Lost, Recovered, and Reintegrated

What makes a scavenger?  It makes sense that people who lived through the Great Depression or post-War reconstruction would find uses for things that were discarded and cheap, or that they would store and save things, being used to rationing and want.  I was reading a book titled  Art Making, Collections, and Obsessions recently and there was a story about a family cleaning out their grandmother’s house after her death.  They discovered an envelope whose contents were revealed by the label: “pieces of string too small to use.”  Now that really points to a reluctance to discard even the questionably useful!  However, the mentality behind it is one that sprang from calculated frugality and rigorous control over scarce resources.

Keeping bits and pieces can make sense symbolically too.  Think of the brilliant Dadaist collagist Kurt Schwitters, a prolific force in Hanover.  When faced with the loss of faith in humanity, technology, and “progress” many people felt due to W.W.I and its mechanized slaughter, he picked up and saved detritus: ticket stubs, old newspapers, pieces of wood, rusted metal, cardboard…”merz” he called it.  He was the original dumpster diver and trash connoisseur.  From those recovered and prized fragments he created sophisticated and stunning works of art.  It’s as if this restoration project, this reintegration, helped him become psychically whole again.  Quite a poignant project really.  

So, depression era scavenging, post-War hoarding – these are understandable.  But scavenging in contemporary times?  Perhaps now it’s more of an anti-capitalist imperative.  A counter to planned obsolescence and massive waste.  There is a French film titled (in translation) The Gleaners and I (directed by Agnes Varda, 2009).  It documents the age-old practice of gleaning after the harvest, but also looks at people who arrive at public markets after they close and eat their way through mounds of discarded produce and bread, taking discarded yet unspoiled food home.  

Some people are just more willing than others to embrace the patina of life, things that have rusted, things that have a history that resonates in the marks made upon them, imperfect beautifully distressed things, things that are awaiting repurposing.  And some people embrace the treasure hunt.  I’ve seen those people trying to haul down the road the pieces of interestingly shaped driftwood they’ve found on the beach.  I am one of those people.  I see something and I think “even if I can’t use that, some sculptor somewhere could…”


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