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The Inescapable Patterns of Garbage

Artist Gabriel Orozco has applied a fresh logic to trash-as-art.

There's a sort of zoom you experience when looking at “Astroturf Constellation,” one half of artist Gabriel Orozco's Asterisms, currently at the Guggenheim in New York through January 13: this trash is so tiny and so carefully organized!

Astroturf Constellation, 2012 © Gabriel Orozco

The other half of the show, a work titled "Sandstars," contains large items, items that were washed up on a beach in a protected Mexican coastal biosphere. Those items are big enough that they rise to hip height and carpet a third of the gallery's floor space like a color-coded skyline. But "Astroturf Constellation" is composed of micro-items placed on a four-foot platform just in front of the elevator up to the top-floor gallery: Pennies, bottle caps, glittered barrettes, pistachio and sunflower shells, plastic bracelets, bits of red foam, lavender foam, lime foam, two Ferrero Rocher foils, a Blistex, and so on. These are pieces of garbage that Orozco plucked from the blustery astroturf field where he likes to throw boomerangs and play soccer on Manhattan's Pier 40. Standing over the lucite box that converts trash to art object, you can almost feel Orozco's fingers worrying the flimsy orange plastic circle that fell off a Gatorade bottle, see him as he walks on a brown chocolate wrapper and hears it crunch under his sneakers.

Astroturf Constellation, 2012 © Gabriel Orozco

Asterisms is the latest addition to a conversation that's been happening more or less since Duchamp's signed urinal was first displayed in 1917. Bits of detritus morph into artworks like Ghanaian artist el Anatsui's shimmering woven sculptures of liquor bottle caps or Brazilian conceptual artist Vik Muniz's "Pictures of Garbage," portraits of the men and women who paw through Brazil's biggest landfill for re-sellable recyclables.

Orozco applies a fresh logic to his trash, one that circles around visual poetry, categorization, and repetition. For “Sandstars,” he collected 2,400 pieces of refuse large and small from two locations: the soccer field where he plays and the Baja California beach and whale mating ground from which he ferreted away an entire whale skeleton for his 2006 work, Mobile Matrix. Since the coastline isn't regularly picked over by pedestrians, Orozco and his assistants came across gnarled bits of driftwood, a rainbow of soft beach glass, shells, a washed-up styrofoam packing crate, a barnacle-crusted buoy, rocks of all shapes and hues, rolls of toilet paper compressed like fossils, a kerosene tank, and lightbulbs in so many tones that one would be forgiven for thinking that entire discotheques had emptied their weekly trash hauls straight into the sea.

These items possess equal importance as they are displayed on the gallery floor to the left of "Astroturf Constellation" like large-scale jewels, a cityscape of varying heights arrayed preciously by type and color: wood with wood, toilet paper rolls inhabiting their own small neighborhood, bottles that bleed from dark blue to sea-green to translucent.

Sandstars, 2012 © Gabriel Orozco

On the wall behind the physical objects are a series of documentary photographs, the bits of detritus shot in a studio against a monotonous gray background. Trash becomes archaeological artifact. Grids of small images are organized by shape, not use, and associations offer overlaps that differ between the ocean trash and the soccer field trash. Objects from the sea are transformed by the uniform size of the images: Buoys like pastilles or beads, oars like matchsticks, bottles and lightbulbs interchangeable. Among the tiny bits of detritus, there is a compression of time (a photograph of a zipper that could have come from a pair of pants made in 1920 sits alongside one that's indelibly contemporary), importance (the purple glittery barrette of a young girl and the bit of lavender foam near it), and intimacy (a screw versus a lost Blistex).

Orozco has said before that he "wants to disappoint" the viewers of his artwork. It's when someone's expectations are let down, as he's put it, that the poetic emerges. This idea runs through Asterisms, where Orozco pointedly doesn't draw conclusions from the trash he's placed before us but instead asks us to look both intimately and from a distance at the detritus of living in the modern age. Love it, hate it, you can imagine him saying with a shrug—whether you think it's transcendent or mere garbage—take from it what you will.

“Gabriel Orozco: Asterisms” runs through Jan. 13 at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, (212) 423-3500,

About the Author

  • Julia Cooke
    Julia Cooke's art, culture and travel writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Conde Nast Traveler, Design Observer, Monocle, and other magazines and newspapers. She lives in New York.