THE WORLD OF SHIH CHIEH HUANG
When the Trashman and Faithful Companion first saw an installation by Shih Chieh Huang, they didn’t know what they were looking at. It was all so…impressive. So Trashman was surprised to learn that everything this Taiwanese artist uses is upcycled, as they say in environment-speak. That means the work is made of stuff that ordinarily ends up in landfills. In a recent TED Talk, Huang described his childhood fascination with taking things apart and putting them together in unexpected ways. Back then, his usual target was his brother’s toys and his parents closets. Fortunately, they were also his first fans. Now he has a world-wide audience
In 2007, the Smithsonian Institute gave Huang a grant to study bio-luminescence in marine environments, and he quickly learned that plastic in oceans is the number one threat to sea life. His fascination and concern for glowing sea creatures became the foundation of his art. Today everything he makes is out of garbage bags, plastic tubing, LED lights and household electronics. And nothing gets thrown away.
The Trashman salutes him.
“Ahoy, Matey…I spy plastic,” said Faithful Companion in full-blown nautical mode, as she and the Trashman walked along the not-so-pristine sands of Fire Island. Their recent vacation was awash in litter. Big waves and small waves brought in daily deposits of everything from party balloons to water bottles. Scientists speculate that in the not so distant future there will be more garbage than water in our oceans. Scary.
The increasing amounts of trash in our waterways got the Trashman thinking about waves. For centuries artists and philosophers have been fascinated with this force of nature–an eternal motion that is ever constant and ever changing. Heraclitus, that canny Greek, got it right: “No man steps in a river twice.” Or a wave… Trashman thinks the existential puzzle inherent in any contemplation of waves recedes in the presence of their sheer beauty. It’s summer, after all… So here are a few of his favorite waves. Without the plastic.
HOKUSAI’S GREAT WAVE
J.M.W. TURNER’S SHIP IN STORM
CLIFFORD ROSS’S HURRICANE SERIES
ZARIA FORMAN’S HAND-MADE WAVES
BLAKER AND DESOMMA’S GLASS WAVES
JEAN SHIN’S SOUND WAVES
ROSS’S LED MOTION COMMOTION
…AND BARELY A RIPPLE
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.
LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD
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.
LOOK CLOSELY…IT’S IN THE DETAILS
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.
BIGGER IS BIGGER AND BIGGER
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.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
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.