Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The trash master

In my first artsy weekend in Basel, I went to the Museum Tinguely for the Arman retrospective. As expected, the show was full of stuff, not in the sense that it's too packed like those in MoMA, but that there was no distinction between the objects and the art pieces. As one of the founding members of Nouveaux Réalistes, Arman saw the object, especially trash, a new ways of approaching the real. By making art from thrown-away or manufactured objects, Arman voiced his provocative reactions to the consumer society of his time.

The trash collector

Starting in the late 1950s / early 60s with his Poubelles (French for Trash Cans) series, Arman collected trash, put it in glass or plexi boxes, and showed it as objet d'art. To Arman, rejected objects are not just trash; they reflect characteristics of a place or personalities of their former owners. With that in mind, I was not surprised to see some vibrant blue and a judo uniform in a "portrait" he made for his fellow New Realist Yves Klein.

Hommage a la Cuisine Fransaise, 1960
Premier Portrait-robot d'Yves Klein, 1960

Another series around the same time was Accumulations. Unlike the colorful and diversified collages of Poubelles, Accumulations present the repetition or serial conditions of the most mundane everyday objects. They relate to industrial working methods such as standardization, automation, assembly lines, and mass production.

Malheur aux Barbus, 1960
La Colère Monte, 1961
Infinity of Typewriters and Infinity of Monkeys, and Infinity of Time = Hamlet, 1962

The trash maker

As seen in terms like "Fordism," the automobile was considered the ultimate product of mass industrial society. With grants from Renault, Arman worked for almost two years on the parts produced by the assembly lines, creating over 100 pieces. Art making here became an alternative way to consume mass produced goods. The paradox of value and devaluation turned the artwork into an act of direct confrontation.

Accumulation Renault #101, 1967
Accumulation Renault #180, 1972

In a more straightforward way, devaluation can be direct destruction of an object. Arman smashed, cut, or burnt objects, often music instruments, to make his Colères (Anger) and Coupes (Cut) series. In fact, he was not really angry when he broke the objects. "It was more like judo throws than enraged outbursts." After destruction, he would carefully rearrange the fragments and give the piece a poetic name. In later series, he would cast the remains in polyester resin or concrete, aiming to "preserve" destruction and freeze the scene of catastrophe as an impulse to stop time.

Subida al Cielo, 1961
La Courtillière, 1962
Le Grand Cello, 1963
Chopin's Waterloo, 1962

Complimentary to Yves Klein's immateriality and void, Arman's obsession with the object and plentitude represent his unique sensibility towards the real. Surprisingly, it seems to be still extremely relevant today, when wastefulness is still one of the most pressing issues of our time.


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