Detritus as Muse: Trash and the Failure of the New
Kipp Normand refers to himself as a “junk artist,” one of many “found object” artists who re-purpose the prosaic and discarded things littering the landscape. Normand follows in a rich line of late-20th and early 21st-century artists who have delivered the death rites to “high art,” with many celebrating the aesthetics of trash itself.
In one sense, this transgressive move complicates what constitutes detritus and art alike, forcing us to contemplate aesthetic conventions. At another more interesting level, though, Normand’s creations capture a broadly based social practice of recycling, fetishizing, scavenging, rehabilitating, and repurposing commonplace things. The Indianapolis-based Normand acknowledges that “refuse is my muse,” providing a telling read on stylistic innovation and material narratives. For an aesthete, the artwork itself is the point of departure, but the process by which Normand and his peers make art—that is, the assembling of scattered discards that have become vacuums of meaning—is perhaps more interesting than the actual creations themselves.
On the one hand, this fabrication of meaning from discarded things that have been purged of consequential meaning is perhaps typical of contemporary consumption. Nearly 30 years ago, Frederic Jameson imagined a world of “nothing but stylistic diversity and heterogeneity.” Jameson prophesied a world in which there was no “normality” against which all styles could be judged; that is, stylistic innovation is no longer possible: all that is left is to imitate dead styles. In this assessment, normative codes had been replaced by myriad private if not individual styles. Jameson’s picture may be borne out by the consumption of discards: that is, thrift shops, mass-produced retro, flea markets, online markets, and trash artists have complicated what is a discard.
On the other hand, this artistic production begs the thorny question of precisely what defines trash and what sorts of meanings we seem compelled to project onto it. Trash invokes the meaninglessness of rot and decay, which theoretically happens to all things and has often been construed as a sort of death. Trash tends to retain its power and cling to meaningfulness when it is symbolically visible or materially dangerous; for instance, hazardous materials, aesthetically unpleasant litter, un-recycled plastic bottles, foul smelling discards, and abandoned buildings retain some agency that is lost by the eroded thing that returns to the earth.
Found things are often classed as “trash” simply as a rhetorical maneuver compelling us to define waste and aesthetics. Trash artists have a broad range of concrete political interests reaching beyond the question of what defines art, including environmental consciousness, hoarding, biodegradation, and recycling; however, they tend to share a broad common interest in giving meaning to detritus and preventing it from becoming invisible or unseen. Indeed, this is precisely what archaeology does: we excavate discards and invest them with new historicized meanings that at least implicitly illuminate who we are or how we see contemporary society.
Gillian Whiteley’s study Junk: Art and the Politics of Trash calls the artists who construct meaning from discards “bricoleurs.” The bricoleur assembles meaning from fragments, as when Kipp Normand makes “sculpture and collage images out of things I find around our city. I spend a lot of time by myself making things out of broken and discarded objects.” While artists had worked with found objects since the early 20th century, such works became a recognizable oeuvre after the 1961 Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Art of the Assemblage.” Often referred to as assemblage artists or upcyclers, such three-dimensional collage incorporating found objects and discarded things is commonplace and reaches from the toniest art galleries to the pages of Etsy. A 2011 Sotheby’s auction of assembled art pretentiously referred to such works as the products of “hunting and gathering” that reflect a primal urge to collect and define the mysterious, meaningless, or misplaced.
One effect of this improvisational consumption style is that we could perhaps fancy that we are all “bricoleurs” fabricating the world to our own stylistic whimsy. Indeed, his studio’s web page is simply one of the sites that emphasize that “Normand has no formal training in art.” This rhetorical maneuver obliquely situates Normand’s vision in experience, which we all possess and articulate in our living room decorations, refrigerator art displays, and everyday fashion. Normand’s mission finding “stories in discarded things” may not be fundamentally different from retro shoppers who are likewise cannibalizing styles and investing them with new meanings. The dilemma is that this apparently democratic embrace of creativity risks repudiating critical analysis of style, aesthetics, and art because experience seems beyond intellectual challenge.
Jameson suggested that we were entering a moment in which we perpetually seek a historical past, which is reflected in the mining of dead styles. Jameson suggested that art in this context was about “the failure of the new,” an inability to imagine ourselves in new ways that step beyond historicized styles. The postmodern lament that there is “nothing new” is perhaps overdramatized, but contemporary style certainly is pervaded by romanticized nostalgic representations.
Normand himself quite consciously focuses his trash compositions on a heritage that is materialized in discards characterized by patina, lost functions, and the absence of “new-ness.” This artistic trend is certainly mirrored in broader consumer culture styles including old school gaming, vintage bowling shirts, pin-up dress, retrofuturism, throwback uniforms, Eddie Rockets retro diners, and a store named after Bettie Page hawking retro dog collars. Normand’s ambition to project historicized, locally distinctive meanings onto salvaged things is at odds with this nearly meaningless “retro” style that loosely evokes a past that comes from popular culture rather than critical historical consciousness. When a local television commentator referred to Normand as a “hipster artist,” it risked reducing the bricolage aspect of Normand’s work simply to a shopping style.
Kipp Normand apparently hopes to evoke the fabric and lost lives of a historical city with its detritus—indeed, a very archaeological sentiment. Like such assemblage artists working with trash, many archaeologists aspire to provide a critical insight into social and historical realities that may be activist, subversive, and oppositional. This runs directly against the tendency to transform such realities into pleasant and consumable styles purged of historical substance and reduced to hollow aesthetics. Heritage in this moment risks becoming a commodity, but trash—the most material vestiges of our march across time—may provide a particularly powerful mechanism to rethink art and heritage alike.
Discard Studies has an inventory of artists who work primarily with trash; compare Integral Drift’s blog posting Regarding Trash; the blog Rubbish; Everyday Trash‘s inventory of “artistic trash”; Scott Hocking‘s web page; the trailer for the movie Waste Land; and Schwitters in Britain
For more on Kipp Normand, visit the Harrison Center flickr sets for the show TRASH, Kipp’s Studio, and Kipp Normand. Also see the trailer for Jonathan Frey’s short film Kipp Normand, the WISH-TV profile, Dressing Indianapolis, and his Indy Arts profile.
2001 The Death of the Author. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. pp.1466-1475. Norton, New York.
Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini
2012 Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures. Social Justice MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
1998 The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. Verso, New York.
Museum of Modern Art
2004 Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Perspective.
2010 The Iterable Gesture: A Study of Contemporary Strategies of Re-enactment. Unpublished Thesis proposal submitted to the Faculty of Visual Culture in Candidacy of the MA Art in the Contemporary World (NCAD).
1979 Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Oxford University Press, New York.
2010 Junk: Art and the Politics of Trash. I.B. Tauris, London.
Center for Environmental Education Plastic Bag art image courtesy sielju
Fanfare for Bill Cook image courtesy Indiana Landmarks