Exploring the world of NYC Garbage at a new show
New York is the most wasteful city on Planet Earth. According to a widely-cited National Academy of Sciences whitepaper, New Yorkers produce an average of just under 10,000 tons of garbage per day–the most in absolute terms of any major metropolis, and more than twice the per-capita amount of our next-most-wasteful city, Mexico City. What to do with this trash is obviously represents a crisis — in the original, Greek sense of the word: A time of danger, a decisive moment, or even an opportunity.
It is under the positive trajectory of this definition that Williamsburg’s City Reliquary recently opened a slight, but fascinating new exhibit, NYC Trash: Past, Present, & Future. Up through April 0f 2018, this show tries, in limited space, to present an overview of and way forward for this crisis.
Eruditely annotated by the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) resident anthropologist, Robin Nagle, the show touches on the origins of New York’s sanitation efforts, and considers some current artistic practices around issues of Garbage. As such, the show does not directly prescribe or advocate any solutions, but rather implies possible attitudes towards this crisis that may ultimately represent fertile ground for transforming the problems of garbage into something resembling a solution.
The show is on its strongest footing in its historic representations. Beginning with a recitation of the well-documented pre-history of our current DSNY, the exhibit presents some of the founding mythologies of our city’s garbage, such as Peter Stuyvesant’s widely ignored 1657 edict that citizens of what-was-then Nieuw Amsterdam be enjoined from throwing “any rubbish, filth, oyster shells, dead animal, or the like” into the streets, mandating instead that such refuse be delivered to one of five dump sites on the East River. From this early attempt, the show delves into some of the stop-gap measures that our filthy city attempted (the rendering fields of Dead Horse Bay and Barren Island get copious and well-deserved stage-time), before finding its Alexander in the colorful person of Colonel George E. Waring, a civil war vet who effectively cut through the Gordian knot of New York’s urban sanitation problems with a combination of Military precision and technocratic idealism, proving in his three-short years in office that what had been seen as an intractable problem might yet yield to common-sense solutions.
Key among Waring’s innovations was his elevation of the sanitation worker to a public figure, accomplished through both extensive financial outlays (prior to Waring, garbage collection in NYC was a largely ad-hoc, privatized affair undertaken by ragtag armies of trash-pickers) and quasi-military overlays: the iconic, uniformed, rolling-trash-can bearing “White Wings” (Charlie Chaplin portrayed one in City Lights) were a key Waring innovation, uplifting the lowly art of Trash-picking into a noble civic pursuit. He even staged parades of the White Wings as early as 1896, further glorifying the act of sanitation in the eyes of New York’s citizenry.
It is in its consideration of this human aspect of NYC’s trash abatement that this show finds it’s star power, in the work of artist Mierle Ladermen Ukeles. The subject of recent, long-overdue retrospective at the Queens Museum this time last year, Ms. Ukeles work — including her widely lauded “Touch Sanitation Project” in which she, over the course of a year, shook hands with every sanitation worker in NYC — represents a logical hypertrophy of Waring’s elevation of the unseen work of Sanitation. In Ukeles’ work, the human aspect of all this untouchable trash is balanced by the simple act of acknowledgement, and recognition. Refuse maintenance, she seems to say, is an artistic practice as noble as any.
In addition to such high-minded work, NYC Trash also presents plenty of actual trash. As is only appropriate for a museum whose collection derives, in no small part, from trash-picked treasures, the show devotes a fair amount of it’s limited floor space to gleaned artefacts, including an impressive showcase of NYC Sanitation Department curator Nelson Molina’s cast-off wonders. The reliquary has assembled a treasure-box of some of Molina’s greatest hits. His unrivaled Furby collection, for example, shares space with an impressive display of recovered typewriters and other ephemera. These relics, along with a glassy display of gimcracks recovered from the ever-leaching shores of Dead Horse Bay, make for great contemplation.
It all adds up to an overwhelming mountain of garbage. And if the show is opaque on future solutions to this problem, it is clear that it is for space limitations, and not slights of imagination. Indeed, the City Reliquary should be commended for having the wherewithal to mount such a vital show to begin with. You can reward their efforts by taking it in: It will leave you trashed–and wondering what to do about it all. Let’s talk after…