Modern Art is Rubbish
Frame rehab, repairs, and reglazing: there are many ways that we’re able to take your old spectacles and give them a new lease of life. Here, we look at our favourite artists who take the old and make it new, from urinals to cow’s heads.
We have long celebrated the often-contradictory qualities of the same object to different people. And perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the world of art - a noisy, complicated, and confusing place, where value is born out of context, dappled pencil signatures, and slippery postulations of provenance. Auction houses around the world bring us a ceaseless reappraisal of worth, each object’s moment in the LED glare settled by the strike of a gavel, or the audible gasps of a Banksy shredding itself.
Rubbish as art has a long history. In the 19th century, Vincent van Gogh celebrated the Hague’s city dump as an ‘artist’s paradise’, where he gained inspiration from discarded objects such as broken street lamps, oil cans, baskets, and kettles. Pablo Picasso collected rubbish of all kinds, affixing pages of old newspapers, broken chair seats, and slithers of cloth to his paintings to invent an entirely new artform – the collage. Later Picasso would use manufactured objects in his work, such as a bicycle seat and handlebars, to create the sculpture Bull’s Head. A contemporary of Picassso, the Ukrainian-born artist Vladimir Tatlin, who went on to pioneer Constructivism, created sculptures from ‘found’ objects made from wood, iron, and an assortment of junk.
Kurt Schwitters, a member of the Dutch De Stijl art group, became a prominent member of Dada, the avant garde movement which sought to ridicule the meaninglessness of the modern world. Schwitters found his inspiration on the pavement, utilising waste materials under his brand name Merz: collages and assemblages made from labels, wallpapers, and pieces of wood.
“I could see no reason why used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings. It is possible to cry out using bits of old rubbish, and that's what I did, gluing and nailing them together.” - Kurt Schwitters
And perhaps Dadaism’s most famous son, Marcel Duchamp, turned a urinal into art just by declaring it so - and by doing so steered the history of art onto a new, conceptual course. Even the revolutionary Bauhaus, now in its centenary year, was in on the act. Its Vorkurs (preliminary course) was devised by the Swiss painter Johannes Itten, who was interested in reusing existing waste for his teaching endeavours. Itten advised his students "to keep their eyes open, while out walking, for rubbish heaps, refuse dumps, garbage buckets, and scrap deposits as sources of material by which to make images (sculptures) which would bring out unequivocally the essential and the antagonistic properties of individual materials."
And later Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers stated that his aim in both art and in life was to achieve the “maximum effect” through “minimal means”. He began to collect sheet metal, wire gratings, lead, broken bottles, and shards from windows of Grunderzeit houses at rubbish dumps in Weimar. From this he created assemblages of coloured glass fragments, mounted with tin or wire, and designed to be hung in front of a window. The rubbish was transformed into a material that disguised its Weimar dump origins, more reminiscent of jewels than of broken glass and rusting wires.
In modern Britain, many will associate the use of waste in art with the Young British Artists (YBAs), who made extensive use of found objects and other detritus. Damien Hirst’s ‘A Thousand Years’ was made from a decomposing cow's head, maggots and flies, while Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ consisted of her own unmade bed with sweat-stained sheets and underwear.
While many may sneer at art’s use of rubbish – for materiality, inspiration, or social commentary – they can’t deny its abundance. Given that the average Briton throws away 409kg of rubbish each year - roughly the weight of three adult male gorillas – we have plenty of material to work with.
“We are defined by what we throw away and conversely we are deconstructed by what we choose to display in our hallowed museum halls. A piece of rubbish on the street contains within it cultural stories – stories of use, of its production, of its being thrown away – the stories that this bin bag can tell are stories about who we are and how we live.” - Gavin Turk
This article was first featured in the third issue of our newspaper, The Spectacle. Pick up your complimentary copy in any one of our ten London stores.