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Museums: The Truth is in Our Trash Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by Colleen P. Popson

[image] Steve Seigel's Collection shows the variety of modern artifacts to be found in the landfill. (Courtesy the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art) [LARGER IMAGE]

From the first load of garbage dumped there in 1948 until its closing in March of last year, the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, New York, has evoked more disgust than delight. During that time, tens of millions of tons of waste were heaped onto the 2,200-acre area of former wetlands. A thin skin of topsoil and grass now stretches over enormous bulging mounds of trash seemingly on the verge of bursting forth in a cloud of methane. It is true that Fresh Kills alone is responsible for two percent of the world's total methane emissions; and yes, the landfill is missing that all-important plastic liner that protects the groundwater from contamination; and sure, excavators have recovered, among other artifacts, a 30-year-old newspaper and accompanying hot dog that were, except for their faded color, as well preserved as the day they were made.

Still, despite the pesky environmental negatives, there is much to learn from such an artificial landscape. The lessons and interpretations of this built environment are the focus of Fresh Kills: Artists Respond to the Closure of the Staten Island Landfill, a new and timely exhibition at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, running until February 10. Though the exhibition was organized prior to September 11, the landfill's recent reopening as the sorting and disposal center for debris from the World Trade Center disaster has given it a deeper, national significance.

The exhibition features artists, environmentalists, archaeologists, and landfill workers commenting--through photographs, monologues, sculpture, film, compost, sound recordings, paintings, and machinery--on the many human and environmental aspects of this awe-inspiring place, three times the size of Central Park and the largest open green space in New York City.

Sepia-toned paintings of landfill wildlife, rendered in leachate, the brownish liquid that filters through the landfill when it rains, grace one of the walls of the gallery's main hall and capture the essence of the exhibition: Fresh Kills may be an eyesore and it sometimes smells when the wind is right, but now that we've created it, we may as well embrace it and convert it into something constructive.

[image] Little Brown Bat is painted with leachate (landfill ooze). (Courtesy Alexis Rockman, the artist, and Gorney, Bravin, & Lee) [LARGER IMAGE]

Archaeologists, for example, see the landfill as a giant midden, one of the most valuable resources available for understanding past cultures. One illustrative installation is a heap of trash that fills one-third of a large room. The artist, Steve Siegel, collected the items from a number of donors who cataloged each piece they were throwing out--unused gifts from mothers-in-law, pieces of art projects started and never finished, old books and CDs, outgrown children's toys, broken machinery, and kitchen appliances. Pasted on walls around the mound are descriptions of each item thrown away, what it meant to the "donor," and why it was tossed. The display gives immediacy to the notion that billions of stories are buried at Fresh Kills.

Garbage's ability to encapsulate culture is echoed throughout the exhibition in proverbs by William Rathje, archaeologist and director of the Garbage Project, a research effort that explores modern waste disposal, consumption, and recycling patterns. In a recording, Rathje talks of the wonder of sifting through garbage, an activity to which he has devoted much of his career. "Sorting garbage is the ultimate zen experience of our society," he says, "because you feel it, you smell it, you see it, you record it; you are in tactile intimacy with [it]. Some time or other everybody ought to sort garbage."

Rathje insists that our garbage reflects truth, showing that "what we do and what we say we do are two different things." Look at our trash and we'll find we underestimate our beer consumption by 50 percent and overestimate our asparagus consumption by 200 percent. Garbage, says Rathje, gives us "insight into the long-term values of civilization."

The Fresh Kills landfill is an archaeological site of massive proportions and import, a midden of our time, of modern New York's time. Established by Robert Moses, the state official responsible for much of New York's modern landscape, and serving as final witness to the destruction of one of New York's greatest architectural symbols, Fresh Kills embodies the material culture of an era.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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