Art = Upcycling?

12 Jan

“Rosalie’s gone under. It’s nuts. We went down to help but were turned away. We’re ok for now.” This was the response from my sister in Red Hill this morning, when I contacted her about the floods in Brisbane. Most of my family live there so the past 24 hours have been a little worrying.

And it seems incredible that only last week I was at the 21st Century Art exhibition at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. (GOMA is right on the Brisbane River and could be seriously affected by the rising water.)

As soon as I stepped through the gallery door I was greeted by what looked like a vast, plastic egg sack hanging from the roof.

Goma bags

GOMA's 21st Century Art installation view of Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Plastic bags 2001-10 | Photography by Natasha Harth

It made me a little overwhelmed and nervous. I felt as if, at any moment, the sack would split open, unleashing a trillion more plastic bags upon us, and I found myself giving it a wide berth. (And now I’m concerned it’s floating down the river.)

At the time, it made me reflect on a trend I’ve been noticing recently – that of contemporary artists repurposing and reusing discarded materials to create new works of art; like this installation inside the New Delhi Railway Station…

Chai Garam - Upcycled Art

Naresh Kapuria, Chai Garam, New Delhi Railway Station (2010)

…And this piece at last year’s Sydney Biennale…

Sydney Biennale

Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage One, Sydney Biennale (2010)

…As well as any number of pieces created for San Francisco’s recent Smart Art Competition.

So the question I’ve been pondering is this:

Using our original upcycling definition, does this use of end-of-life materials create ‘valuable, useful or simply aesthetically pleasing items’? Is it upcycling?

Well I’m not sure any of the artworks above are particularly useful. And the notion of ‘aesthetically pleasing’ is just too subjective to argue (beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all).

But what about valuable: is this kind of art valuable? I know this is a big question, possibly beyond a post to explore, but for me it goes straight to the heart of sustainability – what do we really value in this world?

I’m not talking about monetary value (although Vik Muniz’s ‘Pictures of Garbage’ art, captured in the Wasteland documentary,  sold for around USD $250,000). But rather, intrinsic value.

I find this kind of art valuable, not only for the clever use of materials, but because artists responding to a changing planet helps me make sense of what’s going on in the world.

The scientists speak to my head, while the artists speak to my heart.

And, like the swollen Brisbane River, they all seem to be saying we are breaching our natural limits.

Stay safe and dry, wherever you are.

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