PRINT October 2001


Refuse Salon

“THE PURE PRODUCTS OF AMERICA,” according to William Carlos Williams, “go crazy.” The impure ones, he might have added, get thrown away. What happens to American products after they are “consumed” is a question of pressing concern not only for trash haulers, city planners, and environmentalists; it is (or ought to be) for artists and art viewers as well.

This is the premise of “Fresh Kills: The Art of Waste,” an eighteen-artist exhibition opening this month. Its focus is the delightfully named “Fresh Kills” landfill in the New York City borough of Staten Island, which, until its closing in March, was reputedly the largest and certainly the most notorious repository of garbage in the world. Covering 2,400 acres on the island’s western shore, and visible from space with the naked eye—its highest point is about as tall as a twenty-story building—Fresh Kills bears the dubious distinction of having attracted, for more than fifty years, the waste products of New York’s better-known, more prestigious neighboring boroughs. The exhibition takes place in Staten Island’s tonier Snug Harbor, a few miles up the road from Fresh Kills.

It seems more than a little ironic that an exhibition of contemporary art is being staged about a site where its most vocal antagonists believe it belongs—a giant dump. But thinking through art's ambivalent relation to its dialectical secret sharer, garbage, illuminates a good deal about both. According to curator Olivia Georgia, the project was conceived four years ago, when Georgia met Mierle Ukeles, the Conceptualist who has long been—who knew?—artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Ukeles initially planned to put some of the landfill’s heavy machinery on display at the Newhouse Center. “But,” says Georgia, “the floor in the gallery couldn't bear the weight.” Perhaps the building was expressing its own unconscious resistance to Ukeles’s Haacke-like attempt to link the sprawling landfill to its lesser-known neighbor, the twenty-five-year-old Snug Harbor Cultural Center, and particularly to the Newhouse galleries, located in a quaint early-nineteenth-century Greek revival building. (The space is named for S.Y. Newhouse, Conde Nast owner S.I.’s father, who got his New York publishing start in “S.I.,” the city’s least populous borough.) With the announcement a few years ago of the impending closure of Fresh Kills, the idea for a larger exhibition began to take shape, and Georgia invited ecologically minded artists to respond to the history of the landfill, its operations, and its future. “It just seemed like such an obvious opportunity,” says Georgia.

Unsurprisingly, much of the art in the exhibition is Conceptualist in orientation. Ukeles, working with video artist Kathy Brew and cinematographer Roberto Guerra, presents a multichannel video depicting a series of walks around the landfill and conversations with ecologists, engineers, local government officials, sanitation workers, and art historians. (The video will be shown both at the Newhouse Center and in the Staten Island Mall; Ukeles clearly wants to stress connections between art, trash, and commerce.) In a less directly pedagogical engagement with ecological questions, Finnish artist Jussi Heikkilä, who previously collected and exhibited materials cast off by trekking parties to Mount Everest, has created an installation that draws attention to the numerous bird species that make Fresh Kills their home. Meanwhile, Marguerite Kahrl has constructed a paper landscape using material recycled from the landfill—including pulp and bottled gas.

Working in more traditional media, Rackstraw Downes has been painting landscape images of Fresh Kills and other dumps for almost two decades; his works look like Constablesque investigations of Smithsonian entropy. Mark Dion's sculptural installation consists of a collection of materials found in the landfill; the work continues his broader exploration of accumulation, codification, and display. Staten Island–based Michael Arguelles takes Becher-like photos of the colossal trash-compacting tractors that have recently been, to use the appropriate Blade Runner euphemism, “retired.”

These works and others invite viewers to rethink the abject, accursed share of consumer capitalism, and what it has (and they themselves have) “produced.” The concept of the exhibition also raises salient questions about art’s historical function, and about how contemporary art has—and has not—altered that function. If art's traditional ideal was to preserve that which, in a state of nature, is ephemeral, then in a sense everything that is not art becomes waste. Of course the countertradition of the readymade, and some exponents of Pop (think Oldenburg), already expressed suspicion about this glorification of art’s mission, transforming the ideal artist’s role from universal Maker to curator of the everyday, while artists of the past thirty-five years increasingly put pressure on the ideas of order supporting aesthetic value. But even when trashing art’s complicity with market forces and reactionary politics, they themselves were notoriously unable to make their art resist commodification and accumulation, much less to revise the art/not-art binary. Perhaps consequently, recent artists have seemed less interested in jettisoning the categories (Artist, Work of Art) underlying the foundation of both art practice and the market; indeed, “scatter art,” perhaps the one coherent through-line narrative of ’90s art, can be said to have aestheticized garbage, making it both “personal” and “valuable.”

Georgia points to another irony raised by her rubbish-filled exhibition—that with the closure her show commemorates, the identity of Staten Island itself will change. “What was and still is perceived as the dumping grounds of New York,” she says enthusiastically, “will become the largest green space in the city. Once all the methane gas has been extracted, the land can be used for recreation.” Nature lovers, please note: The process could take half a century.

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.