The Museum of Trash

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A paper mache moon oversees discarded art objects in Nelson Molina’s Museum of Trash.

The Trashman seldom passes on posting from other sources, but this recent story on Hyperallergic’s webpage is an exception. The lengthy post describes the one-man vision of New York City garbageman Nelson Molina, who has created a Museum of Trash in an East Harlem  sanitation garage.  The Museum isn’t really open to the public, but those in the know can occasionally visit more than 30 years worth of stuff people throw out on collection day. Odd odds-and-ends, for sure.

Molina reminds us that much of what we know about the past comes from our encounters with trash. Amphora from  ancient Greece, pottery from the pre-historic Nok culture in Africa, even the chubby little Venus of Willendorf—these are all things people buried or discarded. Trashman and his Faithful Companion can’t help but wonder what future archaeologists will make of a giant plastic Santa Claus statue.  Stay tuned.

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Santa, that Great God of Excess, will puzzle future generations.


Toxic Textiles

LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD

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The Bengal region of South Asia is known for Kantha techniques, in which scraps of fabric are recycled into elaborate embroidered quilts and hangings. This one dates from 1850 and is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Trashman is not a natty dresser, but Faithful Companion is a fashionista with a twist: she hasn’t thrown anything in her wardrobe away–from the time she was 12. Hard to believe, yet true. Because of his beloved’s quirk–let’s not call it hoarding–the Trashman has never given much thought to the discarded clothing in landfills. But he, and thee, should. Every year, 15 million tons of fabric end up as solid waste in the United States alone.  The number just keeps climbing as the clothing industry develops cheaper and cheaper ways to churn out throw-away apparel. Textile manufacturing is the second most polluting industry in the world because it relies on toxic chemicals and carbon emission. Oil, of course, leads the way.

Fortunately, many minds are addressing the problem. Clothing manufacturers are going green, not just because it’s a color an the pantone scale. And artists by the hundreds are recycling used fabric into amazing wearable art, accessories and household goods. The Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design in Manhattan has a must-see show highlighting the best of the best, and explaining exactly what happens to all those torn t-shirts we put in clothing bins. Check it out before the end of April.

Fashion wasn’t always such a gluttonous tribute to excess. Many cultures developed traditional ways to reuse old clothes and scrap cloth, including the now famous Gees Bend African American quilters in South Caroliina. Waste not, want not has never been truer.

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Korea is known for Bojagi–the art of reusing clothing and worn fabric in inventive ways. This Bojagi wrapping cloth dates from 1900.

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Artist Luisa Cevese is among those featured in the Cooper Hewitt exhibit. She fuses discarded cloth scraps with plastic to create household goods.

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Luisa Cevese’s work is featured in many museum shops, and through her own line, Reidizioni.

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The Gees Bend quilters are among the most famous craftspeople in the world. Their quilts are made from scrap fabric, recycled into colorful, eye-popping patterns.


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.