Two centuries ago, trash was something to hang on to. Derrick Jensen, in his recent book What We Leave Behind, writes that in the 1870s in Milwaukee, children went from house to house gathering garbage (which was then mostly organic) to turn into fertilizer and pig feed. And when city officials tried to collect Milwaukee’s garbage, locals refused to surrender it.
But it takes much more imagination to find such value in the crumpled plastic containers, gluey bits of paper, leaking batteries, egg cartons, and disposable diapers that fill the modern American garbage can.
It takes the immense and unconfined creativity of someone like Iranian-American artist Kuros Zahedi.
A few days ago at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s annual arts festival, Zahedi unveiled his epic sculpture “Finding Away.” It’s a hopeful fairytale spun from a mural of pulped waste paper and ground glass and plastic, a work that transforms trash into a vision.
In 2008, Zahedi traveled from his home in western Washington to California to meet Ari Derfel, an activist who shot into the headlines after he decided to save all of his trash, every day, for an entire year.
Derfel said the year completely altered his behavior. He began thinking about where things go when you “throw them away.” (Or as Zahedi says, Derfel “found away.”) He developed an eerily vivid mental picture of the impact of each item he consumed, how much fuel to make the bottle of juice he might pick up at the store, how far the bottle had traveled, where it would go (perhaps a recycling plant in China) when he was done.
Zahedi weighed and cataloged Derfel’s waste, and used every piece of it in his sculpture.
There are crude human figures made from a papier-mâché of boiled junk mail, glossy ads, and wallpaper paste. The figures are trundling old wrappers and trash, walking toward a mural of a person surrounded by greenery, light, animals, and color. The mural looks like what a schoolchild might make in crayon if you asked him or her to draw you a sunny day, except that it’s composed of the ground-up bits of Derfel’s garbage.
If this sounds like an obscure stunt, consider the long shadow that Americans’ waste leaves on the world. It’s not just about whether we recycle our cans, or even the size of our landfills. There’s the waste of our cars and coal plants, fired up into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases. There’s the mercury from our television tubes and old computer monitors, poisoning workers in recycling plants in India and China. There’s the farm waste, animal manure, and pesticides that wash into the Mississippi and then into the Gulf of Mexico, brewing into an oxygen-free “dead zone” where no marine animals can live. Trash isn’t just a metaphor for our environmental crises—it’s the crux of them.
And confronting those crises will mean reckoning with our garbage in all its forms. And what better way to start than with art, which forces us to look at ourselves from a different angle and imagine that we can un-trash blighted places around us and make them into something beautiful.
“Finding Away” will appear next in San Francisco, November 13 to 15, where it will be the featured exhibit at the Green Festival.