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Art and Sunstainability | A glimpse at Erasmus+ "Gen Green" programme.

Could Muniz, Anatsui, Baker-Brown and Bezeau have been met on an Erasmus programme?

Waste has become a ubiquitous by-product of human existence, posing significant environmental challenges. Art, which over time appears as a reflection of society, capturing values, challenges and innovations, often makes use of waste and garbage in an attempt to fuse creativity, sustainability and social commentary. Increasingly, artists are harnessing the potential of discarded materials to create visually stunning artworks that provoke thought and inspire action, turning waste into something meaningful. From plastic bottles to discarded metal scraps, they, themselves, find inspiration in the denial of modern life.

A visit to the UAB Energesman waste centre in Vilnius during an educational programme offered us a glimpse into the source of inspiration for so many artists, the fascinating intersection of unconventional materials and art. But let us take it from the beginning.

At the end of January, we travelled some 2,800 kilometres to Lithuania, where the Erasmus+ "Gen Green" training programme took place. In collaboration with participants from Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, we started a multi-faceted week-long discussion on environmental issues with workshops, debates and a crucial, for the creation of this article, visit to the UAB Energesman waste centre.

It is a place where piles of discarded objects await their fate. In our eyes, amidst the chaos of denial and piles, a sense of order emerged - a testament to the transformative power of creativity. There, the waste was not just trash, but a colourful treasure trove of raw materials waiting to be sorted and redesigned. The life of these materials is not over. When the waste arrives, it is processed, including the sorting of secondary raw materials that can be reused in production processes (metal, glass, various plastics, cardboard) and the waste that is non-recyclable and non-reusable but has energy value is transported and used for energy recovery. By utilising the methane produced from the decomposition of organic matter, the plant generates electricity to power homes and businesses in the surrounding area. It is a prime example of how waste can be turned from a problem into a solution. On the other hand, in an attempt to make use of the huge volume of household waste, a new technique for converting it into building material has emerged, giving new architectural perspectives.

The variety of colours, shapes and textures immediately brought to mind works that we have seen exhibited from time to time, made exclusively from "waste" items. The way in which we were told about the value of each material during the tour seemed almost affectionate and we listened intently to every word as we had the opportunity before our eyes to understand the source of inspiration of so many great artists.

These discarded materials offer a unique opportunity for expression. Artists like Vik Muniz, who creates intricate portraits using materials found in landfills, demonstrate the beauty that can emerge from the most unlikely sources. By transforming discarded objects into works of art, creatives like Muniz challenge notions of value and encourage viewers to reconsider their relationship with waste. 

Vik Muniz - Waste Land#39

Then, originally from Ghana and based in Nigeria, Anatsui is renowned for his monumental installations made from discarded materials such as bottle caps, aluminium cans and copper wire. His artworks, which often resemble glittering wallpaper or metal curtains, are meticulously assembled by floating together thousands of found objects. The transformative nature of his work is evident in pieces like "Gravity and Grace," where he transforms ordinary materials into majestic, visually striking sculptures that reflect both the beauty of African craftsmanship and the environmental impact of consumer culture. Through his art, Anatsui not only addresses issues of waste management, but also explores themes of globalization, identity and cultural exchange.

El Anatsui - Gravity and Grace

On the other hand, in architecture, the use of similar recyclable materials has triggered a revolution in "green" design. From eco-friendly homes constructed from shipping containers to office buildings adorned with facades made of recycled glass, architects are accepting the challenge of creating structures that minimize environmental impact. A notable example is the Waste House, in Brighton, England. Designed by architect Duncan Baker-Brown, this innovative project is made almost entirely from waste materials, including discarded bricks, timber and old vinyl records. The Waste House serves as a pioneering example of how sustainable architecture can be achieved through the creative reuse of waste, demonstrating the potential for a circular economy where nothing is wasted.

Duncan Baker-Brown - Waste House

Similarly, the Plastic Bottle Village in Panama shows the potential of waste in architecture. This ambitious project, led by entrepreneur Robert Bezeau, aims to build an entire village using millions of recycled plastic bottles. From homes and community centers to furniture and artwork, every aspect of the village is made from discarded plastic bottles, offering a sustainable solution to both housing shortages and plastic pollution.

Robert Bezeau - Plasticbottle Village

Although the programme itself did not have the connection between art and ecology as an end in itself, it was impossible to ignore the transformative power of art and its unique relationship with matter. By turning waste into something meaningful, innovative artists are not only redefining the boundaries of expression, but also advocating for a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future. Accordingly, projects such as this one aim to engage in a deep cross-cultural dialogue to promote collaboration and empower participants to become, in their own way, agents of change.

Article was written by: Mary Zacharaki & Katianna Garavella

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