What does art have to say about the weight of an exponentially expanding world population? Can a work of art tell us something new about the sea of manufactured goods billions of us consume and discard? What exactly is our relationship to the natural world with all that stuff mediating the experience?
The use of found or manufactured objects in art goes back to Duchamp and the Dada movement at the turn of the 20th century. The Pop Art movement of the 1950s brought mass-produced goods (and culture) into the art vernacular, but the use of those materials persists in the work of artists whose work is explicitly about consumerism or the environment—and even some whose work isn’t about the environment at all.
On one end of the spectrum are artists such as Joseph Beuys and Andy Goldsworthy, who use art to draw attention to the environment in surprising ways. These granddaddies of the environmental art movement use the landscape as a canvas for site-specific art made in reference to the environment and, quite literally, of elements in the environment. At the other end of the spectrum, Chris Jordan transforms abstract data—the number of tuna fished from the oceans each day, say—into large-scale images that manage to put into perspective the massive impact humans have on the environment without losing sight of the specific. Jordan photographed 1.14 million brown paper bags (the number used in the United States every hour, according to him). At first glance they resemble a dense forest of tree trunks. But up close, each individual bag is visible.
What about art that touches on consumption and the human footprint in a less obvious way? Artists with little stylistic common ground are turning to consumption not as subject, but as subtext. A growing number of artists are using the disposable stuff of everyday life in the industrial world—designer shoes, plastic water bottles, old books and cassettes, even Scotch tape—to put everyday objects in an unexpected and thought-provoking context.
Elizabeth Simonson’s site-specific installations are one of a kind even if the material they are made of is anything but. Simonson uses everyday objects and materials such as tape to compose large-scale sculptures that essentially create themselves as she applies layer after layer of a specific material. “From simple molecular structures to complex organisms, life grows blindly, motivated by one rule: creating self-sustaining structures that foster survival,” Simonson says. “Inspired by this logic, I see my work as an aspect of nature.”
That convergence of the organic and the manufactured suggests an impulse to reconnect with the natural world through art that co-opts the materials and objects all around us. And in fact, Simonson’s work is on exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Museum this summer in a show premised on the ordinary. The artist notes that part of the appeal of using everyday objects in her work is the transformation from everyday to extraordinary. “Seeing something really common like tape and then seeing it in this unrecognizable form is interesting,” she says.
Do you know where your discarded prescription bottles or those old trophies from fourth grade are? If you happen to cross paths with Jean Shin, they might be art. Shin’s large-scale installations are made up of everyday objects collected from family, friends and the community. “When participants donate their objects,” she says, “it comes with their identity, history and many stories.” For one installation, Everyday Monuments, Shin collected trophies and carefully altered them to cast a heroic light on working-class occupations. In another, Sound Wave, she used old vinyl records to evoke “the inevitable waves of technology that render each successive generation of recordable media obsolete.”
The artist, who exhibited her work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last year, says her work reflects the consumerism and excess around us. But she doesn’t see consumption as all bad. She takes the concept of message as medium to its logical conclusion by incorporating objects of different origin and with different associations, but fundamentally the same in their use and meaning. “When I collect thousands of single objects from a community, they speak to a collective consciousness. … [T]hese materials are shown in a new context, connecting one story to another and suggesting larger relationships within our society.”
“The first objects I used were hair dryers because I found 1,000 of them in an abandoned factory,” says artist Willie Cole. “I wasn’t specifically thinking about consumerism, but a pile of objects was inspiring.” Cole, whose work is collected by major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, creates work that incorporates African-American and African imagery with a nod to Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement. But instead of a single urinal planted unapologetically in the middle of a gallery, say, Cole uses multiples of common objects to create his sculptures and prints.
Imagine a West African sculpture of black polished wood, only made of black designer pumps, and you’ll get a sense of how Cole turns the functional into something thought provoking. And even though the objects are in most ways identical, the relationship between human and human-made matters. “Everything we touch has a little bit of us on it. … [M]ost of the objects I have used have been handled by humans,” says Cole. “The objects have a memory and a history of their own.”
New electronic gadgets—computers, phones, media devices, video game systems—are compelling in a way few other products can match. The desire to hear better, see more clearly and experience more fully drives development and arguably contributes to a cycle of planned obsolescence. As much as we love our iPod, we know we’ll love the next-generation version even more—even if that means mountain of e-waste. Brian Dettmer taps into this relationship with sculpture that doesn’t just recycle objects, but recycles meaning.
Dettmer re-imagines analog, linear media for our decidedly digital, nonlinear reality. His media-based sculpture reflects our taste, our aspirations, our state of mind, even our dreams, if only for a moment. “I’m interested in the fact that everything living, or any material, contains recorded information about its origin, location and function,” Dettmer says.
The artist painstakingly carves images and words out of old books, and forms cassette and videotapes into organic shapes. “When I transform mechanical and plastic materials by hand and with heat, they naturally become organic,” he says. “It’s like a retreat to a more natural state.”
“Art, for me, is a way of asking the questions I am fascinated by, examining how we relate to our environment, and hopefully addressing it in a new way,” says artist Vaughn Bell, whose conceptual approach involves asking individuals to adopt some small bit of land, or experience a biome shrunk down to the size of a birdhouse. The Seattle-based artist doesn’t use mass-produced objects in her work, but rather starts from the world as we experience it and asks us to see the natural world bounded by our built environment. The point: to reconnect people to the natural world and create a bridge from what is to what could be.
“The irony of this is that we are always exerting a huge influence over our environment. Every time we turn on the lights or start the car we are exerting this influence,” says Bell. “I think art can make us aware of what we take for granted in terms of the way we interact with our environment. I also think art has the possibility to help us imagine a different scenario than the one we are currently in. At least, these are the roles that I think my work and the work of many other contemporary artists can play.”
Erica Paschke has been incorporating found objects—stuff most would consider no longer useful—into her work for years. The recent college graduate and conceptual artist is interested in the way people view waste. A while back, news reports about the North Pacific Gyre, a huge garbage patch filled with plastic bags and other refuse floating in the middle of the ocean, caught Paschke’s attention. “I was thinking about all the plastic floating in the ocean,” says the artist. That line of thought inspired an installation, Days, made up of that ever-present artifact of everyday life—the plastic water bottle.
Paschke suspended 365 bottles from the ceiling—each with a message inside—to “symbolize the use of plastic every day and how we don’t really think about how it adds up.” The messages inside, which people are encouraged to retrieve, offer simple, actionable ideas for reducing our impact on the environment. Like a message in a bottle that’s washed up on shore, the call to action is urgent.
This image gallery originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Momentum magazine, Ensia’s predecessor, as “Second Hand.”