Eve Armstrong’s strangely alluring stacks have critics sitting up and taking notice.
No matter where you live there’s something compelling about inorganic rubbish collections – the fridge racks and broken deckchairs; the ripped couches and wire clothes racks piling up on the grass verge. Almost as fascinating as these objects are the people you see picking over the detritus, hoping to find treasure. Among them is likely to be 28-year-old Auckland artist Eve Armstrong who was recently awarded a $25,000 New Generation Award by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.
In 2003 while she was a student at Elam, Armstrong began photographing stacks of roadside rubbish, which appealed to her as spontaneous temporary public sculptures often evoking the formal beauty of minimalist sculpture. Thus Armstrong called these arrangements “accidental formalism” and took the project a step further in October 2003 with her photographic work, Arrangement, exhibited in Picture, a student show at George Fraser Gallery. For this she recreated a rubbish stack, complete with pink rubbish bags and brown cardboard boxes, and then photographed it, making a formal studio portrait. In the catalogue for Picture the exhibition’s curator Anna Miles wrote, “Eve Armstrong’s rendering of a particular category of rubbish alludes to sublime representations of landscapes like the Pink and White Terraces”.
Removed from their original contexts, the rubbish stacks had a surprising sensuality and the power to evoke far-reaching associations with landscape and modernist sculptural traditions. In this early work Armstrong’s love of materiality as well as her conceptual rigour shone through, announcing an exciting new talent.
“I started to take photos of rubbish piles and they were so satisfying on many levels – formally in terms of the structure of the cardboard and the bulging rubbish bags. I saw them as public sculpture that people had made on the street but they were really temporary – only lasting a short time till they were picked up. They really represented what was going on in that space. The more time I spent with rubbish the more layered the associations became; it appealed on an aesthetic as well as an ideological level,” says Armstrong.
Her first major solo exhibition, Roam, held at Artspace in 2005, developed these ideas further and added to the gallery-based work was a participatory project, The Trading Table. Armstrong’s Artspace installation appeared to be a haphazard collection of rubbish but on closer examination there was nothing casual about the stacked boxes with the names of high-end plasma televisions emblazoned across them and the pink plastic rubbish bags attesting to conspicuous consumption. By choosing to work with rubbish and recycled materials that already exist in the world and come readily to hand Armstrong is exploring systems of exchange and notions of value. If Roam, the installation, can be interpreted as a critique of consumerism then the second component of the work, The Trading Table, which ran during the show on Karangahape Road, proposed an alternative method of exchange. It allowed for social and political interaction between strangers through the trade of objects, skills, ideas and information rather than money.
She first developed the trading table works in 2003 while at Elam and the latest incarnation will be featured as part of turbulence: 3rd Auckland Triennial 2007. Acting as a facilitator she sets up a table in various locations, offering donated objects for trade to passers-by.
“Many people had nothing to trade for the objects so it became about me engaging with them. I’d start chatting and soon find out that almost everyone had something to offer or trade. At the St. Kevin’s Arcade table there was a woman who traded a numerology chart; someone else traded a scalp massage; a girl working in the café wrote a poem. I was a pretty generous trader because I was interested in maintaining momentum. They (the trading tables) are often quite playful because they are less object based… I really like the way you’re engaging with consumerism but you’re turning it on its head and you’re allowing and exploring different modes of exchange, so that seems quite political in a way.”
Despite the political edge to her work, Armstrong’s approach is also celebratory and playful, revealing her childlike enjoyment of getting her hands dirty, messing with stuff and talking to strangers – whether it’s making grungy collages on metal fridge racks, or running her participatory projects like SLIPs (Small Local Improvements Projects) a work made during her six-week residency at Wellington’s Enjoy Gallery in January 2006. For this she asked members of the public to submit ideas for projects that would improve life in their locality and then helped them bring some of these ideas to fruition. A notable project was the revitalisation of Arlington Community Garden, a garden that was established next to a huge inner-city housing estate. Like the trading tables, SLIPs had a strongly utopian element – a mix of artwork, public service and social experiment.
Armstrong, who has also worked as a journalist (she was co-editor of the art magazine Crease) and studied textiles for two years at NMIT in Nelson, says she is not an artist with “fantastical visions”. Rather her practice involves bringing people, structures, ideas and information together and she enjoys the small moments of intimacy with strangers she experiences while facilitating her projects.
“I’ve always worked with things that are already in the world. It makes sense to use what’s there.”
Conceptually her two strands of art practice, the gallery-based installations and the participatory projects, come together under the term ‘adaptable support structures’, which she uses to describe her practice.
In the case of the rubbish stacks these support structures are physical stacks and in her projects they’re social and organisational.
“Stacking is what I do all the time; my room is full of piles and most people’s lives are full of piles of stuff they never get to.”
For instance, at South Korea’s Busan Biennale last year, Armstrong made a work that was a stacked arrangement of objects found locally and relating to the idea of people living in apartments, “literally stacked one on top of the other”.
Another highlight for Armstrong last year was making the giant collage billboard, Backdrop, commissioned for Christchurch’s SCAPE Art & Industry Biennial, 2006. For this she photographed marginal industrial areas and condemned buildings in Christchurch and printed the photographic images onto vinyl. This was wrapped around a corner of the back wall of the Christchurch Art Gallery. Backdrop’s patchy surfaces and exposed raw timber structure appeared oddly subversive in contrast to the sleek architectural flanks of the gallery.
With the New Generation Award under her belt and ideas for new works brewing in her head, Armstrong is clearly a young artist to watch. If her past work is anything to go by she’s sure to keep making thoughtful, subversive work that challenges our expectations of contemporary art. Who knows? – she may even be able to move out of the garage where she works and find a studio to store her meticulously ordered and stacked rubbish and recycled materials.