Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Art is Trash!

Artists working on West Island turn trash into art

Anthropology is the study of social and cultural aspects of human life. Although making tools is an aspect we share with other species (various primate species, for example, use sticks and stones), the variety and complexity of our tools, and our ability to make tool-making tools seems to distinguish us. 

For tool making, gratitude seems due to our predecessor, Homo habilis, “handy man” of 2.6-1.7 million years ago. Archaeology is constantly being revised but currently, Homo habilis is famous for making the first tools.It's possible even earlier hominids made tools; but whoever was responsible someone didn't just use what he or she found, but actually transformed the object so it could be used. We think the earliest example of this is the Oldowan pebble choppers made by homo habilis. Now extremely valuable, these were random rocks till archaeologists 'discovered' them and put them in a museum.

 Since these ancestors, tools and the things we have created through them, often develop a life of their own, almost literally. For example, we give our boats names such as “The Queen Mary” and mourn them when they sink.Yet the Industrial Revolution allowed us exponentially, the ability to create tools and objects. Factories can makes loads of things, quickly. Mechanical reproduction, a guy name Benjamin observed, meant that original works of arts obtained a different significance. Now in the electronic age, a musical track is produced as a binary sequence which is exactly and infinitely reproducible.

But what gives these objects their value? If they have an allotted time, how do we treat the objects when they reach them.

Watts Towers

Watts Towers
Simon Rodia made me, and many others, reconsider how we use 'things' when we have finished with them. From the 1920s to the 1950s, this Italian migrant living in Los Angeles collected trash and transformed it into beautiful, surreal monuments. In the late 50s the local government decided to destroy his towers as they were called, against much local opposition. According to the story, the towers stood up against the crane attempting to pull them down. And today they still stand, a fantasy of curly designs, pastel colors, and mirrors. Discarded objects now have been transformed into art and heritage, which is the theme of this blog.

Art Adrift

Rubber sandals collected
by Emma 
We tend to associate coral atolls like the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, part of Australia's Indian Ocean Territories, with pristine white sands and and overhanging palms. Yet strewn above the high water mark of most of the ocean beaches, particularly those facing Australia and Southeast Asia are, along with coconut shells, lines of plastic bottles, plastic sandals (called "thongs" in Australian English), nets, ropes, and other human detritus. Shampoo containers from Indonesia, plastic toys and cutlery, toothbrushes.  This debris appears to have floated down the streams, rivers and other waterways of Southeast Asia and Australia, across the north-east Indian Ocean over the coral reefs that surround this out of and onto the calm sandy white peaches of the islands. Some artists in particular have sought to transform this maritime refuse into another category--art. In this blog I focus on 3 artists, Emma Washer, Cara Ratajczak and my aunt, Sandy McKendrick, who have, over the years, created stunning pieces by collecting and juxtaposing items salvaged from the beaches of Cocos.

"Rubbish on the beach is a supermarket for artists," Sandy McKendrick explains. She :
walks kilometers along the coast looking for things that catch my eye whether it is things that are shades of green or bits of furniture. It might also be wood that has paint on it; bamboo that has been carved; big thick mooring ropes wash up in massive bundles.When you unravel these have really vibrant cores.  What I really love is when we find thongs (i.e. flip-flops, plastic sandals) that have a name carved into them.  I don't find a new thong all that satisfying. The ones I love are the old ones. Those thongs have traveled thousands of kilometers. With the next high tide that might get picked up and taken away. 
The toothbrushes have identity. When you collect them put them together they are like people with different hair styles.They become more beautiful as they disintegrate, like old sculptures. The chance of finding that particular thing at that particular time, that particular piece of rope that happens to be washed up. 

The barge, Biar Selamat, now transformed into a small art gallery.
Emma Washer, an artist who has lived on West Island since she was a child, has realized what might seem like a fantastic dream. She has built an art gallery on West Island, using the barge that used to transport people between Home and West Island. She took an old barge, which was used to ferry residents across the lagoon, and fitted out interior areas with lights and air-conditioning. The barge had been in a forlorn state, I'm told, before it was rescued and transformed. Now her Big Barge art gallery, exhibits works from local and other artists, some of them utilizing similarly salvaged materials.  The third artist, Cara, I have not met yet, but am hoping to one day.

In 2009, the Big Barge gallery was opened with an exhibition called Art Adrift,which exhibited boats made out of beach debris. As Sandy explained:
This was a 6 week project of the 3 artists working with Cocos Malay traditional boat builders and local community to explore maritime history of islands and create vessels of fantasy from flotsam, melding traditional skills and contemporary arts practice.

Art Adrift exhibition at the Barge

Then Art Afloat was the next stage, that was floating art works at Direction Island and Christmas Island. On Home Island, the Cocos Malay school children, the elders like Nek Neng (see blog The Bird that Returns Home) and the local doctor, among others, all participated in creating the exhibition. 

Finally the two projects were combined in the harbor town of Fremantle, Australia, for the 2013 Fremantle Festival. Part of this festival was the work of art below created by Asylum Seekers on Christmas Island and then displayed in Fremantle harbor.

Asylum seekers' work, constructed of rubber sandals and other refuse, displayed in Fremantle. Photo by Sandy.

Identities of things

Emma explained to me that: "Lots of the rubber sandals that come adrift are repaired, if the plugs have come out they’ll resew the thongs. Often they’ve been fixed a number of time. In our society we just chuck them out". The difference in the way the rubber sandals are treated came out when the artists were working with asylum seekers on Christmas Islands. Emma reflected:
 When we use rubber sandals for art the first thing we did was cut of the straps. We gave them ropes. Then the first the thing they did was remake them into rubber sandals. They all started fixing [the straps even though we had cut them]. In the picture they’ve all been remade into thongs. They said “oh we can fix these” because it’s so easy to make them wearable.
In other words, the asylum seekers wanted to make the rubber sandals wearable as well as beautiful. 

Sandy McKendrick. More Snakes than Ladders.
Photo by Sandy.
So , a rubber sandal may have had the most extraordinary biography. Rubber synthesized from chemicals is transformed in a Chinese factory, where the worker is compensated with money for creating a pair of sandals. The two sandals are then transported as cargo on a boat taken to the Surabaya port in East Java, Indonesia. Perhaps a bribe to the harbor master helps facilitate the container the sandals are resting in to move quickly onto the docks. From here, it is distributed through Chinese and Muslim merchants to a  market in a small town. There, a man spends half his daily wage on them and carves his initials. Now when he goes to the mosque for Friday prayers and removes them, he knows that he can find them on the way out, and no-one else can claim them. No-one, that is, until his poor cousin asks for them, and the man is too embarrassed to refuse.  The poor cousin can only afford a hut by the river. Then when the river embankments collapse in the next monsoon, the pair of rubber sandals gets separated forever with one washing downstream and floating in the ocean. For months the human world is oblivious to its existence bobbing under the sun. Possibly fish and birds nibble at it. It gets washed up on Christmas Island, where an artist collects it and other artists, asylum seekers transform it into a sculpture. It is exhibited in Fremantle Harbor. Then it features in this blog! Then, maybe, it is again washed away to Africa perhaps, where it is seen as trash, or used for something else, and then the possibility of its use is endless. On the one hand, it is an inanimate piece of rubber, on the other, humans invest radically different meanings into it, all of which, bring the thing to life. 

A good example of this is the commodity--things we buy and sell. Our common sense tells us that a diamond has more value than a diamante or glass. But our common sense partly misleads us. You might get two tables equally useful for eating on, yet one with the right label (a famous designer) or  the right history (a famous movie star sat on it) is more valuable. This value is an exercise of imagination. To borrow Marx's idea, it is as real or fanciful as if the table had started crawling around and talking to us: 
The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every­day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas...
The commodity value of a table appears natural or inherent, but it is cultural and extrinsic to the table.

Emma's art materials
The same object has different meanings and values attached to it in different cultural contexts. It is a commodity to be bought and sold. Depending on the theory of value, initially in the factory its value is determined by the price of the materials and the labor or the class relationship between the person who owns the factory and the person who works in the factory. Then as it is transported the cost increases. As a gift, the value has to be determined with reference to the relationship between giver and the receiver--whether it is a patron and client; and whether they reciprocate in a general or specific manner. Once the rubber sandal is separated it has almost no commodity value. Then as art it might acquire an aesthetic value as well as a commodity value. The thing itself, the rubber sandal, steadily deteriorates, but the values attached to it change. All of these values or meanings are deeply and intricately connected to human relations and meaning. 

The way the rubber sandal moved across the ocean, pushed and pulled by currents, swells, and winds, seems a good metaphor for the way it moves into different spheres of meaning.  As Kopytoff (83) writes:

when the commodity is effectively out of the commodity sphere, its status is inevitably ambiguous and open to the push and pull of events and desires, as it shuffled about in the flux of social life.
If correct, this provides an easy first step to answering a whole range of difficult philosophical questions, such as "what is art?", and to a lesser extent, "what is a commodity?", "what is a gift?" and so on. In the first place, it is a meaning  and use that humans have invested in objects.

Inside the art gallery, the lower deck of the barge. Foregrounded is the inside of the barge's hull. In the background prints, painting etc. The bright tropical sun has whited out the windows in this photo.


The concepts I have used here come mostly from Igor Kopytoff, "The Cultural Biography of Things". I have also drawn on Marshall Sahlins' Stone Age Economics. The analysis here is primarily enabled by Karl Marx, "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof".

2016 Update

I wrote the above in 2014. Two years later, the life of these objects has been further enriched as they now feature on Australian stamps 

Stamps themselves have a fascinating extension from use value (to post letters with) and fetish value (as commodities to be bought and sold for profit). The plastic trash that floats up on the Cocos Islands continues to evolve.