

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No one can miss Torres’s cascading rope of plastic .

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This group of plastic items seems to grow organically from a Quebec apartment house.


Put A Cork In It…

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

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This bottle house in Nigeria is part of an international project to provide housing for the displaced and homeless.

Every week, like clockwork, the Trashman and his Faithful Companion recycle their cans and bottles. Yes, they recoup their deposits–usually 5 cents per item. But it’s a tedious task. And usually pretty gross at the recycling center. So gross, in fact, that like a Knight of Olde, Trashman buffers the way for Faithful Companion. He wades through all the broken glass and dripping plastic bags. He side-steps all the jumbo containers that don’t fit in the bins or machines.  “And now, my lady,”he intones.”You may sally forth.”  “Aren’t you supposed to put down a cloak or something?,”Faithful asks.  It’s always something.

Ironically, if we weren’t recycling at our dingy depository, we could be saving bottles to build our dream house. Plastic bottles are fast becoming the building material du jour.  In Mexico, they have been used to build schools. In Africa, they are used to construct temporary shelters when disaster strikes. In the Middle East, they are the building blocks of permanent homes. The process is simple: just fill empty soda bottles with sand, cork the opening or screw the top back on, form them into walls, then stabilize them with binding material. Since it takes 14,000 bottles to construct a small home, it also takes a village to collect, fill and stack.  When Trashman considers that 42 billion bottles end up in landfills every year, labor and effort seem a small price to pay. And filling bottles with sand seems kind of fun.

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The construction process is tedious but the result solves both environmental and housing problems at little or no cost.


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Bottle houses only exist in warm climates now, but they work well.


Artist of the Week: Niki Lederer

SHE KNOWS HER WAY AROUND A BOTTLE

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Niki Lederer’s  Color Me Clean is made of strips of  plastic from ordinary soda bottles.

Niki Lederer is enjoying a moment. She makes work out of ordinarily plastic bottles–the number one source of litter, which is everywhere. So why shouldn’t her work be everywhere?  It is. This month alone, the Trashman and his Faithful Companion have seen her sculptures and site specific installation at the Governor’s Island Art Fair and at Adelphi University’s sculpture biennial in Garden City, NY. All of her engaging creations are made from discarded and found objects. She cuts them up with scissors and reassembles them with wire and monofilament into an infinite variety of shapes. She says she hopes her humorous approach to her work will make us think about mass consumption–both the “mass” and the “consumption.”

The Trashman salutes her.

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Lederer’s portrait of Chewbacca is a light-hearted look at litter.

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Lederer’s installation on Governor’s Island is a nod to Rapunzel and her bad hair day.


Just Coasting Along…

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE…

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Bits of non-biodegradable plastic, like the pieces enmeshed in these sea plants,  will float through our oceans forever

Tha Trashman and Faithful Companion greeted a dozen sun-tanned Fire Island neighbors last weekend during the 30th Annual International Coastal Cleanup. The Ocean Conservancy sponsors the event on the third Saturday of every September, and it takes place all over the world. The scope of the project is not just impressive, it’s staggering: more than 80,000 international volunteers pick up and identify 18 million pounds of water-logged garbage–and that’s just in a single day.

On Fire Island, the number one source of ocean garbage is party balloons and wine bottles. It’s Fire Island, after all. Internationally the list is more prosaic, with cigarette butts the top offender, followed by the usual suspects…soda bottles, bottle caps, plastic bags, straws and food wrappers. Whether the garbage ends up in the ocean because of deliberate dumping or accident, the source is always human beings. A century ago, the trash in our waterways was biodegradable, but now it’s plastic and lasts for centuries.

Saturday, as the event began, Trashman was amused by the little clip board and pen in Faithful Companion’s hand. She was diligently recording all the litter she found. So just like her… but he was wrong to jest. The Ocean Conservancy uses information volunteers collect to shape ocean policy on a national level, to educate the public and to alter the way some common debris is manufactured. The hope is clean oceans and positive change. After all, water makes up two-thirds of the planet. Yes, thinks Trashman, things are picking up.

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Litter from all of us ends up on beaches all over the world.

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Mary Parker and friends at Davis Park, Fire Island, were among the 18,000 volunteers that participated in this year’s annual International Coastal Cleanup.


The Spin Cycle

AMBER WAVES OF…PLASTIC

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Mark Dion’s cabinet of curiosities catalogs trash from the Pacific Gyre.

Did you hear the one about the couple who moved to the farthest island in Alaska to get away from it all?  Turns out, their Alaskan paradise was the terminus for the Pacific Gyre, the largest concentration of plastic garbage known to man. The Gyre is an island  made entirely of refuse, in the middle of the Pacific, bigger than Texas. Every bit of trash we heave into our western waterways, from soda bottles to fishing line,  ends up here. The gyre is in constant motion, so it spits some of its contents back into currents that carry it to our Alaskan couple’s backyard. “Sort of like the spin cycle in our washing machine, but on a cosmic level,”explained Faithful Companion to the Trashman the other day. The Trashman, who remains ignorant of household matters, nodded  sagely. Ah, yes…our washing machine. And that is where, precisely? But Trashman digresses.

A team of scientists, artists and environmentalists have been studying all that garbage that ends up in Alaska. The idea is to trace the migratory patterns of ocean debris and eventually figure out ways to clean it all up.  Artist Mark Dion created a cabinet of curiosities from the cast-offs he found along the Alaskan shores. They come from every country imaginable–Japan, Iran, China, Indonesia, California–a kind of United Nations of litter. Dion’s installation is travelling a lot these days, and is now on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton.The artist was joined on the Gyre expedition by Pam Longobardi,who Trashman profiled several years ago, writer Carl Safina, and two eminent photographers, Andy Hughes and Edward Burtynsky.

The art and photographs they create are proof of the thousand word adage: The work says it all–especially Andy Hughes’ evocative portraits of the most common items scavenged from those Alaskan shorelines.

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Yards and yards of fishing line and filament end up in the Gyre.

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Hughes camera turns Pacific Gyre debris into art–but its still a treat to sea life.

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Hughes transforms a small bit of plastic into a majestic ruin.

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Buoys are plentiful cast-offs in the ocean.


Artist of the Week: Fabrice Monteiro

THE LATEST IN TRASH FASHION

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Wearing a dress of wood scraps, a model walks through a vanished woodland. Unchecked wood harvesting and clear-cutting has eliminated most of the vegetation in Senegal.

Trashman is not famous for his sartorial splendor but Faithful Companion is quite the fashionista. She knows her way around a Valentino jumpsuit. She approves of Bjork’s swan dress and everything Lady Gaga, including the recent lady-like Lady Gaga. Naturally she is intrigued by Fabrice Monteiro’s fantastic fashion-as-ecology creations. Monteiro cobbles together ball gowns and statement dresses from the trash and garbage he finds in polluted areas of his native Dakar. Then he poses his models at the many toxic sites in Senegal, one of the most contaminated places on the planet. It’s just like a Vogue magazine shoot, only smellier. Monteiro collaborates with Doulsy, a fashion designer, and the Ecofund to raise awareness about the devastating extent of environmental damage in his country and all of Africa.

Monteiro’s photographs are published together in an album called “The Prophecy.” And that’s what his images are: a prophecy for the future we all need to heed. Trashman salutes this stunning effort and equally stunning body of work.

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A giantess emerges from a river in a ballgown made from the garbage found on the beaches.

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A monster rises from Hann Bay in a haute couture costume made from discarded plastic and debris. This once pristine shore is now littered with animal carcasses, offal, bones and blood remains from a nearby slaughterhouse.

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Monteiro calls this model Gaia–the ancient Earth Mother. She emerges from a mountain of garbage and looks over what was once a green marshland and animal sanctuary.