Art is Garbage and Garbage is Art

Fri, 12/09/2014 - 06:07 -- eyeline

When faced with contemporary art, many art sceptics and non-art audiences turn to generalisations that often lead to dismissive comments such as ‘art is garbage’. Others, with perhaps more open and creative minds, would say that garbage itself can be art. Alison McDonald, an environmental artist from Townsville, belongs to the latter. McDonald sees the wealth of potential hidden all around us; in bottle caps, plastic rings, nuts and bolts—even in those tiny, disposable espresso capsules you find littering staffrooms nationwide. Unfortunately for us, her materials of choice are not hard to find. After all, these days our local parks look more like our local dumps. But it was not always like this. There was indeed a time when families took more care with their rubbish, as was the case with McDonald’s. 

Since McDonald and her family lived outside the curb-side garbage collection system, they had to deal with their own waste. As a result, she was raised an avid recycler. Now, ‘…not a single piece of paper’ leaves her house (Alison McDonald, interview, 7 October 2013). Not because she is overly paranoid about personal information, but rather because she takes her recycling seriously—‘I live and breathe recycling’, (Alison McDonald, interview, 7 October 2013). Combine this with her early interest in artists Andy Goldsworthy and Chris Drury and what is left is a unique blend of assemblage and environmental themes imbued within all of her works. 

McDonald’s first work with plastic was A Retribution of Rubbish, featured in the 2005 ‘Strand Ephemera’ exhibition in Townsville, Queensland. The sculpture consists of three jellyfish-like constructions made out of plastic bottles, nylon fishing line, wire, and electrical ties. The bottles are tied in a circular formation around three hoops representing the bell of the jellyfish. From the centre of the jellyfish hang four ‘threads’ of bottles, reminiscent of a jellyfish’s poisonous tentacles. Like the real things, the sculptures have a slightly milky, translucent quality to them—a feature rendered by the thick plastic of the bottles. To add to the life-like illusion of the sculptures, the bottle-tentacles sway freely through the strong breeze which is native to the exhibition space, giving the illusion of the sculptures being alive. It is this quality that establishes the eerily beautiful aura of McDonald’s works, strung up as they are against the ocean-blue sky. This beauty, however, does not translate into a shallow concept. Throughout all her work, McDonald carefully weaves a strong sense of environmental conscience, attempting to influence and educate her viewers. The artist hopes that by using recycled materials she can encourage other people to at least consider the affect rubbish has on the environment. A Retribution of Rubbish in particular refers to the sea of plastic infecting our oceans globally.

Because of its durability, low cost, and our increased use in recent decades, plastic makes up the majority of marine debris seen on shorelines and floating in oceans worldwide.
                  (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d.)

Such plastic debris collects in areas known globally as ‘garbage patches’. These areas cause severe harm to marine life, which in turn causes harm to human populations. The jellyfish in McDonald’s work, or more specifically, the jellyfish’s stingers, refer to such consequences of pollution. Of similar environmental focus are McDonald’s other plastic works.

McDonald’s later work Just a Drop was designed for the 2007 iteration of the ‘Strand Ephemera’ exhibition. Just a Drop is a magnificent construction of plastic water bottles, all of which have been carefully formed into a water drop shape. Exhibited in the same way as A Retribution of Rubbish, the huge drop glistens transparently against the blue sky. If Retribution was punishment, then Just a Drop is a warning. It is a rebuke for society’s flawed perceptions, and acts as a prompt for deeper investigation. For example, in present society, disposable plastic water bottles are valued as a convenient method of hydration. In reality, such items are the exact opposite. Take into consideration the fact that these water bottles have to be designed, sourced, made, filled, shipped (often hundreds of kilometres and at the cost of large amounts of petrol) and refrigerated in order to be sold in local stores near you. How is this more convenient than tap water? McDonald’s issues with bottled water extend further: ‘It’s [bottle water] a criminal thing… More expensive than petrol.’ According to the Cool Australia organisation, the average cost of a litre of tap water in Australia is $0.001 whereas a litre of bottled water is $2.83 (Cool Australia 2013). Compare this to the average price of petrol in Australia which is approximately $1.45 (Australian Automobile Association 2013)1 and the difference is shocking. Bottled water is almost twice the price of petrol and is 2,830 times the price of tap water. In retrospect, it must be truly foolish of people to waste money on such a needless and wasteful product, considering the bottle itself most often ends up as waste in the ocean. McDonald highlights this wastage with her work in order to draw attention to the absurdity of it all. Perhaps by making people question the wastefulness of plastic bottles she can convince them to make more environmentally-conscious decisions. 

In an age of waste and discarded refuse, we are often blind to the beauty of trash. We do not see the anthology of stories contained within our bins, nor the colourful rainbows of hidden potential within our local dumps. To some, an aluminium can is just an aluminium can, and a bottle cap is just a bottle cap, but to others such commonplace items are the key to social change. McDonald takes the litter out of our parks and turns it into inspiring artworks designed to both educate and raise awareness. She shows us what we do not want to see in a way we want to see it, and she does so with eerie beauty. Her works transform garbage into art—the type of art no self-respecting critic would call garbage.

A Retribution of Rubbish, 2005. Strand Ephemera (1/3). PET plastic bottles, nylon fishing line, wire, and electrical ties, 500 x 140cm. 

 Just a Drop, 2007. PET Bottles and cable ties, 200 x 110cm.  Images courtesy the artist.


In an age of waste and discarded refuse, we are often blind to the beauty of trash. We do not see the anthology of stories contained within our bins, nor the colourful rainbows of hidden potential within our local dumps.



1. The average price of petrol was derived from statistics ranging from September 2012 to June 2013.

Australian Automobile Association, ‘Average monthly capital city unleaded petrol prices (cpl)’, 2013, PDF. Retrieved 19 October 2013, from
Cool Australia, ‘Bottled Water’, 2013. Retrieved 17 October 2013, from <>
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, ‘Ocean Trash Plaguing Our Sea’, n.d. Retrieved 20 October 2013, from <>