It’s no secret: New York in the summer stinks. Most of the time, that overpoweringly unpleasant smell is coming from the garbage bags whose contents are slowly cooking, sous-vide style, in the sun. But if you’ve wandered the streets of North Brooklyn or the Lower East Side recently, you may have noticed a flash of gold peeking out from the rat castles that are our city’s trash piles. Those gilded bags aren’t the Department of Sanitation’s newest attempt at urban beautification; they’re the work of Peruvian-born artist Iván Sikic, whose new series “Trashed” aims to call attention to New Yorkers’ relationship with waste.
On a hot afternoon in Bushwick, Sikic opened the trunk of his car and heaved two trash bags out into the sun-drenched street. He had just finished spray-painting the bags at his studio in Clinton Hill, and was returning them to their original location near the entrance to the Morgan Avenue L subway stop. A French tourist began taking photos as Sikic positioned the golden bags and circled them a couple times, snapping some shots for his website and Instagram account.
“The whole principle or concept behind the work is to explore as many neighborhoods as possible where there is trash present on the streets, which to be honest would be an endless project in New York,” Sikic laughed when explaining his series the next day.
Sikic will be working on “Trashed” through June and July, and plans to visit as many boroughs and neighborhoods as possible. He wanted to highlight the massive amounts of trash and refuse that this city produces each day, and encourage people to think more closely about their relationship to trash and be actively aware of its presence.
“I was finding some research that said that only 13 percent of the stuff that’s thrown out is recyclable,” he explained. “It’s just crazy, it’s a systemic issue.”
Sikic said that the inspiration for “Trashed” came to him during his first week in New York in 2014. He explained that he was sitting in a takeout restaurant, and had his meal served on a styrofoam plate. “Everyone was just throwing them in the bin, and they were piling up. That was really a big shock for me.” He understood that buying styrofoam trays was probably cheaper in the short run, but he didn’t understand why a compromise, like serving food on a plastic plate that could be washed and reused, wasn’t more reasonable in the long run.
He then became more aware of how trash was perceived in New York. “I was interested in our relationship with that trash, or lack of relationship with that trash, and how easy it is to throw it out.” He recounted watching, on another occasion, how a woman eating a takeout meal on the subway nonchalantly threw the wrapper out of the train doors when it stopped in a station, while the rest of the riders didn’t even bother to look up from their phones. “That’s where the work stems from,” he concluded.
The gold spray-paint was another key component of his commentary on the prevalence of trash in this city. While trash was something we perceive as transient, he argued, gold was just the opposite. “Trash and the impact on the environment will more than likely not affect us directly, but will have an impact on two, three, four generations down the line, but we just can’t grasp that,” he said. “But gold is one of those that things that does transcend time. Gold even gains value over time.”
The days that Sikic works on “Trashed” are fully packed. He gets started at 8am, traveling to different neighborhoods, picking up trash bags, taking them back to his studio, spray-painting them, and dropping them off in the exact same place he found them. By the time he’s done, it’s usually 6pm.
Obviously, working with trash that’s been sitting out on the street for a while is not always the most pleasant. “It’s hard for me, because I pick up the trash and put it in my car,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve learned to check for spillage on bags to make sure I don’t encounter anything I don’t want to, but I try not to think too much about it.”
Sikic’s project has also made him pay more attention to the Department of Sanitation. “I really respect their work. My view has shifted– it’s such an invisible labor, but it’s such an important one,” he said. “I ended up empathizing with groups of people I wouldn’t otherwise have any contact with.”
For now, Sikic’s pieces are ephemeral, and the only thing that identifies them as artworks are the signature he puts on every bag and the photos he takes to capture the project. Once the bags are picked up by Sanitation, they’re gone. For Sikic, this component of his work serves as a cheeky commentary on the art world as well. By painting the bags gold, he said, “it questions what the value of a work of art actually is,” as well as challenging the longevity of artworks. “The ephemeral piece will never exist again other than through documentation,” he observed.
That said, Sikic is in talks with a gallery to discuss the possibility of having an exhibit of the pictures he took of his works. “The most important thing about making any work is about extending a dialogue, opening a dialogue up,” he said. “I want to expand the work beyond its original lifespan. The work might be over, but issue is still there.”