Open Letter to Christine Finley: I Hate Your Pretty Dumpsters

01/20/2010 3:42 PM |

trash pile

  • Let’s just cover it in wallpaper.

Dear Christine Finley,
Thank you for the trenchant social commentary. While you were out wallpapering dumpsters, New York City threw out enough trash to fill the Empire State Building. Twice*.

What this project does is precisely the opposite of what it claims to be doing: like a bourgeois housewife taking her trash to the curb in one of these, a wallpapered dumpster distracts passersby from the real problem—it’s a large box filled with possibly usable goods headed for a landfill somewhere, an unconscionable waste of time, money, energy and resources—and replaces it with a cutesified, “oh look at that, isn’t that cool” disposable screen, protecting us from the reality of our situation, the reality of a world killing itself with trash.

Wallpapering a dumpster is like wrapping a tiger in tissue paper: that shit is NOT gonna last. So even the prettifying impulse collapses on itself, and in two days we’ll have a bunch of filthy, tattered, once-papered dumpsters.

I guess you could say it’s a meta-commentary: a project that’s a waste of time, money, resources, and two years of higher learning, camouflaging a waste of time, money etc. but I don’t think that was the intent, as you say yourself:

“Wallpapered Dumpsters transform environmental activism into unexpected beauty.” Well, no, they don’t. They transfer DUMPSTERS into objects of unexpected beauty (if you think that merely wallpapering something makes it beautiful). There is no “environmental activism” inherent to working with dumpsters in such an uncritical way. Environmental activism would be analyzing the contents of the dumpsters, or repurposing them, or lighting them on fire and explaining that all that trash is headed for incinerators.

You go on to say, “This project is an inquiry into urban waste,” and again I’m forced to say, no. The only thing this could possibly be considered an inquiry into is the inanity of a certain subset of “public” art. Just because you are doing something with a dumpseter does not mean you’re addressing issues of waste.

I would argue, and admittedly maybe I’m clinging to an antiquated notion of the artist as revolutionary, that in order to produce “environmental art” one has to force the viewer to confront the state of the environment, or some aspect of it.

Trash bags covered in damask prints play into our conditioned/learned, and wholly counter-productive (in environmental terms) fear of waste: we are taught to believe all garbage is dirty (like, don’t-touch-it-no-matter-what dirty), and therefore outside of our consideration. Let the man on the big truck take it away, and never speak of it again. The garbage bag (a relatively recent invention) was the first step in separating us from our waste, and forcing us into denial about what we waste. Out of sight, out of mind.

If we had to confront our waste, we might actually feel a need (dare I say compulsion?) to do something. We’d have to consume less, think about our role in the world, as individuals, and as a culture. But wrapping our trash containers up like crappy Christmas presents isn’t going to get anyone to think about anything.

The reality is that we ship our garbage to poorer states, or poorer countries; we let poorer people sift through it, sickening themselves recuperating materials from it, or being sickened as it is buried or burned near their homes. We poison bodies of water, and tracts of land with it; huge swathes of rainforest are burned to make the things we so thoughtlessly throw out, people are driven from their ancestral lands so that companies can mine and manufacture what too soon becomes fodder for the garbage man.

Some of us know this. Almost all of us choose to ignore it, at least enough that we continue to feel comfortable producing waste. It’s just the way it is, right? How could we possibly do otherwise? We might as well just gussy it up in pretty patterns to extra-insulate ourselves against having to think about what an ugly, exploitative, destructive system it is.

Isn’t there anything real, and provocative, to say in a world where half of the food we produce ends up in dumpsters just like these, while in other worlds nearby, thousands, nay millions, go to bed hungry?

*(that’s 26,000 tons, 52,800,000 pounds for you science majors)

3 Comment

  • L Mag

    Ms. Taylor,
    Nice rant. I thought it was articulate and well informed on the dire situation of not only your home country

  • @ Mr. Rogers Nova Scotia
    So an artist can comment on the environment and an environmental writer can’t comment on the art? Obviously you’re probably too informed for this site and its “ancient environmental advertising.”

  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I love the Wallpapered Dumpsters project and think it brightens people’s day while challenging us to think about the waste we create. If Christine Finley’s work makes anyone stop and think, smile or shrug, then she’s done her job. Art exists to shake us up. I’d say mission accomplished, Amanda. She sure got your ire up. In. Your. Face.