Art Basel Miami Beach 2017

Exactly What Kind of Trash Is on View at the Untitled Fair?

A version of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Garbage Wall, 1970, at the Untitled art fair.

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At the entrance to the Untitled art fair is a six-foot-tall wall of garbage. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d think would go over well at an art fair, where collectors are expected to pony up thousands of dollars for artworks, but this is no ordinary garbage wall. It is the Garbage Wall, a work originally created by artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Made from trash combined with concrete, the work was originally made in honor of the first Earth Day, in 1970.

This is not the wall Matta-Clark made back then, however, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, where homeless New Yorkers were encamped at the time in cardboard shelters. The artist destroyed that one, and, according to the instructions he left for the piece (Matta-Clark died in 1978, and the piece at Untitled is being presented by his estate), it is to be recreated on-site wherever it is meant to be shown, with trash from that place, and demolished at the end of the exhibition period.

Students from Florida International University made the Untitled version of Garbage Wall using trash collected in the water at the Deering Estate, located about 25 miles south of Miami Beach. A lot of the debris from Hurricane Irma drifted south, and you can see in the wall things like soda and beer bottles, flip-flops, a tennis ball, a clothes hanger, and a buoy.

But the wall also tells stories specific to Miami. There is a water jug that likely fell from one of the rafts used by Cuban migrants traveling illegally to the United States. And there is an illegal lobster trap—the students plan to return to the Deering Estate, to remove the traps they found there.

Matta-Clark’s Garbage Wall has been recreated 28 times since 1970; this is only the second time that all the refuse in it has been extracted from water. (The first time was a version staged in Chicago, for a project done in conjunction with a local environmental group that took garbage from the city’s rivers.) To make the work, the FIU students donned swimsuits and waded into the mangroves to get the trash. One student spent a long time disentangling a length of red rope from the plants. The students “had an emotional attachment to the garbage they found,” Jessamyn Fiore, the co-director of the Matta-Clark estate, said.

Students from Florida International University picking trash for Garbage Wall.

JW BAILLY

The fact that the trash was found in water isn’t the only thing that sets this Garbage Wall apart from its other renditions. The contractor who worked with the students had to find an innovative solution to placing the piece, which is usually very heavy, in an art fair like Untitled, at a tent on the beach where the floor can only bear 100 pounds per square foot. The contractor came up with the idea of mixing Styrofoam into the cement. The resulting piece weighs a little over a ton. In exchange for the brilliant work-around, he got to throw one of his kids’ toys into the wall, a little green plastic lizard, now firmly installed in art history.

Behind the piece, you can find a film of Matta-Clark creating the original Garbage Wall in New York. Inspired by the city’s homelessness crisis, Fiore said, he “wanted to think about how we could create shelters from garbage. He was recycling, using the materials on-site because it was cheap.”

Matta-Clark was trying to set an example for how social problems could be solved in innovative ways, Fiore said. “He was saying, ‘This is my answer. Maybe you can do it better.’ “

More images of Garbage Wall follow below.

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