Nowadays, the awareness of waste's massive impact on our lives and the planet is widely spreading. Humans produce millions of tons of waste yearly, which is becoming a significant issue worldwide. Nevertheless, less than 20 percent of waste is recycled annually, with huge quantities still sent to landfill sites.
It could be related to the fact that we still perceive garbage as something to be kept at a distance, dirty and unappealing. However, there is a way not only to recycle, helping us and the planet, but also to build something unique, stunning, and long-lasting with trash. In other words, there is a way to create art with trash.
When trash becomes art
"Trash Art" (which is art created through the use of trash) seeks to transform waste into works of art.
This type of art provides a new purpose for objects that have satisfied their original use. Otherwise, it could end up in landfills, increasing the amount of global waste, which is already severely damaging our planet. The environmental benefits of recycled art include, for instance, its contribution to the use and extending the useful life of materials and, consequently, reducing the amount of waste generated.
Moreover, elevating trash to art, this kind of artistic movement also questions and challenges a strict definition of art: what is “art,” and why should it have any aesthetical boundaries?
Deepening the theme, "Trash Art" conveys a critical message regarding excessive consumption and environmental pollution. It serves as a reminder of our environmental issues and inspires others to change their lifestyle and reuse their items in new, creative, and unique ways.
One of the main characteristics of this style is that it is not limited to any discipline, and all of them can use these materials. We can find it in paintings, sculptures, haute couture, or furniture for the house. Therefore, the artists who use trash as the main element of their creations have found different ways to bring trash back to life, carry forward social and environmental messages, and stir collective consciences to create innovative artistic scenarios.
HA Schult and his Trash People
HA Schult was one of the first artists to address ecological imbalances with his work and is currently an ardent activist in the ecology movement.
The artist is best known for his "Trash People". Starting from 1996, these imponent sculptures made of trash, of 1,80 meters, have been displayed in various of the world's most major cities, for instance, Paris, Moscow, the Great Wall of China, Cairo and Giza in Egypt, Bruxelles, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, and Antarctica.
These "Trash People" were mainly made of crushed cans, computer parts, and basically, any other trash the artist found while working on their creation and which could represent what the artist called "the constant human destruction".
Derek Gores and the Art of Collage
Derek Gores began to experiment with newspaper clippings at the age of 17. With the passing years, he has become a master in collage art. He not only creates fascinating collages with a unique aesthetic, but he also often consciously uses snippets of articles that contrast with what the image expresses.
Derek Gores uses scraps of magazines, documents, logos, and found objects from the digital realm. Rearranging the scraps, he forms a sort of surrealist image, where a nearly photo-realistic image comes to focus from afar. However, as the viewer gets near, the tiny scraps reveal themselves to be other pictures, song lyrics, charts, patterns, and more, and sweep the attention to another universe.
The artist describes his techniques as an intensely emotional moment in which he gives his creativity free rein.
Khalil Chishtee and his Plastic Bag Sculptures
Khalil Chishtee is an internationally acclaimed artist whose practice questions the norms and notions of living life and cultures. The Pakistani artist's specialty is creating life-size sculptures out of recycled bags to address environmental and ecological issues. Much of his figurative work is evocative of movement and fluidity, and indeed, some of his work is sculpted in a way as to be constantly moving.
Moreover, these hauntingly beautiful sculptures raise questions about humanity and love. For the artist, plastic is a metaphor for "recycling our identity" and a way to face life's obstacles. "Art is as important as life itself," Chishtee said: "It teaches you how to be human".
Subodh Gupta and the Indian Culture
Subodh Gupta is an Indian artist who uses everyday objects that are particularly significant in Indian culture and then recycles them by adding them to his installations.
The artist's sculptures incorporate objects everywhere throughout India, such as steel tiffin lunch boxes, thali pans, bicycles, and mil pails. The objects he uses already have a story, but Gupta adds another layer of meaning when he integrates them into his pieces. From such ordinary items, Subodh Gupta produces breathtaking sculptures that reflect on the economic transformation of his homeland.
Guerra de la Paz and their clothes sculptures
Guerra de la Paz is a collective of Cuban artists founded by Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz. The two artists mainly work with recycled clothes to create astonishing sculptures. Their pieces are often interpretations of classic artworks that frequently convey political messages.
Guerra de la Paz’s art questions modern consumer society and how we blindly use and discard objects in good condition. They utilize masses of material to evoke the burdens of excessive consumption and oppression.
In the artists' words, they “find inspiration in the familiarity of ready-made, whose archaeological qualities and encapsulated energies evoke the significance of the human footprint and reveal psychosocial and environmental messages while exploring themes with cultural and historical relevance”.
Nick Gentry and his portraits made out of media
Nick Gentry’s signature device is to recycle used floppy discs, and other materials, such as used rolls, VHS disks, vinyl record sleeves, and x-rays, on which he paints startling futuristic portraits. Therefore, the environmental artist creates a conversation between digital and analog processes. That is because these objects are no longer in the spotlight, but by placing them there, it becomes easier to comprehend the speed and extent of the changes occurring today.
The development of consumerism, technology, and cyberculture in our society influences Gentry’s work. Through the use of recycled media, the artist aims that “contributor, artist, and viewer come closer together”.
Another unique characteristic of this artist is that the materials are ethically and sustainably sourced directly from members of the public in a uniquely collaborative social art project.
Jason Mercier and his Celebrity Junk Drawer
Jason Mercier creates mosaic portraits of celebs using celebrity’s discarded objects that they spontaneously give to the artist. Therefore, everything can be found in his artworks: from bits of discarded jewelry to empty deodorant cand and bubble-gum wrappers. As Mercier himself said, he fabricates “anybody out of anything”.
To do so, the artist tries to conceptualize the person with the trash elements that will better represent them. For instance, a portrait of Kevin Bacon made with bacon, a Michael Jackson out of pills, and a Snoop Dogg portrait out of cigarettes and blunts butts. And his paintings have become so popular that many of the celebrities he portrayed later bought the work they inspired.
Messy Msxi and her Plastic Ocean
Artist and illustrator Tan Zi Xi recreated a physical manifestation of the Pacific Garbage Patch, where children and adults could experience being immersed in a space covered with trash, simulating the environment of a plastic pool.
For the artist herself, one of the most memorable experiences was the process of creating experiential artwork for the public. She had to collect, clean, and organize 26.000 pieces of discarded plastics for the installation. “When we start to study and be conscious of our waste, it will hit home just how unsustainable our culture of convenience is. This revelation is life-changing,” the artist says.
What could we learn from Trash Art?
These artists and the powerful messages they convey through their artworks help us not only to critically re-think our impact on the planet and its environment. They also help us to stimulate our innate creativity never to stop at the appearance of the materials we find ourselves in front of every day, but to see the endless possibilities of transforming and renewing them according to a new idea of a more aware world.
Therefore, “Trash Art” makes us once again active agents of our world and of our everyday life and indispensable in constructing our future, which inevitably must pass from safeguarding the planet's future.
Written by Joana Ribeiro Vieira Lima