Making Garbage Visible

It stands to reason that if garbage were not so invisible, we might not have so much of it. Trash disappears into bags and gets hauled to the landfill, never to be thought of again. But a growing army of environmental artists is bringing disposables back into the limelight. By using garbage in their art, they encourage recycling and raise awareness of the ecological problems associated with waste disposal.

A quarter of Americans recycle, but how many actually wear their garbage? These fashion statements–a pagoda dress and a zipper tux–show how it can be done.© Estelle Akamine

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the artist in residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation since 1977, is a leader in this effort. Ukeles made headlines with “Touch Sanitation,” a performance piece in which the artist shook hands with 8,500 garbagemen, and she was among the first to combine recycled glass and asphalt in paving.

Today, Ukeles is focused on the Fresh Kills Landfill, the Staten Island behemoth scheduled to close at the end of this year. As the city searches for a design team to create a park on the site after it closes, Ukeles is planning a work of revelatory art that will celebrate the site's history. “This could be a site of transformation, where people could see our power to take something that was degraded and heal it,” Ukeles says. “But we can't forget what it was, because if you do that, you excuse yourself from the problems.”

Estelle Akamine is one of 30 artists who have participated in an artist-in-residence program at San Francisco's Norcal Waste Transfer Site. There, Akamine wove clothing out of recycled material to force people to acknowledge waste—because “no one wants garbage next to their skin,” she says. Mini-blinds, six-pack rings and garbage bags all became formal wear for a charity gala.

Two museums in Connecticut use art to teach reuse as well. At the Children's Garbage Museum in Stratford, the “Trash-o-saurus” is a 24-foot-long dinosaur made entirely of refuse—trash as intimidating creature. At the Mid-Connecticut Project Visitor Center in Hartford, educators point to items embedded in the “Temple of Trash”—from candy wrappers to bicycles—and identify whether they can be reused.

More than a quarter of the U.S. population recycles. But as long as most people let trash disappear into far-away landfills, these artists will continue their work. For a closed landfill in Israel, Ukeles recently proposed a system of lights that will dance across the mound, color-coded according to the site's toxicity. That way, as the land begins to heal, everybody can watch.