Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste

Gayle Chong Kwan, Wastescape, 2012.

Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste (MIT PRess, 2019) examines the interplay between the aesthetics of contemporary art, global systems of energy-use, and the life cycle of garbage. In the last two decades, there has been a discernable shift away from the aesthetics of decay that shaped 20th-century art movements such as art brut, earth art and arte povera. In contrast to these art historical precedents, contemporary art now deploys waste that is technically sophisticated and enduring, such as plastics (bottles, brightly colored toys, lawn furniture, Tupperware), Styrofoam, and e-waste (obsolete computers and electronic). My book links the spectacle of non-biodegradable materials to the rise of the global oil economy and correspondingly, the rise of ecology. I propose that the oil economy is accompanied by a visual regime that expresses a highly contradictory form of energy management characterized by, on the one hand, an ecological imperative to conserve and redistribute energy, and on the other, an economic dictum to support oil consumption. I therefore make a direct connection between the history of oil and other petro-products and forms of contemporary art that disclose underlying ecological anxieties. I chronicle this emerging paradigm of “waste art”, beginning in the nineteen sixties, but with a particular focus on aesthetic transformations in art since the nineteen-eighties.