Book review: When Trash Becomes Art

In my mind it is impossible to separate the concept of trash as art from the well-worn concept of the readymade. Lea Vergine barely touches on this notion in her introduction to When Trash Becomes Art, which was the first thing that seemed odd about this book. Marcel Duchamp barely gets a mention, with only one work reproduced (Miroir, 1964 – a framed broken mirror) – hardly the most pertinent of examples.

The second thing was that this traditional, art historical take on the subject traces a linear chronology that begins in 1912 and finishes in 1997, despite the fact that it has only just been published. It manages to omit an entire decade of contemporary artists that have made some truly impressive works around the idea of trash. Just a few that spring to mind: Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s beguiling self portraits made using their own garbage (intricate sculptures lit to create perfect silhouettes of the artists’ faces), Tomoko Takahashi’s vast installation of defunct technology at the Saatchi gallery in 1999, or Michael Landy’s Scrapheap Services of 1995, and Break Down of 2001, for which he trashed everything he’d ever owned in a store on London’s Oxford Street.

All three of these examples would have fitted perfectly into the book’s wide and somewhat woolly definition of trash. The subtitle, “Trash rubbish mongo“ is not particularly enlightening on the scope of the subject: “mongo”, I now know, is a word coined in New York meaning an object thrown away and then recovered, and as for “trash” and “rubbish”, the introduction creates a wide enough net that covers anything that has been rejected or discarded in some way, including a corpse (Andres Serrano’s The Morgue AIDS Related Death, 1992), shit (Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista N. 060, 1961) and a bloodied bandage (Orlan’s Saint-suaire n. 13, 1993). But how far could you take the concept – a rejected idea could become trash in this definition – if someone made a work from someone else’s discarded concept, could that not be included here?

Like Vergine’s rather muddled, baffling and oddly constructed essay (a typical sentence reads “The artists presented here have done more than merely patiently cultivating the infernal vocation and the heroic vilification. They mingle livid parodies with amorous elegies, civil invectives and ephemeral refinements, dark grace and miracle-working agility”, p. 15), it is difficult to determine the reasoning behind the structure of the book. There are three separate chronologies, all starting at the beginning of the 20th century and ending in either 1996 or 1997. Two of them are back to back in a section titled “Artworks”, one in colour, the other black and white. The third, also black and white, is titled “Illustrated Chronology of the Use of Trash” and is edited by Rosella Ghezzi. There is no explanation as to why this differs from the other two chronologies, or indeed why there was a need to separate colour reproductions from black and white in this way. In between is the “artist writings” section, which although on the whole is unsatisfying, does contain a couple of gems – notably a great piece of text by Andy Warhol, whose work ironically enough was not included in any of the three visual chronologies.

Despite its 368 images and potentially wide scope and definition of trash – from a slashed canvas (Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, 1958) to a chicken on a swing (David Hammons’ Swinging Chicken, 1994) – When Trash Becomes Art somehow manages to feel both insubstantial and narrow. Quite a feat.

Book review published in The Art Newspaper issue 181, 2007