| april 2008
Reverse Trash Streams: The Junk Mail Project at L. A. Contemporary
The sensation of swimming in trash, or junk, seems quintessentially
modern – a consequence of insatiable appetites for new
products and the attendant proliferation of packaging and advertising.
The genres of collage and found-object installation, also prototypically
modern, are intimately connected to trash as well: the repurposed
candy wrappers, used train tickets and beer labels in Kurt Schwitters’s
WWI-era collages (called Merz collages, in which he connected
refuse to consumerism by poaching the last syllable of “Kommerz”)
or the heaps of refuse collected by Arman to fill the Galerie
Iris Clert in 1960 (titled Le Plein, in dialogue with
Yves Klein’s Le Vida).
View of Barbara Hashimoto and Nancy Spiller's
exhibition "Reverse Trash Streams: The Junk Mail Project,"
2007; at L. A. Contemporary;
Both of these examples were germane to a recent consideration
of esthetics and ethics of garbage – junk mail in particular.
“Reverse Trash Streams” was a multifaceted collaboration
between artists Barbara Hashimoto and Nancy Spiller, who is
identified in press materials as an “artist/writer/environmentalist.”
In writings related to this project, Spiller links global warming
(accelerated by deforestation) and other ills (e.g., injuries
to postal carriers, each of whom totes an average of 18 tons
of junk mail annually) to the out-of-control proliferation of
unsolicited mail. Americans receive over 50 billion pieces annually,
she tells us in a statement accompanying the exhibition, and
some 100 million trees are cut down each year to produce it,
while each of us will spend an average of eight months of our
lives sorting through unwanted material in our postboxes.
All this suggests a heavy-handed, didactic approach, yet the
opposite was true. The Los Angeles installation, which was concurrent
with an installation and performance in Chicago, filled a gallery
with delicate paintings in ink, gouache and oil on Mylar (by
Spiller), restrained abstractions composed of woven strips of
shredded advertisements (by Hashimoto) and an (unsigned) heap
of colorful shredded mail that, as Spiller points out, evokes
Monet’s haystacks. Spiller’s paintings, close-up
studies of the shredded material, were deployed as a species
of abstract still life. Intimate in scale, they have titles
like Pentecost, Book of Hours and Psalms that belie their mundane source material, elevating junk mail
to ceremonial status that corresponds with its central place
in out loves. Hashimoto’s weavings were especially strong,
for instance a surrealist abstraction whose title helps us identify
its source in a shredded catalogue photo of Kate Moss.
In preparation for the project, Spiller and Hashimoto collected
and shredded hundreds of pounds of junk mail that had been delivered
to their homes. Their project’s success lies in their
ability to embrace something omnipresent, rarely considered,
and yet indicative of larger social issues, with humor, formal
elegance and a resigned pathos. And the project picks up a vital
modernist thread – at a time when digital spam threatens
to eclipse our time honored abundance of physical junk.