Waste Not Want Not, 2018

By Simone Steenberg

Femmage sculpture made from found ‘leftover’ materials and fashion items – stitched together by hand. 

Analogue medium format photographs

Circa 260 x 309 cm 

As long as there have been humans there has been waste. Trash, leftovers, by-products; ‘unwanted or unusable material’ as the dictionary puts it. Awkward things to dispose of, like single socks, outdated outfits, childhood relics and broken tech. There has always been waste, but waste has not always been the same. To our distant ancestors, waste meant scraps and bones; to us, whole loads of plastic discharged into oceans and animals. Its scale, its colour, its texture – all depends on the type of society it spills out of and so– ultimately–who we are. Not only does the physical form of waste change, we might say it exists in the eye of the beholder. What is useless to me can be valuable to you (one man’s trash is another man’s treasure). Waste then, is never a neutral term. It is loaded with all types of preconceptions. When exploring this category classed as ‘unwanted,’ we also ought to ask ourselves: who decides what is wanted or not?

Miriam Schapiro, iconic feminist performer and textile artist, asked this question, outright and through her practice. Like many women before her, she collected odd pieces of fabrics, dumb little leftovers, and stitched them together into tapestries and sceneries. Unlike women before her, Schapiro stitched defiantly. She insisted that ‘needlework’ was artistically important, not simply a craft or past- time, but as authentic and rich as any painting or sculpture. She wanted to reposition the ‘leftovers of history’ as she writes in Waste Not Want Not (from which this piece takes its name), and talks not only about textiles but also women artists, or simply women. Her practice is a provocation against fixed systems of value — it begins quietly with some care for trash.

These photographs capture the gathering of clothes; items found, used, loved and left. Sewed together meticulously by hand, each garment is given the same attention as a color of paint on a stretched piece canvas. They are elevated from random materials to guiding principle, carefully arranged to respond to each other, becoming anew by becoming-a-whole. We could call it a femmage – another of Schapiro’s terms. A collage-type-object made by a woman artist that it is essentially ‘personal and diaristic’. The clothes in the piece are passed down from friends, thrifted or found in the streets of London. They each allude to someone or something: a person, a life, a night out of dancing. The final drape is a gathering of stories. It waves delicately in front of something deep, active and alive, like a lucid memory or shallow dream. But the piece also goes beyond the diaristic, if only because waste today is more than personal matter. It is literally taking over, seems dangerous and invasive. Recycling is no longer a woman’s business, it is a major concern. The pinks, reds, greens and golds photographed in all their foreignness on the grey, blue, brown coast of Amalfi, do not only remind us of single stories, but of whole industries and their intrusive flow into nature. Overconsumption of clothes in fashion is more than a byproduct, it is a type of premise for an industry that unsustainably sustains itself on novelty. Which spits out seasons with compulsive regularity. As for these photographs, there is something monstrous inside all the beauty. Like oil spills or whole hills of trash, Waste Not Want Not demands your attention, it fixes the gaze and points to a problem. Still it never seems the problem lies with the waste itself. Inside the beast, there is something very gentle. A little red sock sticking out, two pink sleeves stretching over a rock, a neckline hanging softly. What could appear as one big threatening mass, also just looks like a group of people. It is hard not to feel for it. In today’s political environment, it is hard not to think of foreign bodies washed up on shorelines, lying in their glimmering fragility, unwanted and abandoned. Leftovers of wars, a confusing mess of harmed limbs and broken dreams. Like the plastic in the oceans and the clothes on the shore, these figures are also bi-products of our own policies which we now refuse to deal with. We might see in the stitched- together materials a type of flag, one that, as opposed to the ones of one-dimensional nations, is made up of multiple textures. It travels. The piece is destined to move to different coastlines and locations; these photographs are only the beginning of a process of unwanted materials repeatedly arriving and unsettling.

Fabrics – women – foreigners. Waste. Who decides what is wanted? Waste Not Want Not shows that there are multiple ways to rewrite, rethink and engage with things left over.

It insists that we do.

Waste Not Want Not