One Man's Trash is Another Man's Recycled Art

Art History, Socially Engaged Art

August 28, 2016

There are so many forms of expression that have a familiar name, yet the core of their meaning actually eludes us. Recycled Art is certainly one of them. In order to find out what it stands for, it seems that we are in need of at least a loose consensus on what does it mean or, rather, what might it mean. This might allow us to start a discussion, leading to something more substantial than “use of junk or garbage in art.”

There are several questions that come to mind. If we are uncertain what does Recycled Art mean, do we know what is Junk Art? What is the relation between the two? Does Recycled Art exist in other panes of reality, such as socially engaged practice or political activism? What are the main ideas behind Recycled Art, is it about critique or aestheticism? Who are the artists that practice Recycled Art? What is their approach?

Surely, we will not be able to give definite answers to these questions, but let us at least try… Perhaps we could somehow get closer to the meaning of Recycled Art. So, are we really going to try to find order in an ocean of eclecticism? Yes. Let’s go.

when visiting Jardim Gramacho Muniz was using materials like plastic and paper in order to design and create collage works evoking inspiration for others
Vik Muniz - Suelem Night Waste Land, via

What is the Meaning Behind Recycled Art ?

When faced with limitations of grasping the answer to the question What is Recycled Art? one can start with turning to various meanings present in the realm of art practice. One of the first would certainly be the comparison with the somewhat eclectic, but recognizable concept of Junk Art. It is usually related to the art practice which uses everyday life disposable objects in order to convey a certain idea. This can boil down to representations which are often present in conceptual art practices. In this regard, it could be argued that, although Junk Art does not represent a concise set of aspects to define its scope, Recycled Art is an even more “problematic” concept to grasp. Junk Art can be traced to the pioneering work of Robert Rauschenberg, all the way to the utilization of elements in the works of Young British Artists (such as the installations of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin). If there is one element to be singled out here, it is the utilization of objects which continue existing in an art piece in the almost exact same form they had had once “extracted” from the real world. The composition, the repurposing and the assemblage of these elements are what brings the concept to the forefront of perception. Let us say, for the purpose of these lines, that we have found a differentia specifica of Junk Art. Still, this is not enough to fully grasp the meaning of Recycled Art. Does this sound as too much of a linguistic analysis? But, what can we find outside of it?

Tracey Emin managed to recycle objects form everyday life as inspiration to design and make her famous Bed
Tracey Emin - My Bed

Where Does Art from Recycled Materials Actually Come from?

Let as briefly explore the outskirts of what we have come to know as Contemporary Art. In an effort to discover what Recycled Art might mean, one can easily get lost in various realms of our socio-cultural reality. There are so many embodiments of Recycled Art that span across the planes of social media, educational applied arts and, lastly, political activism.

When it comes to social media, it seems as though Recycled Art (this term, to be more precise) has been enslaved in the kingdom of Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram. It has become an object of endless bragging for having a certain skill, in an effort to get that additional share. Knowing how to handle an object and repurpose it with clever composition does not an idea convey. There is nothing wrong in knowing your craft, nothing wrong to share this statement on Facebook or Pinterest. But, are we to just say “It’s all art, all of it”? It is not a rhetorical question. Seriously, I am asking, are we collectively saying it’s all the same?

Another region one might find if searching for the meaning of Recycled Art presents itself in the field of educational applied arts. Recycled Art has come to be almost synonymous with the practice of introducing children to the world of art and creativity through material derived from socially engaged discourses.[1] These activities have come to grow into entire educational programs, events and gatherings.[2] The use of applied arts and crafts has been part of education development for centuries, present in many different forms, and showing beneficial results. But, is that all to be said? Can there be more?

Coming closer to the practices of Contemporary Art, there is another concept that can help us in the search for meaning of Recycled Art. Many a times, the project and the act of recycling itself can be a starting point for an artistic expression. Perhaps one of the most recent paradigmatic projects of this kind occurred at Venice's Art and Architecture Biennale in 2016. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena created an installation especially for the Biennale, comprised of materials such as scrap metal and used display shelves. All the material was part of a previous Biennale and served as a reminder for participating artists about global issues.[3] This leads us to the concept of upcycling, which was first coined outside of the arts, within the field of sustainable production and economy.[4] Today, it is also used by certain artists, with an aim to create an idea pointing to an issue through utilization of paper, metal, plastic and other materials and objects.[5] It is also referred to as trash art. This kind of understanding of Recycled Art somewhat compels us to look at the aspect of activism within the creative process…

using collage design and other methods to recycle and create sculptures Aravena managed to make a statement in Venice
Alejandro Aravena Art at Venice's Art and Architecture Biennale 2016(image via

Voice of Criticism Sounds Trashy

Following the tracks of activism, let us broaden this notion. The idea of using debris or garbage as the primary material for an art piece is never “innocent” in itself (as it might be argued for, say, paint or paper). To decide on this kind of material already implies meaning, it already has a seed of an idea that is to be formed. It seems as though the dimension of the material used in what we want to call Recycled Art always has a call to action imprinted in the artwork. Whether an artist uses plastic material extracted from the ocean, car parts that were once elements of a traffic accident or even discarded animal corpses, one thing is certain - the context is ever-present. The decision to tke advantage of this kind of material instantly implies a dialogue with contemporary consumerist society and culture. But, what of those who choose to use it? What is so specific about the artists who decide to express their art in this manner?

Damien Hirst draws inspiration from materials such as plastic and paper to create works of collage and different materials
Damien Hirst - A Thousand Years, detail. Image via

Recycled Artists (no, it’s not a typo...)

It seems as though that the artists using recycled materials cannot go through the process of creating without themselves being recycled… When working with such a material that has gone through a distinct “life cycle”, no artist can approach it without perceiving layers upon layers of symbolic meaning. This instance is where the interaction with the concept of creation begins. Gathering and contemplating upon the material which is to become an idea and a “product” of artistic creation, imprints itself irrevocably onto the artwork.

We’ve started this discussion here through dualisms, first being the distinction between the meanings of Recycled Art and Junk Art. The second dualism has been established through the correlation between socially engaged art created from garbage, on one hand and, on the other, Recycled Art created through practice oriented towards craftsmanship (educational or somewhat amateurish). So, in the spirit of dualism, let us turn to the practices of two artists which can be paradigmatic of two distinct artistic approaches to the practice we’ve marked as Recycled Art. It should be noted that these two artists are not the only ones which can be situated within the field of Recycled Art, neither are their practices exclusive to what we would like to point out here… To put it simply, the art practice of the first one is paradigmatic of a certain “intimate” communication that the artist has with the material; the second one is paradigmatic of a certain relation the artist has with the concept that is a result of the art created.

Left: Vik Muniz - Magna / Right: Vik Muniz - Marat Sebastiao, images via

Recycled Art Sculptures of John Chamberlain

Regarded as one of the most important American Post-War sculptors, John Chamberlain is known for empoying industrial media and particular compositions of metal parts. His approach can be considered as an intuitive comprehension of the composition of waste. It could be even argued that Chamberlain “communicated” more so with the concept of sculpture, rather than the material itself. Many a critics considered that his structures, formed from scrap metal of Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, represent a par excellence critique of American freedom.[6] However, these kinds of interpretations were never confirmed by Chamberlain. What is more, he used to say that the material he had used “[was] manure, actually; it goes from being the waste material of one being to the life-source on another.”[7] We would be amiss if we said that Chamberlain hadn’t perceived the symbolic layers of the material he had used. It couldn’t be further from the truth if one would argue that the meaning within the material eludes Chamberlain or that he is not interested in it. Rather, Chamberlain leaves the seed of meaning into his sculptures in order for it to grow with the life cycle of the piece. Thus, the artist leaves the idea to be interpreted by those who perceive it. The meaning comes to the horizon of understanding after the act of creation.

John Chamberlain Art at Pace gallery (image via
John Chamberlain Art at Pace gallery (image via

Waste Land of Vik Muniz - Artist Transforms Lives

Unlike the an “intimate” relation which the artist has with the material he or she uses, when it comes to Recycled Art, there is that other side. The need to establish a strong connection to a wider social act. In the 2010 documentary masterpiece directed by Lucy Walker - Waste Land - we follow Vik Muniz on a road of trying to recycle lives with art. In one of the world’s largest garbage dumps (Jardim Gramacho), Muniz searches for recyclable elements that would become parts of his art pieces.[8] However, it is not his search of material per se, the interaction he has with waste, that will eventually become the driving energy of an artwork. It is the intricate web of contextual meaning where Muniz situates not only the literal (tactile) material of waste, but also the human (cultural and social) element rounding up the piece and giving it its teleological dimension. It seems that with the work Muniz has created as the result of a 3-year project does not embody itself in the matter, doesn’t hold the seed of meaning in the art piece itself, but rather “around” it. When we talk about Recycled Art of Vik Muniz, we find the meaning in the concept, the idea that transcends the material, through the act of acting upon that concept. It is almost poetic how Vik Muniz creates a “closed cycle” of meaning, value and action.

Towards a Definition of Recycled Art

So, no, it is not enough to say that this kind of artistic expression is defined by the use of waste, garbage, and so on. Our situation of not understanding should push us into a state of frenetic chase for an answer. In the field of Contemporary Art, if you are not a creative, you are an interpreter by default. And if an interpreter stands in front of a task too great for him or her, he/she doesn’t give up or look for an easy solution. Rather, it is about starting a discussion. Making that first step and inviting peers to help. So, although far from perfect, or even substantial one, let us try to take that first step in discovering what is Recycled Art. Here we go: Recycled Art is usually recognized as the use of garbage and found objects in the process of creating art. This process is categorized by the artist’s interaction with a material already potent in symbolic meaning, prompting the artist to embed a certain message of social critique. In its essence, Recycled Art is conceptual and political.


  1. Anonymous, Recycling Art Lessons for Kids, KinderArt [August 25, 2016]
  2. Recycled Arts Festival [August 24, 2016]
  3. Anonymous, Alejandro Aravena uses over 90 tonnes of recycled refuse for entrance rooms of Venice Biennale 2016, de zeen magazine [August 23, 2016]
  4. McDonough, W., Braungart, M. (2010), Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Farrar, Straus and Girou
  5. WebdesignerDepot Staff (2009), Non-Trashy Recycled and Trash Art, WebdesignerDepot [August 24, 2016]
  6. Kennedy, R. (2011), John Chamberlain, Who Wrested Rough Magic From Scrap Metal, Dies at 84, New York Times [August 24, 2016]
  7. Ibidem
  8. Anonymous, Waste Land Synopsys, Waste Land Movie [August 20, 2016]

Featured image: Vik Muniz - Waste Land, via

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