Employing the poor to make art with the trash of the wealthy

First-generation American immigrant artist Vik Muniz’s recent art-social project has been documented in the film Waste Land (2010). His idea was to photograph Rio’s garbage pickers and then to employ them to make art by arranging refuse items into patterns that recreated their own portraits. Photograph prints of the arrangements of trash-likenesses are being sold with some of the proceeds going to help these particular garbage pickers. Muniz hopes that the gap created between self and knowledge by this experience shows how art can change what is possible. This process is an example of how the dialectic of form and content can be used to show that the human experience is both aesthetic and political.

3 Figures: Context is the Postmodern Medium

Context is the postmodern medium. So when artists and critics appropriate, they re-contextualize nouns such as people, places, and things and thereby draw our attention to meaning-as-such rather than to the material-as-such. Material-as-such has been the more traditional site of commerce, endeavor, publication, etc. However, the information industries have caused both maker and viewer to conjugate their realisms according to one’s wakefulness to one’s relative subject position and its instability. Such a focal flip between modern material-as-meaning (John Ashbery’s reviews of Larry Rivers’ collages) to postmodern meaning-as-material (Roland Barthes’ essays on the death of the author or the grain of voice), frames my desire to discuss my own work with found objects. I will discuss 3 digital images of alley-traffic flattened red cardboard (presented as figures on white background).

Against the traditions of semiotic criticism and deconstructive free play, I want to ask how and what these found images (or alternately, alley trash) might mean. Does appropriative intervention subvert the art market differently today than in Mina Loy and Marcel Duchamp’s day? Does it subvert the biography of the maker (or of the one who contextualizes or mediates or publicizes the found noun)? What happens to the practices and understandings of individual style, talent, and vision when meaning replaces material as the site of attention? Do appropriative interventions help us to increase tolerance, or help us to learn from history so we are less shackled to cliché, or help us to conceptualize others’ intentionality?


from Unusual Woods. BlazeVOX Books. Buffalo, NY. 2010.

(turn) in the fast darkness of ancient forests,
shadows cross our dreaming faces (turn)
in the movies, an oak tree is always more there
after it’s gone (turn)
this way, a saw emphasizes one thing (turn)
formalwear, night fog rolling in
dressing the silver-blown accessories
(turn) in the morning,
when the rain goes to work,
the cemetery trees shade the cemetery dead
and spiders (turn) play the harps of corners
when the wind sighs, weathercocks turn
to look for a reason (turn)

from What Is to Be Said: Prose Poems. Forthcoming.

Taking Candy from a Baby

There was nothing easy about it, as it turned out. As soon as I reached down to pluck the child’s sweet, he started wailing like a Parisian siren. Well, this sent his mother into a rage raising her arms to heaven. Additionally, it seems, just then, someone had depressed the mute button. Yes, everything was moving in slow-motion: this is how the plans had been drawn up. You wouldn’t think a small child would have such a grip. More to the point, after tugging and pulling, I was able to wrestle the grape lollipop away from the sniveling brat. I was in charge of keeping an eye on the doors while the others stuffed and screamed. The ridged orb felt good against my palate and tongue. The sharpshooter got me in the back. The baby stopped crying.

from What Is to Be Said: Prose Poems. Forthcoming.

I Can’t Remember my First Memory.

And if it’s inscrutable as a carpet of sunlight on a plastic toy bobbing in the backyard of the house my father built with his bare hands and drinking habits, with his rolled up sleeves and his construction buddies who always threatened to sell us to the gypsies in a burlap sack. In a burlap sack. And if the wind scrubbed the sidewalk sideways of what I remember with whole tree leaves turning cartwheels up and back the stairwell wearing a dark tie a little loose around the neck? And if the toy I pulled behind me as a boy while the sun skipped & skipped sheering through the clouds to bounce off of that object on a string to live there forever as the honey-hot scent of play and coy wrinkle.

from What Is to Be Said: Prose Poems. Forthcoming.

There Are No Dogs in Western Massachusetts

The prized python slithered out of the broadcaster’s booth with my prized Pekinese. Muffled yapping was said to have been heard. A more or less average-looking gorilla gave chase after a more or less average-looking python. It was the least he could do and a small pleasure since it passed the time. Luminous skyscrapers faded to the luminous left and to the luminous right of the flagging gorilla hopping after the luminous snake—so many black and white shifts in cinema. What once seemed like a sizzle or a furor at the deep end of the laminated pool—now looked like not much more than a blind waitress treading water. A gentle breeze moved about the gentle days of gentle shovel and gentle crooked back. We drew our various breaths.

Aardvarks continued to work hard.

Corky, my prized Pekinese never bites the hand that looks dirty. In the fishing pond October last he made a ring and drowned in it. But before that, though little recovered from that snake in the grass, the lapdog molted and eventually lost all of its hair.