Waste—what comes to mind when you think of it? Leftover dinner, a used coffee cup, something you find stuffed in the crevice of a bus seat? The majority will associate waste with an extremely negative connotation, but that’s not necessarily the correct meaning of it. Technically speaking, 'waste' could be any material, substance or an entity that is no longer perceived to be useful. While we may perceive certain things as waste, some brilliant, creative minds out there view it as an instrument to create beautiful art.
Thematically, the relationship between art and sustainability dates back many years and has been the subject in multiple cultures, across different periods in many mediums. Traditional landscapes are seen in Chinese ink engravings and etched in Ancient Egyptian tombs, but the origins of sustainable art can be traced to the conceptual art movement of the late 1960s, also known as Land Art. Land art originally questioned the elitist nature of the art system, artists sought to break the constraints of rigid four-walled galleries and ventured out to seek alternative modes of artistic expression. Many artists used man-made materials from the earth itself, including (but not limited to) soil, rocks, mud, water, concrete, and metal. Today, sustainable art has evolved, becoming the foundation for many artists and their practices. It is art that has been made through processes which don’t harm the environment and formed of non-toxic materials—objects which have been found, upcycled, or recycled.
For decades, artists have been turning waste into art, many creatives have come up with solutions which not only helped to eliminate waste but also add value to it. One of the earliest adopters of recyclable art, John Chamberlain was a renowned artist in the 60s, best known for his large-scale, crumpled scrap metal works which were recycled from vintage cars. They say one man’s trash is another one’s treasure, and that couldn’t be truer in the case of Chamberlain’s creations—his sculptures turn what was once cold, hard metal into vibrant, monumental pieces which are full of life, defying gravity. Before his passing in 2011, Chamberlain shared "I think of my art materials not as junk but as garbage. Manure, actually: it goes from being the waste material of one being to the life-source of another." His innovation and vision have earned him a reputation as one of the most influential sculptors, and today, he is still remembered as an artist who was ahead of his time in recycling and repurposing.
Repurposing discarded waste is central to Aurora Robson’s practice. Robson is an artist who has intercepted thousands of single-use plastics from their ultimate fate at the landfill, she instead assembles each piece of collected debris into intricate sculptures. Robson describes her work as “centred around exploring plastic debris as a viable art material. We think of plastic as disposable when it is precisely the opposite, so I extract it from its problematic destructive fate and utilize its potential to become a source for enjoyable reflection.” An eco-activist in her own right, she uses her art as a vehicular material to address urgent issues, “Art is a global language, and pollution is a global issue, so merging the two to find potential solutions seems only natural.” Robson's concern about the state of the natural environment is reflected in her personal endeavours. In 2008, she founded Project Vortex, a non-profit organisation of artists globally, collaborating with Project Kaisei, an ocean clean-up initiative, to reduce the amount of plastic waste littering oceans.
While the effects of plastic waste are detrimental, textile production has equally taken a heavy toll on the world—an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created annually, a number estimated to increase by about 60% between 2015 and 2030. And the creative duo behind the collective, Guerra de la Paz, has spotted the treasure trove within discarded materials. Since their partnership in 1996, Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz, have been creating abstract textile forms sourced from unwanted clothing, found in the bins of second-hand goods shipping companies. The duo balance material experimentation with the conceptual and practical principles behind the recycled textiles, their thought-provoking sculptures explore the essence of second-life clothing and its latent possibilities while shedding light on an underlying environmental message by generating discourse around the complexities of the human footprint.
Similarly, Derek Melander is another artist with a penchant for worn clothes who strays from traditional media. Hailing from a family which operated a small styrofoam company from the 50s to the 90s (Melander jokes he is “subconsciously trying to reverse [their] karma.”), Melander uses secondhand clothing as a vehicle to tackle sustainability and textile waste. Melander’s sculptures take the form of colossal, geometrical columns and walls which loom over the observer. Each piece of clothing is precisely folded, stacked densely, and arranged according to hue, creating visually pleasing, transitional gradients and patterns. Aside from its ecological core, the use of worn clothes adds an additional conceptual depth to his work— each item has been collected or donated and carries traces of human touch, which continues to exist through its creative second-life, and one can’t help feeling fascinated by the intimacy of each piece.
Art and design have become increasingly interchangeable terms, throw in fashion and sustainability and the distinction becomes even less clear— and the Balenciaga Sofa is the perfect example of what appears when you incorporate cross-disciplinary practices. The notion of luxury and sustainability being mutually exclusive has been gaining traction for years now, but, true to the vision of Demna Gvaslia, Balenciaga strays away from the conventional. Taking mundane inspirations and reinterpreting them into high fashion pieces have been the very essence of Gvaslia’s vision at Balenciaga, and Harry Nuriev’s work echoes a similar ethos. The Balenciaga sofa is an example of environmentally conscious design without limitations. Nuriev redesigns the classic modular ‘L’ silhouette, encasing discarded and damaged Balenciaga pieces in transparent sustainable vinyl which mimics the upholstery of a traditional sofa—it’s even complete with a pop-up foot function and adorned with matching pillows.
In a similar vein, Gucci unveiled 'ArtLab' in 2018—the brand’s new central hub for sustainable innovation. CEO Marco Bizzarri shares, "[Gucci Artlab] is a testament to our belief in creativity, artisanal craftsmanship, innovation and technology, and sustainability, and our bond with our territory." Situated in the romantic city of Florence, the building is wrapped in elaborate, hand-painted murals from global artists. ArtLab is dedicated to developing products of the future through material experimentation, prototyping and sampling, merging product manufacturing and creative artistry through the lens of creative director Alessandro Michele. Gucci's relationship with art goes beyond its much-desired handbags. Although historically, it has created some of the most celebrated pieces in the world through collaborations with renowned contemporary artists (Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons just to name a few), the brand has consistently celebrated the arts, hosting exhibitions and installations across the world, even launching an artist residency programme in 2019.
When considering the interwoven relationship between art, fashion and sustainability, the phrase ‘sometimes you have to break things down before you can build them back up again’ comes to mind, summarising the new approach to eco-friendly processes within creative fields. With a lot of breaking being done, creatives have found themselves in the heavy lifting business of rebuilding and repurposing, and the results could not be more riveting. Looking at the works of experimental artists and designers today proves that contrary to belief, sustainability doesn’t mean you have to forfeit creative design, in fact, it often leads to unprecedented results.