Found artist traces origins of trash; transforms waste into craft

Sometimes, art exists for its own sake, but art can also be activism. For Jenny Odell, it’s the latter. Odell creates found art from garbage by tracing the history of each piece and archiving it. In a culture of overwhelming wastefulness, the artistically inclined and their audiences could do a lot of good by swimming against the current. Odell’s art fuses similar creative expressions with activist awareness.

Odell’s Bureau of Suspended Objects project represents an extensively researched archive of material culture—the full dossier of the gallery of objects is a lengthy book. The artist collected and categorized discarded computers, dolls, videocassettes, toys, tennis rackets, backpacks, bottles and clocks. The statement is clear: the past—and the things that characterized it—doesn’t disappear just because trends have changed and people have moved on; it’s still there, collecting dust.

Odell is not the only waste-conscious found object artist out there. She created the Bureau of Suspended Objects through a program at Recology, an employee-owned trash collector in San Francisco whose motto is “a world without waste.” According to its website, the company has been hosting artists in residence for 25 years.

By teaming up with artists who give a new purpose to other peoples’ trash, Recology acknowledges that the process of recycling and disposing of discarded items—no matter how efficient or green it may be—is nowhere near enough to address the problem of just how much waste Americans make. Sometimes, a little more creativity is necessary to address the problem.

I have always been fascinated by found art. Sometimes, it’s just because it’s unexpected. Sometimes, garbage just looks cool when it’s spray-painted bronze and arranged to look like a flower or a person—or even just a pile of spray-painted garbage.

I think a lot of it has to do with the idea that garbage isn’t always just that and it doesn’t always belong in a landfill. Oftentimes, it ends up there because people just missed the recycling bin. Sometimes people throw out new and useful objects because they didn’t like their color.

Sometimes, garbage belongs in a museum because it is actually art. There’s a political message inherent to that statement. When that message gets lost, it represents a missed opportunity.

Found object art is a prime opportunity to spread messages about the problems of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction. When the art itself is renewable, a message of sustainability should not be too hard to tease out—either for viewers or for the artists themselves.

Of course, activism and creative expression cannot always go hand in hand; that would put a limit on creativity, which is never a good thing. When your art just happens to come from the trash, however, spreading awareness about where those objects came from and why it’s considered “trash” in the first place may be warranted.

Hopefully, more artists in the future will embrace and actively share messages of sustainability and conscious consumption—whether their medium is garbage or oil on canvas. Meanwhile, those of us with less lofty creative aspirations could stand to pay more attention to the “reuse” in “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Once it leaves our hands, our garbage isn’t going to an artist in residency; it’s just going to sit in a landfill.