Growing up, I remember snooping in my mother’s dresser drawers to discover, much to my shock and fascination, locks of hair from my first haircut (“I’m saving it in case you ever need a wig!” she still insists) and a little satchel containing lost baby teeth. If you ventured down into her basement today, you’d likely find a collection of children’s books whose dusty spines haven’t been cracked in decades and boxes of artifacts containing a mangy pair of footsie pajamas and a rag-tag troupe of decomposing stuffed animals—their beady glass eyes dangling from thin threads and their music boxes now emitting ghostly creaking sounds. I’m not much better myself: tidying up often induces a bout of agonizing about whether or not I should throw away crumpled bags of receipts for inconsequential items (mostly for burritos, coffee, discount wine and cinema tickets) and the growing stacks of exhibition leaflets and press packages that clutter my desk. Perhaps this is why the Spring Issue of Visual Arts News speaks to me so much—we feature a selection of artists who sift through all the junk we wade through everyday, creating monuments to the packrat and throwaway culture.
In this issue, we check out Peter Dykhuis’ Inventories and Micro-mapping—a series of collages on clipboards inspired by the transitory visual information that bombards us each day, such as receipts, personal lists, envelopes and credit card bills. We wander through a tower of babble in PEI, constructed by artists Swintak and Don Miller with objects buried in the Confederation Centre’s basement. We catch up with an eccentric group of artists creating assemblages using found objects for ReVISION at the Nova Scotia Archives’ Chase Gallery. We let Kai Chan spin his magic, sparking our sense of wonder with his breathtakingly beautiful sculptures and wall-hangings made from ordinary found materials. And we get lost in artist Ehryn Torrell’s colourful depictions of crumbling urban landscapes and the wreckage found at sites of construction, demolition and disaster.
Many of the artists featured in this issue remind me of Charles Baudelaire’s romantic characterization of the chiffonnier—the ‘rag picker’ who combed through Paris’ 19th century streets in search of something of value amongst the debris. In Baudelaire’s famous poem, “Le Vin de chiffonniers,” he draws parallels between the ‘rag picker’ and the poet. Both are artists in a sense, drunkenly scoffing at authority figures and sifting through the debris found in the “commingled vomit of enormous Paris.” Modern rag pickers certainly have an abundance of waste to sift through—Canada spewed out over 30.4 million tons of solid waste in 2002, with around 559 hundred thousand tons coming from Nova Scotia (Statistics Canada.)
It’s easy to dismiss reality television as panem et circenses— or “bread and circuses,” a term coined in 100 A.D by the satirist and poet Juvenal to describe the superficial tastes of the Roman populace, but one flick through the channels reveals that rag picking has become a cultural phenomenon. Mum and I sometimes bond by watching A&E ‘reality’ television series like Hoarders—a show which offers a glimpse into “the world of extreme hoarding; a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to collect things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous or unsanitary”—and Storage Wars, a show that follows a group of modern rag pickers as they sift through repossessed storage lockers in search of hidden treasures. These shows reflect a shared cultural assumption that today one person’s trash is everyone’s business. Dykhuis’ collaged clipboards critique this collapse of the private sphere nicely, as he’s included several bits of paper ephemera from around his home and office, revealing a great deal of personal information—even a VISA number.
Today, the act of “rag picking” does not seem to evoke the same degree of stigma it once did. With yuppies endorsing recycled baby clothes and “up-cycling” and Prince Charles himself even espousing his love of recycling and vintage clothing to Vogue readers, in some corners of the globe, rag picking has become a trendy hobby of the elite. But many people who deal directly with our waste still exist in a marginalized sphere (though the streets of Bangalore are overflowing with garbage, thanks to open dumps in the city, the city’s mostly female garbage sorters live in abject poverty and aren’t protected by labour laws). In finding inspiration in the detritus of our lives, many of the artists in this issue of Visual Arts News create work that still inhabits quite a potent space—they play in the gap between the well- to-do vintage lovers of the world and those whose lives more closely resemble the 19th century chiffonier.