Recycling is more than the weekly trudge to the nature strip: it’s the alternative resource boom. Meet Melbournians who are turning rubbish into a recycling revival.
Ash Keating has taken in the trash. Truckloads of it. The 27-year-old artist wants to shock with the sheer bulk of waste going into landfill everyday. And for his Next Wave Festival show, 2020?, he’s putting it to better use.
Keating had five trucks of industrial waste dumped at the Arts House Meat Market in North Melbourne and asked more than 20 artists to shift through it to create sculptures and installations.
“We’ve got a connection with waste in our family,” says Keating. His grandfather ran a rubbish-removal service and his mother started a waste-management business.
The concept for 2020? came years ago, while Keating was working for Waste Audit. He saw potential art supplies squandered: “Being a visual artist and understanding how expensive materials are to get a hold of, it became really obvious to me that there was a huge gap in terms of the value of resources. I really dreamed about being able to intercept these trucks and take them elsewhere.”
Melanie Upton is also gripped by garbage. “I often turn up at home with rubbish,” the artist admits. “I have piles of rubbish in my house that I’ve collected.”
Her installation in the city, Beautiful Trash, features dozens of small sculptures – replicas of discarded drink bottles, cast in aluminium, plaster or concrete. A shiny silver milk carton stands next to a gold, deflated water bottle. Logos and colour schemes may have disappeared, but the brands are easy to pick by their distinctive shapes.
Upton believes there’s a message in her bottles. “I think this work definitely speaks strongly about the sort of consuming society that produces this waste and then people’s relationship to that.”
On the first weekend of every month, Sam McKean opens her colourful Fitzroy North store, Aprilmay. Betty Jo bird-shaped brooches, crafted from discarded lino and buttons, rest on an old, white shelf. Made By Maude ducks, hatched from reclaimed fabrics, perch on top of a wardrobe. McKean makes cushions and bags from 1970s furnishing fabrics and stretchy bangles from rolled-up tights. She thinks that demand for recycled things is growing as people are becoming more environmentally aware. But that’s not the only benefit of her stock. “There’s always a story behind every product,” she says.
Former history student Dan Vaughan is also captivated by the stories behind his Nearly Roadkill bags, wallets and belts. The 29-year-old makes his wares with car upholstery gleaned from motor trimmers. Years ago, while travelling in Europe and the US, Vaughan saw people making new goods from waste.
“I was attracted to it not just because it was recycling, but because there was a history embedded in the materials already,” he says.
Vaughan began Nearly Roadkill in 2006, using a “mega-industrial sewing machine that can go through anything”. He savours the thrill of the hunt for materials. “(The motor trimmers) don’t know what they are going to be throwing out every week. It’s always a surprise. When you find gold it’s really like, ‘This is going to be so much fun’.”
So what’s the message behind all these artisans’ thrifty flair? “The resources are non-renewable, unless we do it ourselves,” Vaughan says.
“When you have limited resources,” says Ellie Mucke, “you’re pushed to come up with better designs.” In her hands, a man’s business shirt, nipped, tucked and turned back-to-front becomes a halter-neck dress.
The 28-year-old designer makes clothes from discarded shirts and slacks. “People buy them without actually knowing that they’re recycled,” she says. Fashion can be frivolous. Take this: according to a 2005 estimate by the Australia Institute, we spend $1.56 billion every year on clothes and accessories we don’t wear. Thankfully, a slew of local designers such as Mucke are making good from our mistakes. For their A Name Is A Label brand, Nicole Fausten and Lina Didzys make one-off clothes and jewellery. “(We use) any sort of materials we come across: anything from old clothing to tablecloths and curtains, pillow cases, ribbons or stockings,” Fausten says. “We believe in trying to utilise resources around us rather than going out to buy new things.”
Bird Girl – Sophie McAlpin and Anita King – share the lost-and-found ethos. They sew outfits on the spot in their Fitzroy store. McAlpin hails from a family of recyclers. “My grandmother was a dressmaker so, to pass time, she’d say, ‘Oh take these scraps and there’s a needle’. When I was really young I used to do lots of costumes. I’d be like, ‘Mum, can I have an old sheet? Dad, some fencing wire?’.”