By Abby King
The resting place of an artwork is vast and varied. If you're a collected artist like Mickalene Thomas or Cindy Sherman your piece may end up on museum walls, in elite foyers, or maybe over collector Linda Lee Alter’s kitchen utensils. In an opposing example, artworks may travel from studio basements to parent’s basements or an over-priced storage unit in Kentucky. (Sorry, Mom.) The future of artwork can seem as much about chance as choice, distribution and timeliness. Even the social standards of material value won’t help predict their future. Monetary expenses don’t necessarily equate to cultural value. Or, in another opposing scene, trash can become worth more than gold. Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy piles can grace similar halls as For the Love of God - Damien Hurst’s piece whose material value alone costs $23.7 million dollars.
Artwork is the cultural ‘x’ factor whose lifespan is often as unique as its subject matter and material, informed by the sway of popular belief and circumstance. We want to hold onto them. We wish to maintain them while other objects such as disposable cups, cigarette butts, couches, and our paintings of naked ex-boyfriends end up in the waste stream. But, if we step back and witness the seemingly uncontrollable timeline of our materials, we find an inevitable end; all these objects, prized or precious-not will outlive us. Depending upon your sense of humanity’s future, all artwork will be disposed, returning to the basic compounds we resourced. So, what do you do about it? Do you seal your work in every archival material you can find? Do you burn your house down in a blaze of glory? Do you try to predict trends so your art will be picked up and taken to conservatory heaven? Well, if you’re Billy Dufallo, Lucia Thomé, or Fern Gookin, you find humor in the face of demise, reflecting reality and our need for sustainability by making an artist residency in a trash heap.
RAIR: Filthy Rich - Projects Made Possible By The Waste Stream at The Galleries at Moore is a retrospective of the Recycled Artist in Residency. A residency taking place at the private recycling service, Revolution Recovery, nestled up North in Tacony. In the last three years their output of artists, projects, funny Christmas cards, and annual publications has exponentially grown.
Each year they select around 6 artists with well known, mid-career, or somewhat emerging art practices. The artists work at the plant with daily access to 350 tons of construction and demolition waste. From such, they create works that not only play on the idea of reuse but on value systems, mortality, and detritus. The model is a dream for any crunchy trash-diving artiste, yet their selected candidates resemble a far expectation from the ecological cliche. The artists have a strong willingness to experiment, allowing the unforeseeable to inhabit their work, making their work inhabit the unforeseeable. The results are varied. So, it’s not surprising, before entering the Galleries at Moore, one must get ready to bury their vision in the sheer magnitude of trash and contextual overloading. Not unlike a manifested documentary on trash island or listening to hours of podcast murmurings about trains of trash sent city to city.
The show/residency poses challenges when trying to both digest and enjoy the work. There is so much shit. So much context. Questions arise like: What happens when you take dump-art outside the dump? The works read like artifacts or documents rather than contemporary art pieces. Viewers are invited to evaluate the issue of imperishables in a space with no predictable value system. It is kinda perfect.
The exhibition displays moments from most of their participants. Rather than display the largely sculptural output of pieces, work is often shown in photographs. It feels like stumbling across an anthropological study as if a professor should be near saying, ‘And in this photo we find 2015’s practices. Notice the appreciation of throw-back radios alongside instruments made out of sawdust.’ Luckily the retrospective/survey feel is accompanied by wall texts, saving me from a search through websites or pestering the gallery owners.These texts focus on the intent of the artist before and during their time at the dump, revealing insight into the RAIR model. A recent resident, Ana Peñalba, said, “Coming to RAIR is like planning a trip to the moon. No matter how much time you spend planning things, you don’t understand the potential until you arrive.” It’s a little disheartening to read the vastness of the waste stream is akin to space travel but I get what Peñalba is saying.
While speaking with RAIR’s Director of Special Projects, Lucia Thomé, she said, “This is our trajectory. The path that most everyone takes. (Artists are) super excited and want to keep and collect everything and then secondly it moves to a holy shit there’s so much trash I’ve saved tons of stuff but it just keeps coming. There’s nothing I can do about it, nothing anyone can do about it and we are all doomed, so wasteful, and then they just crash hard. And you could see people do that, it’s so overwhelming...That’s awful. But then it can only be awful for so long because you’re there to make artwork. Or you know you can’t just not throw away stuff. You do work through it.”
This transformation from excitement to swamped is also highlighted in Peñalba’s artist text. “[She] found that the intensity and unpredictability of the recycling yard had a transformational effect on her working method, pushing her away from clean and detailed sculptural work toward ‘’big and dirty’’ microarchitecture.” Peñalba’s photographs show Philadelphia Landmarks re-imagined through trash. They’re chunky though remain clean photographic assemblages. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is remade using colored trash can columns, standing in for the building’s Greek-Revival style of architecture. Though, I will say, re-imaging the Vanna Venturi House using excavators, a mattress, and a big-ole pile of trash probably felt dirty at the time but I don’t smell the garbage from here.
Other intentional transformations included LA based artist, J Louise Makary, who found herself using dust from the site to inform her performances. In a description from her website, Makary says, ‘Dust is an ample and oppressive byproduct of the industrial recycling process at RAIR. For my film residency, we created engulfing clouds of dust in which to situate movement-based improvisations based on journalistic images of protests, dust storms, and catastrophic events like 9/11.’ I love the idea of an artist going to a space with unlimited building and recycled goods and prefers, instead, to use its dust. In Makary’s explanation, she found the material, “ not only transformed the space by making it vaster and more ambiguous, it also brought with it a worrying theatricality.” Looking at the photos my mortality musings come back. Bodies appear and disappear into the dust. It’s beautiful - a haunting perspective. T.S. Eliot’s line from The Waste Land comes to mind, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
Calling attention to an artist’s intent teases out the pre-existing relationships one has with objects - from the cleverness of using the byproduct of a waste stream to focusing on personal items. We project different lives onto objects we come across. Lucia witnessed the impact of conflating trash worlds on one of RAIR’s residents, Jesse Harrod. “On her left side a truck just dumped someone’s house that had just been evicted. You could see there was still food in the fridge, or who knows what the story is... On her right side was a college clean-out from like the Villanova dorms. Kids are moving out and they have all this shit that they don’t want to take with them, all this plastic furniture. I can’t believe someone spent money on this and then just left it. But there was also food. Two different scenarios. To see them both at the same time, was so sad.”
The contrast of campus clean-outs near forced family evictions is stark. It begs emotional assumptions. We imagine the lives of others based both on what they’ve left behind and how we engage with their leftovers. As Lucia said to me, “you invent the story.” Some artists come to be these imagined story-tellers. Philadelphia performance art, Martha Mcdonald searched through the trash for six months. She created songs and quilts derived from found family photographs. In Songs of Memory and Forgetting, Martha focuses on, “the fragile nature of memory.” Her sweet voice attempts to breathe new life into lost narratives, a love song for the missing and never known. After a recent performance of Mcdonald’s musical collaboration with Billy Dufala, I asked for a quote. Well, I fangirl-cornered her. Nevertheless, she said objects reminded her of the worst day of people’s lives. She oscillated between the words, awful, wonderful, then awful again and went on to say so much of her experience was immediately human. She wanted viewers to look at all the shit that was a part of people’s lives. And that as an artist at the plant she had to restrict what she was she was looking for and only see the objects for what she needed to find. This selective searching reminds me of digging through architectural salvage yards with my Mom. Instead of looking for home improvement material, I would be drawn to piles of skeletons keys found in the foyer of the yard. I wondered what happened to the locks, the doors, or the buildings for that matter. What happened to the hands that held them?
Intersted in a video of Martha McDonald's collaboration with Billy Dufala, click the link here.
With Mcdonald’s musings, Makary’s dust, or my key obsession, imagination is made possible by the amount of content and the lack of context. Some artists used objects simply for their aesthetic. Others for complicated philosophical implications. In a one day residency Tim Eads selected 140 objects from the heaps, transformed them into ready-made images and sent them to be categorized by a biologist. His intent was to “ show(s) connections between objects and their development.” Jaime Alvarez did his own cherry picking and found objects that signified the domestic and the masculine. He presented his findings as photographs of white tableaus. A mediation of a mediation. Dildos, cowboy, hairdryers, baseballs. His junk creates a pristine pile surpassing an immediate read of female/male indicators. Context becomes a medium as much as the physical material.
The conclusion could be about seeing the objects as a glimpse into the future of our artwork and our detritus. By flipping the timeline, Billy, Lucia and Fern foster an eternal recurrence - a revival of age, of what was lost or what's been discarded, without ignoring how they may return. Maybe that’s why the work is so interesting, why artists are drawn to working with trash; they have nothing/everything to lose.