In the documentary, Examined Life, Slavoj Žižek explains that we must begin to see garbage as aesthetically pleasing in order to come to terms with the inevitability of the environment we have created. He asserts that our understanding of ecology is becoming an ideological “opium for the masses,” where the ecologist is a conservative whose religion is the preservation of a supposedly preexisting Nature. But his claim is that there is no Nature outside of an ever-existing, ongoing, cyclical series of catastrophes; that Nature is not a prehuman entity, existing in balance and harmony which we somehow pervert. Further, he says that although society is aware of the catastrophe that we are implicated in creating, (through disavowal or repression), because we are not continually confronted with the mass of waste we produce, we are capable of continuing to participate in said destruction. Ultimately, we are not wired to accept or believe that such a catastrophe is possible if it is not observably imminent. His truly radical turn is in saying that we should not attempt to return to a previous state of nature, but instead continue our alienation from it to the point where everything becomes so abstract that, as a lover still finds beauty despite the faults of the beloved, we find aesthetic pleasure in trash because it is, in fact, the unavoidable, if terrifying, future reality for the world we, as ecologists, claim to love. To further Žižek’s thought, a sustainable relationship with the environment is necessary, and it is just this sustainable relationship that is the focus of Repurposed, the exhibition currently on display at Georgia State University’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design Galleries. I spoke with the show’s curator, Cynthia Farnell, gaining valuable insight into each of the works included and how, collectively, they address the idea of sustainability through the repurposing of materials. (All subsequent quotes are credited to her unless otherwise noted.)
First and foremost, this is not a show about remix culture. Appropriation and détournement, the repurposing of previous works of art to comment on authorship, power, originality, and creativity are not the focus of this show. With the exception of Carol LeBaron, who “cannibalizes her own work,” the artists are not using preexisting art as a starting point, but instead focus on utilizing materials that otherwise would have been trash, destined to occupy a landfill, or worse, the natural environment at large. As Farnell puts it, “[The artists use materials] that comment on the environmental impact of our society, our culture of consumption.” These artists are not taking the chance that their art will one day become trash, but that previously discarded materials will become their art.
By titling the show Repurposed, Farnell suggests that the art in the show not only uses materials that once served a different purpose than that of artistic production, but that the new objects also possess a purpose. In the Modern period, functionality has been part of the defining separation between design from art, and many of the works in this show lean into the field of designed objects or functional tools. Islay Taylor’s jewelry, made from industrial detritus and mixed media, is an obvious candidate for blurring such lines, and Mary Lee Bendolph’s Work-clothes Quilt, one of the famed Gee’s Bend Quilts, is a fully functional tool made from previously functional denim work clothes.
For the curator, “[Art] has many purposes. One of the purposes of the work in any exhibit is to reflect on the culture[…] and an aspect of our culture is material consumption.” The most outspoken on this function of art is Pam Longobardi. Her piece, Ghosts of Consumption: Archaeology of Culture (For Piet M.) (2011) is a collection of objects found on various environmental interventions, pinned to the wall like forensic evidence. According to her artist statement, “[she] consciously avoid[s] commodifying this work into a luxury object, preferring to keep it in a transitive form as installation.” Similarly, Allyson Comstock collected a year’s worth of junk (snail)mail, then painstakingly recycled it by hand. 303 Days a Year (2011) is made of thousands of circular paper castings from this process, paired with twelve calendar-worthy images of endangered or protected landscapes, tediously made using traditional paper-making techniques. My favorite piece from the exhibit, Rob Nadeau’s unmonumental installation, Hey Buddy, Can Ya Spare a Dime?, is also a collection of scavenged items, most of which are from the streets of Atlanta. More than a comment on our culture of waste, his current method of working is a result of the artist’s economic situation, where purchasing fine paints and canvas is not responsibly viable, but being creative with free reusable materials is.
The show is filled with a surprising majority of aesthetically pleasing works crafted by skilled hands. While a few pieces may leave the viewer thinking “I could’ve done that,” each work possesses an internal logic that seeks to sustain the artist’s culture as well as all of our environment. Each artist posits a question that Farnell was able to articulate as: “What is the purpose of [one’s] practice; why are we putting more objects into the world?” Returning to Žižek’s argument concerning ecology, Repurposed does exactly as he prescribes, giving us an aesthetic experience of the waste and ruins of our culture. The show keeps us actively conscious of our relationship to the environment, and promotes a practical dialogue about our interactions with it. Repurposed exposes our implication in the catastrophe that is occurring, while asserting that a more conscientious use of materials can promote sustainability, displaying a love for the environment.
Repurposed will remain up at the Georgia State University Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Galleries through November 18, 2011. The galleries are open Monday through Friday from 10AM to 6PM.