Asian Eco-Artists Transforming Waste Into Artwork

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Enormous anthropogenic changes to land, water and ecosystems in general are becoming more evident to people around the globe. Every decade, the impact of human overpopulation on the natural world becomes ever more apparent, so it’s not surprising that a plethora of artists concerned about our planet is now emerging from the world’s most populated continent – Asia.

Here,  eco-art, which includes not only artistic works that touch on environmental themes, but also those which incorporate eco-friendly or recycled materials, is a growing genre.

Here, we’ve discovered a selection of Asian eco-artists who are all making a statement in their own unique way about how trash is affecting the environment. They range from highly regarded artists whose works are shown in top galleries around the world to street artists, but they all have one thing in common: they’re transforming trash into treasure.

1. Ma Li – China

Ma Li is a Chinese born and San Francisco based artist who has gained attention for her “Treasure from Trash.” The work features a variety of elements that are assembled in an oneiric way, where form morphs into a new life. Plastic bottles transform into suspended fields of jellyfish-like sculptures, and coloured foam and clothes hangers resemble migrating flocks of birds. Chinese history intertwines with ecological issues to convey to viewers what Ma Li learnt from her parents growing up in China during the 80s (when the country was poorer and thriftier than it is today): the importance of recycling.

This is not the artist’s only ecological work: her Gathering Among Stars installation was inspired by a customer who gave her a box filled with beautiful faux birds and flowers. She was reminded of the Chinese phrase niao yu hua xiang,  which means: birds singing, flowers blooming, used to describe an auspicious spring day. With this gift, along with plastic water bottles, foam, window blinds, plastic tubes, and other materials, she created a magical version of an idyllic spring, which she hopes will serve as an agent of greater social and environmental connectivity.

2. JeeYoung Lee – Korea

Last September, South Korean artist  JeeYoung Lee  travelled from Seoul to Brooklyn to   artistically address the problem of maritime pollution by standing in a warehouse in Williamsburg, whilst surrounded by piles of New York City trash. JeeYoung composed her installation “Ocean of Creativity,” using the horrific debris dumped by man at sea, such as plastic bottles, wine corks, sheets of cardboard and recycled newspapers (specifically featuring editions with articles about Hurricane Sandy). The effect was bewildering, since something that would normally be considered a gruesome sight was reshaped into a merry seascape installation, complete with gulls and rolling waves.

Apart from making environmental statements, Lee also represents dream-like landscapes  that act as a kind of catharsis; a means to meditate about the causes of interior conflicts and exorcise them; once experienced, they in turn become portents of hope.

3. Pom – Thailand

Prasopsuk Lerdviriyapiti, a.k.a. Pom, is a passionate ecologist focused on spreading awareness about the contamination of our oceans through art. She transforms plastic rubbish retrieved from the beaches of her native Thailand into art pieces. The matter resonates strongly with her, since she lives on the (formerly pristine) island of Phuket and witnesses how thousands of tourists neglectfully litter the beach every single day.

Her “Blue Ocean” exhibition was organised by Greenpeace at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre last February and displayed an ingenious installation made of plastic waste. To create it, Captain Pom lead a crew of seventy volunteers to pick seaborne rubbish from several local beaches over a period of two months.


4. Kubo Tomonori – Japan

As a sommelier who works in a store specialised in French wines, Kubo Tomonori noted there was an enormous amount of cork going into the rubbish – so he decided to immortalise the waste into works of art. He began in 2014 by making portraits of notable French people, such as Marc Chagall, Napoleon and Coco Chanel, but eventually expanded to other illustrious characters in history who were attracted to the Douce France, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Maria Callas, Dalà­ and Grace Kelly. The work is painstaking, since with corks you can’t get the effect of colours as with paint, and you must simply choose lighter or darker nuances. But the result is visually interesting and soulfully eco-friendly.

5. Aida Sulova – Kyrgyzstan  

Kyrgyz street artist  Aida Sulova  addresses the problem of waste management from an unusual angle. Instead of utilising rubbish in her artwork, she goes to the heart of the matter: she beautifies the places where our garbage is stacked, i.e. the trash cans in our cities. Aida uses the litter bins of her native town Bishkek as a canvas to portray photographic images of open mouthed to ‘remind people that what they throw into the world, eventually ends up inside our own bodies in one way or another.’

Main image: Ma Li All images from artists unless otherwise stated

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
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