What Narcissus Knew (to live and die by the eye)

Posted in 4681560, Image, Uncategorized on March 31, 2010 by marcela romero

Here spent Narcissus, weary of the hunt
And sick with heat, fell to the grass, charmed by
The bright well and its greenery. He bent
To drink, to dissipate his thirst, yet as he
Drank another thirst rose up: enraptured
Beauty caught his eyes that trapped him;
He loved the image that he thought was shadow,
And looked amazed at what he saw—his face.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Book III.

Trans. Horace Gregory

Vik Muniz. Narcissus (from Pictures of Junk) 2005


In many ways, this is a scatological image. From an equally scatological series that artist Vik Muniz entitled “Pictures of Garbage,” the image of Narcissus is one of life and death. According to Ovid’s account of the myth, the beautiful boy, in the prime of life, found himself  wounded by the vision of his own beauty on the surface of a pond, and fell deeply, mortally in love. Refusing nourishment, Narcissus remained entranced in front of the lovely reflection and withered away, fully aware of the incorporeity of his love object and wishing—oddly, for a lover—he could be separated from that image he desired and not be one with it. A lonely flower stood in the place of Narcissus, as a marker of an utterly consumed lover. Narcissus did not love himself as bodyly life, but as a phantasmagoric image on a screen of water.

Scatology deals, after all, in that interstice open between life and death; the same space trash and junk occupy. The limit between life and death in the process of decomposition, as the limit between the body and the image in this myth are just as blurry as are those between a useful commodity and a piece of garbage. Transformation is key in defining garbage; it is, after all, nature metamorphosed by human—not godly—intervention.

The genius of Vik Muniz image is the intricate conections taking place in his picture. It is scatological because it is made with junk, scattered pieces of former machines and other industrial objects, but also because of the myth that is reproducing: the deadly rapture that led to the demise of youg Narcissus, we see the boy withering away. At the same time, Muniz renders a junk version of Caravaggio’s Narcissus, which implies to breed new life into a classical painting, sort of producing a Frankenstein version of a venerated figure in the tradition of painting.


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So, What is Garbage, Any Way? Part I

Posted in definition, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2010 by marcela romero

To begin with, garbage is the most quotidian form of waste. We produce garbage every day, and every day we are very likely to see it and smell it in our kitchen trashcan or in the streets. But what is garbage, more specifically?

We do not simply coexist side by side with garbage as part of nature, we produce garbage; this production is a process that in very basic terms could be described as follows: humans take material resources and transform them according to a certain set of necessities; these necessities dictate the form that the plucked resources will acquire, and once said necessities are satisfied, the materiality of the transformed resource will be deemed useless and discarded.

Put in such basic terms could be misleading, though, because they lead to abstraction and that leads to thinking that producing garbage is part of the human nature, always have and always will. It is not so. To be sure, of course, there is always a material remnant left after human interaction with nature, which in turn is the very essence of the human species-life. But the WAY in which we appropiate nature to turn it into useful objects and how we discard the material remnants once their utility has been exhausted, has changed constantly through history.

The United States, for instance, have more than doubled their daily garbage production in the last thirty years. The contents and the amount of the garbage that get to the landfills today is radically different from that which got buried in a hole on the ground in the 19th century. Given that garbage changes historically,  if we were to stand atop of one of the man-made mountains of trash of a modern landfill, we would have the opportunity to contemplate the materiality of our economic system, of our social organization, of our historical moment.

The image above is by Mexican painter Francisco Goitia, it is called “The Old Man in the Dumpsite” / “El viejo en el muladar.” This man sitting on top of a heap of trash looks like a modern-day prophet who looks straight into our eyes, like suggesting that he knows us because he lives surrounded by our daily discards.

And in a very real way, there is something profoundly human in trash. This might even sound like a truism, but it is not without its complexities. The tons of garbage that are buried everyday are made up not only of organic material and plastic, all those objects take hours-worth of human labor with them to their grave.  The worker that transformed the raw material to produce a commodity, used his/her inner most human quality—that of transforming nature to satisfy human needs—to produce that object. S/he was then “compensated” with an amount of money minor to the value of the thing in the market, while the object that bare his/her mark was estranged.

Matter, human activity, human nature, and use value make up the  contents of those interminable putrid mountains that are the landscape of landfills. If accumulation of commodities is one of the goals of capitalist production-consumption, then, standing atop of an odorous heap of garbage we would not be witnessing an unfortunate albeit necessary by-product of modern capitalist industriousness, we would be in the presence of the material evidence of its undeniable triumph.

This Tomato and You

Posted in documentary with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by marcela romero

Inaugurating this space for the discussion (or soliloquy, depending on how this blog strikes your interest)  I will begin by talking about this tomato.

I wanted to begin with this image because it is familiar, and it is a commodity as simple as they come; however, regardless of its simplicity, every commodity hides a wealth of intricate significations and interrelations. This tomato is part of nature, it is part of the economy, it could be part of your body, and it will end up being waste. Nature, well, because it grows and exists outside of the human body and consciousness; the economy, because it participates in the process of production, distribution, and sales that works the wheels of the food-production industry in a capitalist system; your body, since if you were to buy this tomato and turn it into, say, a caprese salad, it would be integrated to your organism in the form of nutrients; and waste, well, because whether or not you or any one consumes it, its materiality will decompose and be discarded as an unwanted remainder.

In Ilha das Flores (1989), Brazilian filmmaker Jorge Furtado wittily explains in 13 min. the social, economic, and ethical implications of the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of one tomato. This little film is humorous, almost to the point of successfully erasing the ominous tone of its opening titles “There is a place called Ilha das Flores/ There is no god,” but its dark mark remains as an aftertaste or the lingering smell of the trashcan in your kitchen.

Clearly, Furtado is not talking only about a tomato any more. He manages to explain the history of money, the functioning of the capitalist extraction of profit, and the existence of Ilha das Flores with all its appalling poverty; all this in just 13 dizzying minutes. The superposition of the narration and the montage of images is very effective in provoking the irony that hammers away the point that we as humans have a questionably record of accomplishments: the atomic bomb, the holocaust, and places like Ilha das Flores—highly developed brains and opposing thumbs notwithstanding—.

It is remarkable how landfills like Ilha das Flores, which exist in every corner of the world, have a certain shared aesthetics when photographed of filmed (both of which media erase the smell factor). They are places of accumulation of dissimilar objects that end up together by chance, and nevertheless, the visual compositions they form can be turned into meaningful striking images. For me, the genius of the montage edited by Furtado is precisely that it formally resembles a landfill of images of different origin, shown together to elicit an understanding of the very complex life of capitalist economy.

Garbage is fundamentally relational; we all come in contact with it in a meaningful way, be it as producers, consumers, collectors, or scavengers. Garbage is ubiquitous; it is in our lives, in our cities, in our kitchens and its image is also in museums, books, and films. With this entry I want to open a space to consider the great wealth of knowledge we can scavenge from trash.