Sunday, November 04, 2007

"On Garbage and Tenderness" by Robin Nagle

In honor of the final week of our fall exhibition "Garbage Collection" (it closes November 7th!), I wanted to share with you the wonderful essay by Robin Nagle written to accompany the show.

Nagle is an anthropologist at New York University specializing in material culture, the study of everyday life, and labor issues as they relate to garbage and solid waste. Her book, Picking Up, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In this essay, she was able to write about her personal feelings toward garbage, something her professional writing doesn't usually allow. Thank you, Robin, for writing such a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, piece!

On Garbage and Tenderness
by Robin Nagle

We know them intimately, yet we ignore them. They populate nearly every part of our lives, but we don’t truly see them. Used once and discarded, they are so thoroughly overlooked that they don’t even earn the status of Forgotten because they were never held in memory in the first place. Sociologists refer to this category of material culture as “unmarked.” Such objects are relegated to the status of the invisible; indeed, they are so literally unremarkable that they serve as the most mundane symbols of everyday life.

The right light, however, and the right care can lift the veil of invisibility to reveal startling beauty. Matthew Eskuche and Anders Bergstrom perform acts of magic with lyrical renditions of the unlikeliest of subjects. In their hands, crushed bottles, dented cans, and bent drinking straws, or slumping piles of newspapers, paper bag-clad bottles, and empty, broken baby strollers become voluptuous and textured. Eskuche’s sculptures tempt the viewer to stroke the re-imagined plastic liter soda bottle, to lovingly consider the elegance of a spent wine bottle. Bergstrom’s drawings, paintings, and prints — often on found paper — offer a gentle affection for the anonymous miscellany that collects in corners, or falls through sewer grates, or knocks around the curb when a mechanical broom fails to scoop it up.

Bergstrom and Eskuche quietly remind us that a definition of a thing as garbage is merely situational, even accidental. It’s easy and quick to relegate an empty beer can to the trash. The object asks nothing of us, requires no thought, demands no respect. Yet at the same time it represents us, now and forever, unloved but uncompromising, offering future lore and fact about who we are as a civilization. That landfilled can, or newspaper, or soda bottle (only a small percentage of these are recycled), even as they remain forever unmarked, become our marks, our traces, launched into an unknown future.

“Human beings are mere placeholders in time, like zeros in a long number,” notes archaeologist William Rathje in his book Rubbish! “Their garbage seems to have more staying power, and a power to inform across the millennia… The profligate habits of our own country and our own time — the sheer volume of the garbage that we create and must dispose of — will make our society an open book.”

A table of contents to that book is found in the works of Eskuche and Bergstrom. There is much to criticize about the so-called “American way of life,” but there is much to treasure in it, too. These artists ask that we remember to be tender toward ourselves by looking with kindness on the common unseen objects that populate our everyday rhythms. Any one of them can stand for who and what we are, where we are from, where we are going. If we follow Bergstrom and Eskuche, we can love — yes, love! — the dented beer can, see beauty in the twisted soda bottle. Surely we can use the vision they inspire to see how much more there is to love in the landscapes of waste and labors of wealth that comprise the glutted, lovely world in which we live.

September 2007
New York, NY

Posted and image by Amy Shaw.


Anonymous said...

Do you when Robin's book will come out?

Greenjeans Adventure said...

I don't know exactly but I think this spring or summer. I'll be sure to post about it when it arrives!