The amount of refuse, waste or garbage that we generate on a daily basis is alarmingly high and is increasingly getting higher. The concept of upcycling or creative reuse involves transforming any such unwanted, discarded, or rejected products into new products of a higher quality and environmental value.
The practice of using found objects is an age old tradition especially in the production and design of the folk arts. In mainstream however this practice matured intermittently all through the 20th century. For example it was through a creative reapplication of re-claimed fabric that the Amish quilts are made. A glorious example of upcycling is Watts Tower in Los Angeles by Simon Rodia using scrap metal, pottery and broken glass on a majestic level. Watts Tower (1921 – 1924) involves 17 structures with the tallest structure higher than 30 meters into the Watts skyline.
On an intellectual level upcycling is quite similar to the works of Marcel Duchamp and the artists of the Dadaist period. “Bicycle Wheel” by Duchamp which consisted of a front wheel, a fork, and a common stool was the earliest of his works in this genre, and a common urinal acquired from a hardware store “Fountain” was probably his most acclaimed work. “Bull’s Head” a sculpture made out of an abandoned bicycle saddle and handlebars is even today considered the Spanish Painter Pablo Picasso’s indulgence in Dadaism. Joseph Cornell fashioned collages and boxed assemblage works of art from timeworn books, found objects and more such articles. Robert Rauschenberg would collect junk and other discarded articles in Morocco earlier in his career and then on the roads of New York to bring together some exquisite works.
Recycled objects were earlier considered as an opinion or consequence from means of production but in the late 20th century the notion of deliberately increasing the innate value of recycled or upcycled objects as a political statement emerged quite strongly. An artist from West African Benin, Romuald Hazoume emerged in the public eye when he used gasoline and other fuel canisters made of plastic to create a work of art that resembled the African masks at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. The statement that accompanied Hazoume’s work was “I send back to the West that which belongs to them, that is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us every day.”
Jeff Wassmann is an American Artist living in Australia for the past 25 years. He finds these objects on the beaches and in junk shops during his travels and creates early modern works of a fictitious German relative Johann Dieter Wassmann. Using an old world optometry chart for the background, a clock spring as eye, a Chinese bone opium spoon from the 19th century acquired from the Australian gold fields as nose, and the upper part of a denture set found on an Australian beach as mouth, Wassmann created his famed work “Vorwarts (Go Forward)” which demonstrates the vision of a modern man on the perilous edge of the 20th century. The one fact of note is that Wassmann does not sell his work, they are presented as gifts, thus ensuring that they do not enter the consumer cycle and are protected from commodification.
The ordinary brown packaging tape is the chosen medium of expression for the Dutch tape artist Max Zorn. After he creates art from this humble material, Zorn hangs them on the street lamps as a novel form of street art at night. By expertly adding and subtracting layers of tapes on acrylic glass with the help of a surgical scalpel, the artwork can only be observed when it is placed in the front of the light, creating an effect similar to that of stained glass window. The first design fair for recycling and upcycling – Frei-Cycle 2013 was held in Freiburg, Germany and Zorn’s technique with pioneering upcycling with street art was a special feature here.