Sacred Trash: Thoughts on Art, Devotion, and Generosity

December 2014

Visiting one of Bali’s significant Hindu temples in 2013 during my extended research project in Indonesia, I accidentally followed a path leading into the back outskirts of the temple compound and came across a mountain of trash made up entirely of “exhausted” offerings, left to decompose next to the tree line. By that point I had become accustomed to seeing these colorful offerings being laid out in front of homes and businesses and at shrines along the road, and equally accustomed to seeing the brown, trampled remains of them swept off to the side of the road. The first time I stepped on one of these small offerings by accident I leapt back, horrified that I had trod on a sacred object. But after a while I observed that the old offerings were simply swept aside when the new ones were brought out, if a passerby hadn’t already kicked them to the side. Offerings were often wedged onto the grill of cars or the front of motorbikes and eventually blown away without concern. 

Recognizing the incredible expenditure of time and resources that goes into the constant making of these many-varied little baskets, “sewn” objects, flower and leaf compositions (not to mention the far more extravagant offerings for temple anniversaries, cremations, and other ritually significant events), I didn’t understand at first why they were treated so casually after their initial laying-out. My first impulse in considering their beauty and significance was to think of them as precious objects. In my arts education in the United States, especially within craft media such as fiber, hand-labor was often equated with value, preciousness, or authorship. To make something with one’s own hands – a knit sweater for a loved one, a warm quilt, a mug that still bears the mark of its maker’s fingers – all these things are imbued with some sort of valuable essence, a bodily connection, an intimacy perhaps. “How long did it take to make that?” is the initial question often greeting an obviously intricate and time-consuming object or installation - the assumption being that something invested with time and the hand is inherently valuable and worthy of awe. 

We like to romanticize the handmade. And admittedly, for example, to receive a gift made by the giver themself versus a store-bought item is indeed more personal and touching. But then we feel somehow bound to the object, because to discard it later would be a slight to the maker-giver’s good intentions, or, worse, it would be like tossing aside some essential aspect of the person themself, because, after all, they put so much work into it. 

Balinese ritual objects and the ways they are used (and then discarded, eaten, or burned, typically) have provided a very useful foil to some of my long-ingrained assumptions about value in art. They have shown me that a beautifully-made (or conceptually rich and possibly “unbeautiful”) object needn’t be glorified as an autonomous marker of its own value (via its status as art) but rather can, in its own transience point us to the beauty inherent in its moment of being given up as an offering to the world-beyond-the-studio.

Offerings of Devotion

To truly consider and understand Balinese cultural production one must understand some of the basic principles of their religion and ceremonial culture. Everything and everyone gets “ceremonied” at various important points in the Balinese ritual calendar and life cycle. Offerings of a mind-boggling variety and complexity are necessary for every single one of these moments, and they are almost always hand-made. In Hinduism, the soul or essence of a person is called their atman, and can be described as a formless, silent depth of being. Brahman is the unknown and unknowable soul of the world, the essence of God that pervades the universe. The crux of the religion understands that atman and brahman are one and the same, cut from the same universal cloth.1 I think the preciousness or high-value we (Americans) often attribute to finely crafted and/or conceptually rich artworks lies in our belief that the artist’s making process imbues it with their essence, something akin to atman, but sometimes understood more in terms of personality or individuality. In Bali, the maker’s identity is of little importance in cultural production, what matters most is the sincere devotion present when something is offered to God.

In his seminal work 4’33”, John Cage offered his audience the opportunity to contemplate their own “silent depths of being.” While many of them saw the piece as a cruel joke, I think of it as a gesture of openness, a gift of several minutes in which to become completely aware of oneself in space, and in relation to others. This work, I believe, was an offering of devotion in a very pure sense. And it is impossible to treat with preciousness because no object remains. The gesture of Cage’s silent offering, though transient and insubstantial, made room for its audience to recognize their connectivity (whether or not they actually did). What it “lacked” was the seduction of outward beauty, something often employed by artists wishing to create semblances of the sublime.

In Balinese ritual, however, offerings are always tangible objects, usually hand-made, and when being given to the higher aspects of God, they are necessarily beautiful. They are intended to please and delight, and in certain ceremonies to seduce the ancestors back to earth for a celebration. In one of the favorite passages from the Mahabaharata’s Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna what God requires in an offering:
"Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that offering of love, of the pure heart I accept (ix:26)"2
Thus, all offerings are made from ephemeral, natural materials with the understanding that decay is simply a part of the process. The moment of presentation and the devotion and intention behind it are what matter the most. So in the case of a large temple ceremony, a family might spend a week or more preparing piles of beautiful objects made from leaves and flowers stitched together, fruit, cakes, even cooked meat, all for a few moments of prayer and blessing - a fleeting gift. Once the essence of the offering has been received by its unknowable beneficiary, the offerings are dismantled and used by the family. When leaving just such a ceremony with my host family one time, as soon as we were all in the car the lids were flying off the baskets and fruit and cakes being distributed happily. One of the children proclaimed “the offerings are most delicious right after they’ve been blessed!”

It’s easy to think about Balinese offerings as art; they are made things, aesthetically and symbolically complex, and intended for presentation and consumption. But what is even more compelling to me is to consider art from the standpoint of offerings. Is not an exhibition, for example, an extended moment of offering up what one has made? I find it incredibly generative to think about exhibitions as gifts, as acts of generosity to their viewers. In spite of this idealism though, I find that I sometimes leave exhibitions of contemporary art (for lack of better terminology) feeling rather cold, like I haven’t been granted access to the meaning or intentions of the work shown, or, worse, that there isn’t really any meaning to be got from it in the first place. There is a certain antagonism pervasive in some contemporary art, a sense that the maker could care less whether the work is accessible to its viewers or not. I am not advocating for all art to be an “open book,” so-to-speak, but I do feel that it’s possible to read the essence of generosity or lack-there-of in artwork. How else to explain the nebulous feeling of disinterest or coldness exuded by such works? This is different than simply not understanding. I don’t expect to understand every work I see, but I wish to feel that the work (and therefore the artist) is willing to engage me in a dialogue. As a viewer I desire some form of connection, even if it comes in the form of challenge. Challenging one’s viewers is, after all, another form of devotion to them. 

Harkening back to that moment of post-ceremony feast in the car, I wonder, when is art most delicious? When is it most fulfilling and exciting or engaging? Is it, perhaps, when it is imbued with that indefinable sense of generosity? Something akin to an offering?

Art and Generosity

In May 2014 I participated in the 6th Open Engagement Conference about socially engaged art in Queens, NY.3 Not being yet particularly familiar with the many permutations, questions and ideals of this shape-shifting and still relatively new umbrella of making (encompassing everything from collaboration and community art initiatives to relational and participatory gallery works), I was struck by the overwhelming sense of urgency and earnestness present that weekend. I came away with the sense that at its core, socially engaged art is about the fundamental act of sharing, about exchange between people. And though there are plenty of interesting and usefully critical questions about how such exchange actually happens in the context of specific projects, and how this sort of work functions as art, I left feeling energized and hopeful. 

So, why is socially engaged art such a rapidly expanding new form of art practice? Claire Bishop points out that for many supporters “the creative energy of participatory practices rehumanizes – or at least de-alienates – a society [and art market, I would insert] rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalism.”4 Or, relatedly, in Suzi Gablik’s words perhaps it calls for “…a sustained meditation on how we might restore to our culture its sense of aliveness, possibility and magic.”5 In my observation much of what these multifarious practices boil down to is the desire to approach art practice from the standpoint of generosity. It is more about the ineffable exchange of feeling and shared experience between people than the creation of art objects (though I will point out that the discussion I led at Open Engagement examined how artists devoted to object-making also make relational work). 

Some of the earliest works to be dubbed “relational” (through Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, published in 19986) include Rirkrit Tiravanija’s food-based, in-gallery kitchen projects. In these works, the gallery visitors were invited to partake in a meal together, usually cooked and served by the artist. A number of Mella Jaarsma’s projects in Java have also included ritualized “meals” as conceptual fabric tying the installations and audience together.7 This continues to be a running theme in much socially engaged work. The Sunday Soup Gatherings begun in Chicago - now a national phenomenon – combine large communal dinners with a micro-grant funding program to support local community projects.8 Food, communal gathering, and a constructed gift economy are at the heart of these works. Like a Balinese offering, what matters most is the moment of giving and receiving the gift essence (in this case food and/or togetherness), what is left after the happening is simply detritus. 

I find socially engaged work to be an opportune and useful jump-off point in thinking through these ideas about value, devotion, generosity, and offering in art practice precisely because it is so much about the subtle balancing of relationships. But it is by no means the only type of art in which I see these things playing out. Object-based work, performance, video and so many other media are primed in their own ways to be generous, to be offerings. As I’ve touched on earlier, I think the crux of it all is the artists’ intentions and devotion to those they are “giving” the work to. This creates an indefinable, feeling-level system of balance in artistic production and “consumption.”

Relatedly, in many of Indonesia’s original animist traditions, and still woven into Balinese Hinduism, there is a philosophy which imagines the world as a three-part system. Humans and their experiences belong to the seen, or tangible, realm. Nature, also tangible, accounts for the realm of animals, earth and ocean – our inhabitable world. The unseen, intangible realm is where gods, nature spirits, ghosts, and ancestors reside. Humans’ role in all of this is to keep the balance between all three realms through offerings and good stewardship of their environments. I like to think about art, in its most ideal and utopian form, in this way – as something that feeds both our tangible and intangible communities.

On Trash

Returning again to that mountain of ritual trash at the Balinese temple – something I refer to, affectionately, as “sacred trash” – I’m compelled to think about what this detritus can reveal about the post-offering life of art. If the offering (in ritual or art) is the act of care or devotion, the thing that helps to keep relationships in balance, then what can be made of the “stuff” left behind? Bali’s sacred trash, being made primarily of edibles or compostables, is easily cycled back into the life stream of the island and its inhabitants. The gods have been fed and so have their devotees and the land. It seems like a perfect cycle.

But art…art is somehow more complicated than this, is it not? I think this is because the purpose, so-to-speak, of art is so very wily, so difficult to define and necessarily multi-faceted. Bali’s rituals serve very specific and functional purposes all related to keeping the balance. But it is the essence embedded in the material gifts that truly does the feeding. Taking this cue, I have come to think about the “stuff” of art (both material and conceptual) as sacred trash, as the things that transmit what truly feeds us. We need a vehicle with which to send our devotions and intentions of generosity into the world. Art, in all its forms, can be this vehicle. 

One of the artists whose work seems most poignantly exemplar of this, I think, is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, unpaid artist in residence for the New York Sanitation Department for over 30 years. Her current, monumental project deals directly with the actual trash created by New York’s million-plus residents. Fresh Kills, the world’s largest sanitary landfill, closed over a decade ago, forms a huge (and hugely toxic) portion of Staten Island’s landscape. Mierle envisions this as a great future public park.

Wondering how a place such as this can switch its meaning, she has invited local citizens, whom she calls “path finders” to walk with her on the landscape of Fresh Kills, asking them “show me your Fresh Kills – what is this place to you?” To stand on that ground is to stand on Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn…It is a place that was created by New York’s inhabitants and therefore belongs to them. Reasoning that since over a million people created it in the first place, Mierle is proposing that one million people contribute to this transformation of Fresh Kills.  She is calling for one million objects of personal significance – what she refers to as “public offerings” - to be created by and/or donated by citizens. Each offering must be able to fit into its possessing hand and then released voluntarily from private possession. A new relationship is formed between the donor-citizen and their city through this act of intentional giving.9 

If the project moves forward it will take decades to complete. All one million donated objects will be embedded in glass bricks with a corresponding barcode carved into them linking their stories into a vast web archive. These bricks will become the building blocks of one of the world’s largest public artworks and the layout of the public park Mierle hopes can be made of this island of trash. Describing her hopes and intentions for the project, she says:
Sitting on top of the abject material whose identity has all been stripped, now kissing the land, [these objects and their giver’s intentions] enter the public domain as a huge flow-force revealing a new kind of reverence – reverence for the individual’s intention, respect for material even though released from private ownership, and reverence for this new land on which it sits.10

I am unfailingly moved by this project, by the beauty of the idea, and the power of Mierle’s fierce devotion to her city and its people. And so, this essay is my own call for artists (myself included) to consider their work in terms of such deep generosity. If we artists approach our work as such acts of devotion to our participants and environments, then that essence of generosity will be what feeds us all, and the work itself can live on as sacred trash.



Notes:

1. Fred B. Eiseman, Jr. Bali: Sekala & Niskala. 18
2. Ibid, 216
3. for more information and archives about Open Engagement, see www.openengagement.info
4. Claire Bishop. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.”
5. Suzi Gablik. The Reenchantment of Art. Page unknown.
6. Nicolas Bourriaud. Relational Aesthetics.
7. see the artist’s website: www.mellajaarsma.com 
8. see www.incubate-chicago.org/sundaysoup, and www.detroitsoup.com/about for some examples
9. from a lecture by Mierle Laderman Ukeles for the presenters of Open Engagement, The Queens Museum, May 19, 2014.