PAWA 23: Thomas Aitken on Enormous Face
PAWA 23: Thomas Aitken on Enormous Face
“There is no conceivable world to come in which garbage is not a deity”, reads the conclusion of a short paragraph written by Kalan Sherrard, the artist known as Enormous Face. Printed and roughly cut onto scrap paper, the piece begins by stating that “GARBAGE, like God, has no known origin, although it seems to be the genus of inanimate object that has suffered the alchemy of human intervention: transforming first from living to dead ( e.g. dinosaurs to petrol) and then from valuable to unwanted (e.g. gasoline to carbon), moving from deep intimacy with the human and its life, to a state of extreme ghettoization.”
I first crossed paths with the self-described ‘slime mould’ via a phone call at the Tip Shop and Recycle Centre in Te Whanganui A Tara. Xe (preferred pronoun) had been given my number as a fellow trash enthusiast and I explained that the shop served as the last port of call for items before being swallowed by the Southern Landfill. The nature of working at such a site can be chaotic and with no previous context I was a little taken aback by the voice on the other end of the line, crackling through unreliable phone reception.
From what I can remember there was a declaration of love for trash followed by enquiries about rolling round in large piles of it and how to best source useful yet unwanted items. In confidence I assured the soft southern sounding American voice that if they could just make it up the hill then they would be in hog heaven.
“Rubbish as ya’ll call it forms the semiotic basis of our society. Within capitalism we’re very value obsessed. A lot of people know exactly the prices of everything and … it’s hard to have value without having non-valuable things and so you’ve got goods, economic goods and then bads, of course economic bads.” Enormous Face on RNZ’S Culture 101
Within less than an hour Xe had filled two huge shopping carts with a range of items that most Tip Shop staff would class as unsellable. Rotten timbers, cracked pipes and rusted poles were greeted with whoops of delight and added to the cart alongside broken planter pots and tangled nets. The foraging experience was intermittently put on hold for things like watching a family of snails find foliage and to discuss worldviews with a couple of scaly doomsday prepping fisherman in the back yard.
“… garbage forms this massive underclass right of things that were once very useful and have been sort of alchemically transmuted from living things into plastic dead things and, um, in a sense they do form this kind of huge abject unwanted morass … I’m interested in learning and changing how we look at those things, and if we can radically shift ... like looking at garbage as some kind of phoenix.”
Culture 101 interview
With a world view entrenched in finding the value in items deemed void of value by society, Enormous Face is less of a ‘performance artist’ and more of a travelling sculptor, puppeteer and prophet occupying space anywhere from the depths of the New York Subway system to the galleries of the art world. In this instance, performing in Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, as part of Performance Art Week Aotearoa.
For two days following that first visit to the Tip, the window display and foyer of Te Pātaka Toi was filled with waste collected from Happy Valley, through the city and all the way to Kelburn. Passers-by watched with interest as the collection grew in size and changed in shape, evolving, you might say into the proverbial trash phoenix. By the end of the week a crowd had gathered around the sculpture which stood swaying some four meters tall and come 8 o’clock Enormous Face welcomed the crowd, scantily clad in a loincloth made of rags.
“What is your relationship to garbage?
What role does garbage play in your life? / you in its?
What is your most most outrageous opinion about garbage, and how did you arrive at it?
Do you have any visions about the future or past of trash?
Do you see ‘garbage’ as a ‘problem’ in need of a ‘solution’?
Can trash be ascribed personhood, like water can?
Can garbage be sentient or animate?
How is humanity’s current relationship to garbage historically unique?
How is garbage related to the end of the world?
What are your (or anyone’s) most ingenious ideas to do with garbage? (even impossible ones)
What “is” garbage? What is it not?” The series of questions posed to the crowd.
From here the machine creaked into action, powered by a handful of fellow puppeteers similarly clothed in trash. Bodies wrapped in ripped mattresses and plastic bags pushed and pulled various appendages causing limbs of tubes and piping to rise and fall. Wails, grunts and moans rose and fell with the clanging and crashing of the sculpture which had gained momentum and was by now an undulating, hypnotic trash beast.
I’ve always found strong aquatic themes in the world of waste. Whether it’s the language around streams of waste or the way it flows across oceans I think that deciphering the make-up of a trash pile is as impossible a task as trying to focus on one patch of water in an ocean. This particular body of waste was different as not only was it sculpted but it was also a finite amount of matter. A stark comparison to the mountains that I’m used to at the landfill, where giant truckloads are reduced to mere grains of sand on the tip-face.
This and the clean, unscented nature of the waste-bird allowed me to appreciate the beauty of it all as I watched a body emerge from a cracked toilet seat only to be engulfed in a wave of bubble wrap and Sellotape. If anything, it all felt strangely calming I thought as the pile morphed and grew and then eventually collapsed. Boxes and debris were stacked up high by the puppeteers and then tumbled down the stairs leaving the gallery in a state of stunned silence.
From here we were all tasked with collecting a piece and taking it to a quiet corner of the gallery. To sit with that piece of trash and be with it. To share its experiences and to feel its emotions. To be at one with the rubbish. My piece in particular was a timber cross tied together with string. Untying the string and laying the wood lengths side by side I couldn’t help but think of the sheer volume of useful materials landfilled by the building industry.
A moment of silence was held for the 300 species that go extinct every day and by this time the mood of the room had turned sombre and contemplative. The light playful nature had been replaced with a resounding silence as the once beautiful sculpture lay in ruins. From here the defeated figure of Enormous Face stood up and let out a long slow moan. A layered parcel of plastic was unfurled and out of it rose the rotted carcass of a possum. Strings tied to its paws jerked it into a surprisingly dainty walk across the trash pile while the puppeteer wailed a slow melancholiac melody.
The stench of the possum slowly filled the room as it danced and eventually laid to rest, and for the first time that night I was hit with the overwhelming sense of sadness that I feel every time I visit the landfill. The show was over and the smell of rotting flesh and decay had well and truly sunk in to every corner of the gallery.
“Other animals do not seem to produce similar Garbage, nor have a need for idols or religious artifacts in general. But our ramping up of consumption just as Marxist materialism is on the rise does suggest replacing one with the other. When our new god, money, is exhausted, becomes boring, trite or banal, what will replace it?” Excerpt from Enormous Face writings.
In my daily dealings with waste, I’m well aware that the handling of discarded objects goes hand in hand with themes of death. The use of a dead animal in performance art weighed heavily on my mind as I stood outside the Adam and tried to forget that lingering smell. But it’s unavoidable when discussing the decay of the planet. Amongst the Landfill I’ve seen dead mice in toasters, deer hooves in suitcases not to mention the regular sight of roadkill possums across Aotearoa.
There’s something that has always bothered me about the motto “be a tidy Kiwi.” The idea of putting rubbish in a bin perpetuates an out of sight, out of mind approach to waste. The trail of destruction left in the wake of consumerism reeks of death and the dancing possum couldn’t have been a more fitting example for a Kiwi audience. It would seem that the world cannot continue to sweep waste under the rug or into the landfills. Surely our only hope is to subvert our relationship with waste before it’s too late.
“Already they mine the dumps. The future is a spinning sieve. Negotiation pools into opulence, the proverbial tables turn, invert, and we dine on the ceiling. There is no conceivable world to come in which garbage is not a deity.” Excerpt from Enormous Face writings
Thomas Aitken is a writer / illustrator of English Scottish and Burmese descent. Born and raised in te Whanganui a Tara he has written for the Spirit Mag, Massive Magazine and Theatre Review alongside numerous self and communally published zines. These days the majority of his time is spent diverting useful items from the southern landfill and making school lunches.
PAWA 23: Thomas Aitken on Enormous Face