Published  04/05/2007

Non-refusals in Rubbish: Return of the Rubbish Aesthetic

Non-refusals in Rubbish: Return of the Rubbish Aesthetic

The Unilever Series: Doris Salcedo. Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, London
9 October 2007-24 March 2008

Refuse has become a key artist's material, as if it ever ceased to be. Today, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo is planning a major installation of ephemera for Tate  Modern in October 2008. No one refuses refuse these days. On the small scale, Francis Bacon's studio detritus is now up for auction near London. And now on the major scale, New York's Staten Island Fresh Kills tipping site is to become a major landscaped natural resource site.

The recent dumping of a significant work of Anish Kapoor, presumably 'contaminated' in the jargon of the bins, has raised arts antennae about refuse (or is it non-refuse?), that is, non-rubbish, rubbish. This is a highly relevant subject for contemporary art, since Western societies (and now Asian) inhabit a universe of abandoned food, wrappings, and detrimentae, all the waste products of a society seemingly founded on market excesses of consumption. Every now and then, too, there is industrial action by refuse collectors, and the black and green bags pile up in the street unattended, pillaged by vermin. All this is high drama to the mind of the artist or poet. What landfill sites are being made available to the London Olympics? When they have demolished the tidy east end allotments on site as undesirable and lacking in security, are we now to experience enough massive sites to accommodate global detritus spewing over Essex on a scale similar to the Fresh Kills site on Staten Island? Tessa Jowell - please note. There's a bad smell about, and not just of corruption.

In 2008, Tate Modern will be filling the Turbine Hall with the work of the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. The particular cue for her installations, and the reason why curators consider it suitable, says Dr Achim Borchardt-Hume, the curator for modern and contemporary art at  Tate Modern, is 'consistency of quality and attention to detail'. She has already showed at Tate Modern in l999. She is expected,  typically, to become fully engaged with the architecture of Tate Modern. A piece/installation she made in Turin's eighteenth-century Castello di Rivoli, entitled 'Abysss' (2006), covered the whitened walls of a vast salone, in brick. She created the uncanny impression of a hanging brick wall (a seeming contradiction in terms), which was hanging down from the ceiling. Earlier, the long-term suffering of the Colombian communities led her to constructions involving furniture, household necessities, and human hair and clothing, loaded with pathos. The scale of her work has grown larger, always based upon a deepening research. Her personal archive is now accumulating apace, containing such remains as material from refugee and concentration camps, in Europe and Africa.

What will appear at Tate Modern in October 2008? It will prove more than a twinge of conscience, reminding sated Western (and now Asian) societies of the phenomenal waste they are engendering on an already beleaguered planet. On an abandoned site in Istanbul recently she stacked up (threw up is a more appropriate description) 1550 chairs, intended to represent the footloose migrant victims of the new slave trade which has replaced the old. To the credit of Tate Modern, they have followed her work from early beginnings, and have three examples already in their collection. She, more than anyone, has the power to symbolise all that is wrong in contemporary consumer society. No work will prove more relevant than hers next year.

Ewbank Fine Art Auctioneers, from near Woking, Surrey, England, are preparing to sell at auction, the accumulated rubbish of Francis Bacon's studio. Mac Robertson, a local electrician, spotted this happening and persuaded Bacon to let him accumulate these effects. There are acutely personal memorabilia, such as a diary note (dated 24 February 1971) about his great friend George Dyer's Paris suicide. What will be billed at sale as the Robertson Collection is expected to make all of half a million pounds conservatively. The amount of interest now from overseas has clearly surprised these peaceful rural auctioneers of 'art and antiques'. The 45 lots of incidental items might have been only a sample from Bacon's studio accumulations. But they will rise and rise at auction.  The wise acumen of Mac Robertson has to be applauded. How many of the items lotted will end up in Asia or Australia? At what price, rubbish? Or 'not-rubbish'?

The whole science of refuse disposal remains at a fairly crude stage of official 'curatorial' advancement. The underlying criteria for defining, let alone valuing the minutiae and ephemera of past (even yesterday's) skipping and binning process are still contained only in the concept of 'recyclable waste', 'contaminated waste' (because containing plastics). Or 'non-recyclables'. Following the colossal tragedy of New York's 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center, as much as possible of the waste was removed laboriously to the ironically named Fresh Kills site on Staten Island. A massive landscape project is under way there. Landscape Architect James Corner's scheme for this 898 hectare (2220 acres) site there (which rises to 69 metres (225 feet) high, has to be a massive transformation. As Jayne Merkel writes in the current 'Landscape' issue of Architectural Design Journal,1 'At some points it is visible from the moon, Fresh Kills had been closed  for re-landscaping just prior to the World Trade Center attack. It was immediately reopened and became the repository for all that. For over half a century this inter-tidal marshland had received 150 million tons of waste, they managed to grow forests, creating a nesting area for herons, and host migrating birds, although it often emits foul odours.' Now reopened, the name is ironic, coming in fact from the Fresh Kills Estuary there of old. James Corner refers to the project as a 'Lifescape', that will transform suburban Staten Island from 'a backyard bypass in a larger and more vital metropolis into a nature-lifestyle island, a big spread of lush vegetation, open space, birds, mammals and amphibians - an expansive network of greenways, recreational areas and restored habitat reserves.'

The whole subject of refuse has entered a world of new dimensions, with current revisions of the whole problem and meaning of waste. Artists, architects and landscape designers are currently busier than ever before researching and creatively resolving what has become a growing preoccupation of contemporary society. As such, it has become a primary area of exploration for artists, especially. Francis Bacon had it right.

Michael Spens

1. Jayne Merkel. Landscape Architecture: Site/Non-Site. Architectural Design 2007; 77(2): 38.

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