A lounge, a lamp, and an ottoman sit in a warm and airy space. The image of a family settling down to relax in this intimate environment readily springs to mind. However, when you examine each of these ubiquitous household objects more closely you will find that they are not quite what they seem. They are in fact made up of disparate commonplace items cobbled together to recreate the familiar.
Crafting Waste, an engaging exhibition by Canberra based artist Niklavs Rubenis examines consumerism and waste. Discarded food tins have been re-appropriated into a lamp; unwanted clothes have been fashioned into an ottoman. Old, unwanted ‘stuff’ have been reborn and become useful again.
We were so intrigued by this thought-provoking exhibition that we sat down with Niklavs to find out more about the process of creating it.
Leiden: Crafting Waste looks at consumerism and waste, why were these issues important for you to explore?
Niklavs Rubenis: Often when we think of “design,” we refer to how something looks – its aesthetic or stylistic appeal. This is true, but it is one very small ingredient of a complex mix. I think it is important to take a broad perspective in that it is through design – through intent – that we, as human beings, have shaped our built environments and by extension ourselves. This has had all sorts of implications on us – historical, social, cultural, environmental, ethical, technological, political, economic, emotional…
Consumerism is a part of this – it is a system that we have designed that has had great global impact. Waste is its partner and another system that we have designed. As a “designer” I’m implicated in this and consequently walk a very fine line of being part of the problem but concurrently could be part of the solution. I’m interested in how to reconcile with this conundrum and the opportunities this may present for creative research-driven practice.
This is not meant as a negative observation as I’m not anti-making stuff or anti-design – far from it. We need to make stuff, particularly on a local level to stimulate social, cultural and economic capital, but its how we go about doing it. The world is already drowning in permanent obsolete, broken or seemingly valueless stuff – designed stuff that holds valuable resources combined with human ingenuity, but no longer apparently serves a purpose. What do we do with it other than bury it in the ground? I’m simply motivated by being aware of my impact and exploring alternative approaches to making ethical and meaningful contributions to material culture.
L: How did you go about sourcing the materials you used in Crafting Waste?
N: The materials in the exhibition had achieved that status of being “used” and therefore valueless in many cases – they could be argued as a “local” resource, something that we have to deal with on a local level. I have found discarded weathered or rotting objects on the side of the road, salvaged bits and pieces from diving into general waste bins or skips, and have even had some of my students (and ex-students) bring in objects they rescued from a life destined for landfill. This carries through the whole show right down to labels for the work, which have made from discarded beer cartons. The only new things in the exhibition are the LED bulbs used in the lights – these have been purchased from independent local retailers.
Waste is a constant and is reliable. When you start looking at something like waste, it opens your eyes to just how mammoth the issue is and how much of it exists in our environment. There is so much stuff around. We have somehow grown immune to this and the fact that many things we use on a daily basis are designed to be once only in use – non-permanent applications made from permanent materials.
I’m simply trying to avoid using virgin resources by utilising “stuff” that is already in existence that should be seen as a commodity – materials and objects that have great potential beyond their original intent.
L: Can you describe your process in putting together this exhibition? Did you have a fully formed idea of what the finished product would look like before you started or was your process more organic?
N: I had a loose idea of creating a domestic setting – a “lounge room” of sorts – but it wasn’t clear in my mind about how this was going to take place. Most of the materials or objects reused in the exhibition are a byproduct of domesticity – it made sense to reimagine this somehow. In the exhibition there is a combination of one-off pieces and “products.” The bench seat that features in the show – a one-off – was found on the side of the road. After this was repaired using a busted bookcase (also found on the side of the road) and short floorboard offcuts, I experimented with a whole range of different lights. Lighting is fundamental – our world is either dark or light – and I wanted to create something that potentially could offer an immediate response on a visceral level, yet was still a recognisable form that paid respect to its previous life. I think it is important to honour this and elevate the object, even if it was part of the waste stream.
Using cardboard, tin cans, plastic milk bottles, wire, existing light fittings, all sorts of salvaged stuff, I tried different combinations and experimented with many ways of bringing seemingly disparate materials together – to create “products.” Much of this never made it into the show. To be honest I found the process very difficult and constantly questioned why I was doing what I was doing – am I just part of the problem by contributing to that ebb and flow of “stuff?” Eventually, however, something started to emerge that made some vague sense and more work followed … in many ways the work in the exhibition, for me, is a letting go of preconceived ideas about how things should be or look like.
But really I think this is what defines creative practice – being unsure of endpoints, always feeling uncertain and the drive to overcome imminent fear of failure and somehow reconciling with this. It doesn’t seem to get any easier.
L: Describe your artistic practice in general? What interests you as an artist?
N: I have three parts: research, practice and teaching at the School of Art, Australian National University. They are all equally weighted, they all inform each other and provide me with a living. I try to maintain an active and varied studio practice comprising of exhibitions, and private and commercial commissions. To date this has included furniture & objects, lighting installations, window displays, interiors, design-construct shop fit-outs, signage and interpretive design. I also write for academic publication and am currently involved with a collaborative experimental research project titled “Object Therapy.” I’m also in the early stages of a reuse project with Rolfe Classic BMW, who were kind enough to support Crafting Waste. On the boil as well are design projects for the National Arboretum Canberra and the Museum of Australian Democracy. These two projects are in collaboration with my wife Halie Rubenis.
Although the work in Crafting Waste is largely concerned with furniture, I don’t define myself as a furniture maker or a furniture designer. I’m more interested in the broader implications of what defines “design,” and how when combined with craft skills, can offer transferable thinking to a whole range of different disciplines. I’m interested in working between or across disciplines, collaborating and learning, as I only know what I know.
L: What do you hope people will take away from viewing Crafting Waste?
N: The notion of reuse and repair is not new and has historical roots – necessity, scarcity and access. In our current time of getting anything from anywhere at anytime, we can’t deny that this is causing the world to rapidly consuming itself. At some point we too will be faced with scarcity. This is the world we currently live – this is our reality. Me making more “stuff” from other “stuff” is not going to solve the problem, but at the very least the exhibition might challenge a few conventions and start a conversation about looking twice at that stuff we throw away.
Exhibition runs until Saturday 9 July
Click here for details
Crafting Waste is supported by Rolfe Classic BMW