Sociedad de Vida, Highlights from Recology SF’s Artist in Residency Program at Steven Wolf Fine Arts
Since 1990, Recology SF has sponsored a residency program for artists at the San Francisco city dump. The program is the only one of its kind in the country, and demonstrates remarkable insight into the creative potential implicit in the waste stream – marrying art and environmentalism at a time when we find ourselves living in the midst of environmental disasters, and found-object appropriation has well established itself as a common art practice. For Sociedad de Vida, Steven Wolf selected highlights from the program, surveying the broad range of works it has inspired.
Some employed the dump’s junk as raw material, without thematizing the context in which it was found. Susan Steinman’s untitled sculpture joined a log to a tire with heavy rope, and mounted it on a painted-black chair. The piece combined organic and inorganic elements, with both industrial and everyday textures, but only for their aesthetic properties and the sense of weight and mystery their combination engendered. Similarly, Donna Ozawa’s “White Study #3, Conformity,” presented white coffee cup lids laid neatly in rows on the floor of the gallery, in the shape of a rectangle interrupted only in one corner by several “missing” lids. The banality of the coffee cup lids both contributed to the piece’s sublime minimalism, and cut against it with their occasional stains and cheap plastic. And William Wareham’s untitled sculpture joined found metal objects into a robot like figure, which towered over one corner of the gallery with a playful nobility.
Other work in the show, to the contrary, seized upon the residency program to address the culture and politics of pollution. In a series of three segments, Robin Lasser’s video, “Dining at the Dump,” brought the opposite poles of the consumption / waste cycle into nauseating proximity – basically eating where we shit, and shitting where we eat. In the first, she stood in the isle of a grocery store eating Twinkies off of a conveyor belt with letters printed on their wrappers spelling “sanitary fill,” as if they were delivered directly from the dump. In the next, she stood behind a conveyor belt at the dump, unwrapped packaged food, took a bite from it, and put it back onto the conveyor belt half-eaten along side its empty wrapper. With heavy trucks moving trash behind her, Lasser – in her role as consumer – looked like just another cog in an industrial process, devoid of gratification, and serving no end. In the final segment, slices of bread were thrown up out of a huge garbage pit, where men and trucks moved over mountains of trash. Sandwiches then were laid out in rows on a ledge over the pit, and the top slices of the sandwiches were pulled back to reveal letters written with mustard on slices of bologna, spelling “B-O-T-T-O-M-L-E-S-S P-I-T.” In light of her conflation of consumption and pollution, one could not but wonder whether Lasser meant the pit of garbage or the pit of the capitalist consumer’s appetite.
Banker White’s video, “I Am Your Appetite,” presented cycles of consumption and waste as integral to life processes. The soundtrack to the video was produced entirely with instruments constructed from materials found at the dump, and was preformed live along with a screening of the video at the end of White’s residency. In the video, a swarm of flies spells out the Coca-Cola logo. White drinks from a coke bottle. Stop motion footage shows him go from bald and shaven, to bearded and hairy. The images split and split again, creating a field of his face, undergoing the repeated process of growing his hair, and shaving it off. A baby’s mouth reaches for a slice of orange. And then White appears, surrounded by pigeon’s in San Francisco’s Civic Center, and dressed in a bird costume constructed with slices of white bread covering his face and body. An old lady pinches off a piece of the bread and smiles after eating it. Two dogs fight over the last scraps of meat on a bone. Where appetite seems almost entirely artificial in Lasser’s video (as a mere by-product of industrial processes), through his string of associations White presents a more poetic study of life and its aftermath. His video isn’t apologetic, but also refrains from merely denouncing pollution as an evil. Rather he presents waste as something we must live with – if not necessarily accept in its current form.
Still other work in the show drew from the dump as a site of discarded memories and meanings. Sharon Siskin’s “Now Serving One,” combined a broken “now serving” digital display, with a reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” and an empty wrapper for Calvin Klein’s “One” cologne. The piece asked after possibilities of redemption in a world comprised of kitsch commodities. Michael Kerbow’s “Collected Thoughts,” consisted of a pile of book pages with burnt edges swept into one corner of the gallery, with a broom beside it made with hammers from a type-writer instead of straw. The piece presented the creative process – and writing specifically – as a clearing-out of the memories that clutter the mind. Dee Hibbert Jones and Nomi Talisman’s “Letters to an Unknown Friend,” offered viewers the opportunity to browse fragments from series of letters, which they had found at the dump and installed into a computer, whose screen was displayed in the body of an old typewriter. As discarded refuse, the letters took on a hightened poetic significance – as if they had not merely been thrown out, but the correspondants had passed away or ceased to care about one another. The piece was ultimately too limited to be celebrated for its literary properties, but its formal, experimental attention to lost meanings nevertheless gave it the feel of a modernist novel.
The artists included in Sociedad de Vida found resources for art in junk, providing a model for and various approaches to reconstructing the world from the scraps of this polluted, post-industrial wasteland.