Art and Landfill

My main job this week has been to throw works of art into a skip. I am clearing out several years’ worth of accumulated student coursework that the department here had decided it should keep beyond the few months required by exam boards (in case of appeals). Those who wanted to reclaim their work have had ample time so to do; the majority either forgot or weren’t attached enough to the work to bother.

If I were to estimate the hours of research, thought and effort that the students put into this mass of creative output, I suspect it would equate to several lifetimes of artistic expression and exploration. As another portfolio of brightly coloured artwork goes in, with a flash of bright colours, glittering sequins and foil, exhuberant frills and textures, I wonder briefly how absorbed was the student who spent his or her time making this piece.  How much did they struggle with or enjoy the process?  How much pride and confidence did they feel after completing it?  What were the associations that they experienced while producing this work?  What would they feel if they were to look at it now, would they throw it willingly in the skip or would they want, after all, to keep it?

Then there is the quantity of material consumed in this process.  The sheer volume of paper, card, metal foil, glue, wire, paint and so on is impressive; disturbing, too.  I have managed to reclaim some paper, a few other materials, whatever had a genuine use now in the department, but I don’t have enough time to strip down everything, so much has to go.

I dislike this waste, even though it is at least the product of a constructive educational process and all practical subjects require practice and some ‘wastefulness’ to learn and refine skills.  What bothers me the most, I think, is that the creative process has involved so little apparent consideration of the origin and fate of the materials, the “bigger picture” so to speak, the wider consequences of creative activity.  I have an impression that there is a general unwillingness in most school departments to consider the issue of waste and consumption, except in purely financial terms, and even then, inconsistently. If we could at least incinerate it in a school boiler, we would reclaim some useful energy from it all before sending the ash to the landfill.

So I just do the modest things that I can, right now; reclaim usable paper for sketching and painting, set aside reusable canvases and stretchers, salvage useful timber to pass to the Design & Technology store.  I use some wood from old printing frames to make a plant-pot stand for my flat – I’m growing peppers and chillies in the window.

Here goes some more old pottery, glazed and so beyond recycling.  Heavy, lumpy pots, exhuberantly ambitious and small monuments to adolescent baroque taste, fun to look at but perhaps not what you might want to live with.  A few are salvaged by passing staff, some well-made slab-pots, as are some paintings which I give to inquisitive and appreciative young Year 7 pupils whom I have to prevent from climbing into the skip in a frenzy of treasure-hunting; if I’d known they’d be this popular, I’d have set up a stall and sold them to make some money for the department!

Before I leave it all at the end of the day, just another skip-full of rubbish, until you look closely, I reflect on my own feelings to disposing of or destroying my own artwork.  Usually I’ve painted over older work but I have also burned batches of other things, drawings, sketches, notes, paintings for which I had neither space nor further use.  On a couple of occasions this has been a sort of ritual of moving on, a ‘funeral’ for a particular stage in my life, cathartic in a way but more a marker for me and a process of attempting to transform earlier material into new energy and motivation for change.

In the end it’s all to do with letting go, becoming free of attachment and able to use the past as the foundation for now and the future. Real, physical foundations are, inevitably, out of sight yet retain their essential function; if we keep on digging them up to look at them, we  undermine them too.

So this skip-load will soon head for the municipal dump and will mostly end up adding to the vast volume of ‘stuff’ in the ground, fermenting quietly and noxiously for future generations to suffer or have to deal with.  At least most of this load is fairly innocuous and stable: wood fibres and inert hydrocarbons, various metal oxides, silicates, clays, glass, some metals… enough to form a small layer of interesting rock, perhaps.  While present seagulls will be disappointed as they pull apart the bright paper, future geologists, in whatever form they may take, will at least have cause to wonder at what happened in this ancient, wasteful, era;  the rock might even look nice, too.