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Decomposers of the Art World (Part One: Clothing Repurposed)

Monday, April 19th, 2010

I have contemplated trash many times before. In fact, it’s been a major sticking point for me since youth… since learning about the mass of it… the danger of it… the bulk. The non-human side of nature treats waste and decay so elegantly compared to clumsy man-made chemicals and plastic detritus that does not break itself down. Nature outside of man’s control reduces, reuses and recycles as a matter of course. Just think of the function of decomposing flies and worms and fungus as they turn dead flesh into vibrantly fertile organic matter.

In light of these tiny, tireless, indispensable workers, I thought it would be satisfying to highlight some human artists who have reused used things in particularly poetic ways, injecting them with new meaning, giving them a fresh life in the arena of the mind. This first article is devoted to artists who have reinvigorated used clothing.

Shannon Eakins cozies up to used sweaters donated by Goodwill Industries for an exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum.

Robert Fontenot is midway into the project “Recycle LACMA.”   In his words:

On January 14th, 2009 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced that it was deaccessioning more than 100 items from its costumes and textiles collection. Once carefully collected, catalogued, and cared for, these items have now been cast back out in to the world. What will happen to them? Like any other useless item, they will need to be recycled or disposed of.

Recycle LACMA is a project of Los Angeles-based artist Robert Fontenot. At three separate auctions he purchased over 50 items deaccessioned by LACMA and is now trying to find new uses for these otherwise unwanted items.

The result of this ambitious project is bittersweet. If the original object was especially beautiful, it seems to demand a respectful reuse. But it was all destined to be disseminated and likely trashed… so isn’t any reuse better than a thoughtless demise?

Korean Coat (2nd reuse) from Recycle LACMA

And then there’s Nick Cave. Ah! Nick Cave. Not the musician, but the sculptor, who makes costume-totem-figures that can be worn by dancers. I like what this blogger has to say:

The Soundsuits are multimedia pieces made from items Cave has scavenged from flea markets, thrift stores, and garage sales over the past two decades [...] One of Cave’s philosophies is that his creations have been works in progress for centuries since all of the materials have been made by other people from other times and other places. He wants to showcase all of the craftsmanship of these unknown people together in a new, artistic, and functional garment. I love that.

Me too.

Nick Cave Soundsuit

Christian Boltanski made used clothes into spirit-holders, while Michelangelo Pistoletto piled them up for a bewildered nude. Shannon Eakins (pictured above) and Marc Dombrosky warmed up a courtyard in Tacoma, Washington.

My final example is from the brutally beautiful painter Anselm Kiefer. “Die Welle (Wave)” hangs at the Seattle Art Museum– a massive painting– earthy, encrusted, with cotton dresses of various sizes hovering over the surface. There are no good images of it online that I can find, and it’s just as well; most art is compromised by reproduction somewhat, but a pixel-made version of a piece with such tactile urgency and indefinable presence is useless. For reasons I may never understand, the painting moved me to tears when I first saw it in person. It makes me wonder at Kiefer’s own description of his goals:

“I don’t consider myself a Platonist but I think that the spirit is contained in the material and it is the artist’s mission to extract it.”


Gala Bent is a mother-artist-teacher living in Seattle who enjoys, among other things, this thought: between thesis and antithesis arcs the ever-loving synthesis. www.galabent.com