Culture: Garbage Art in San Francisco

Design Features San Francisco
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It has to be said: one man’s trash is another woman’s whirlygig sculpture garden centerpiece. So it is at Norcal Waste Systems Inc., otherwise known as the San Francisco dump, home to a one-of-a-kind artist-in-residence program, now in its 15th foul-smelling year.

Participating artists—52 and counting so far, in quarterly rotations—have used trash to produce such items as bottle-cap quilts, assemblages, an ersatz shopping catalog of discarded items, collages, kachina dolls, gorgeous old-growth-wood tables, a Styrofoam tree, a video of a woman dining on discarded food, as well as costumes and instruments for Norcal’s Recycled Instrument Band, also known as “La Banda Basura.”

Even when it’s not overtly political, the work contains a powerful critique of consumption. Some of it might be dismissed as kitschy if it weren’t so well executed, insightful and just plain beautiful. The opening receptions at the dump’s gallery are popular affairs in this, one of the nation’s top recycling cities.

Artists receive a stipend, use of a well-equipped studio, free publicity and most of the pieces they produce during their residency. The remainder are kept for Norcal’s permanent collection. And most importantly, artists get to draw from the 200 tons of refuse that pass through the transfer station every day.

Mystery and mess

“It’s overwhelming, depressing, liberating,” says photographer and recent program graduate Patrick Haywood of the amount of material discarded. Haywood took a special interest in ephemeral objects that were once cherished by their owners, became separated from them and ended up in an anonymous pile at the dump. From among the countless items discarded every day, Haywood salvaged and photographed a select few, making them special again.

His arresting pictures of a rosary schedule, a crazily scrawled musical notation system, an envelope full of hair, each against a black background, highlight the detritus of our daily lives. “Part of the mystery of all this stuff,” says another graduate, furniture-maker and sculptor Mike Farruggia, “is how it ended up here.”

During his residency, Farruggia created several tables, a chair, sculptures—including a bicycle-built-for-two with the seats and handlebars heading in opposite directions, called “Tandem Bike for Couples”—and collaged street signs. One of them, “Sociedad de Vida,” or “Society of Life,” was adopted as the title of a recent retrospective show of the program at the city’s Steven Wolf Fine Arts Gallery. At several miles’ remove from the dump, the pieces still look at home. They retain their edge, despite many of them not looking as if they’re made from trash. Wolf says, “The dump is a kind of necropolis, and this work breaths new life into it.”

To one side is an untitled sculpture made by William Wareham, the program’s first artist-in-residence, in 1990. Standing about eight feet high and composed of scrap metal—a bent pipe, a triangular window frame from a car and other parts, all topped by a large-rimmed canister looking down at you, almost sadly—it’s as if the garbage has animated itself, risen out of the dump and taken form, perhaps that of a monster, or even a human. Whatever else it might be, it’s alive.

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