10 May 2010

Living through clothes

I just came across this article in the New York Times' Arts section. It's about an art installation currently being erected in New York City's Park Avenue Armory. The artist, Christian Boltanksi, has assembled the piece from a giant crane, 30 tons of used clothes, 3,000 cookie tins, and a recording of human heartbeats. The clothes are arranged in a giant pile: at intervals, the crane plucks a clump from the pile and scatters it. The cookie tins form a giant wall, sheltering and concealing the installation. The heartbeats are a constant soundtrack - visitors can even record their own beats to add to the track.

The article examines the work in terms of its context of mortality and loss. Using piles of discarded clothing as a signifier of the dead is not a new concept - perhaps the most striking example is the pile of shoes collected from victims at Auschwitz. As a frequent shopper at thrift stores, garage sales, and even estate sales, I know that clothes can be one of the most visceral, intimate reminders of the departed. Perhaps only scent carries more freight, emotionally.

However, I wonder if there's another interpretation that can be put on this work - one not of mortality and loss but of consumption and consumerism.

Thirty tons of used clothes. Let's say that again. Let's do a little experiment.

I put together a moderately representative outfit: jeans, socks, a blazer, a hoodie, a tee, and a tank. I deliberately chose a mix of heavier and lighter items. I didn't include shoes because the article specifially mentioned clothes only, and didn't bother with underwear in the theory that even the most massive bra weighs only a few ounces.

The pile of six items weighed about seven pounds. I'm willing to round that up to 10 pounds, for argument's sake and to make the math easier. So if we figure every 10 pounds is approximately six items of clothing, one ton (2,000 pounds) is 1,200 items; 30 tons is 36,000 items. Thirty-six thousand pieces of clothing (give or take a few hundred, I'm sure) that people bought, wore, and then eliminated from their closets.

For contrast, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has over 35,000 pieces in their costume collection, while the Victoria and Albert Museum has "14,000 outfits plus accessories."

Some of those items may come from the deceased, but I'm willing to bet (although there's no way to confirm this, really) that most came from living people who just decided they didn't want those pieces of clothing any more.

Now, these clothes came from a textile recycling plant, which maybe - hopefully - means that they were in such poor condition that they couldn't be resold. It also means that they were slated for re-use, rather than disposal, before they got pegged to become part of a major art installation.

Looking at it, I must admit I think more about our society's patterns of use and waste, of the cycle of accumulating and then discarding material possessions, than I do about the fragile nature of life. The random scattering of the clothing pile, in particular, makes me think of the often arbitrary nature of fashion trends. It reminds me of the way my own floor looks after the frantic search for an outfit that works on one of those days where nothing seems to fit or work together right - piles of discarded clothes that I disconsolately pick up, fidget with for a while, then discard into a different pile. I'm also reminded that being fashionable and amassing a wardrobe can easily turn from an enjoyable pursuit into an obsession, and, like any obsession, leave you hollow and devoid of meaning, an empty building full of a pile of discarded clothes.

In some ways, that makes it even more melancholy than its original intent.

I also kind of wonder who ate all the cookies that came in those tins.

Regular outfit posts will resume (hopefully) later today.

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