A few years ago, an artist from Melbourne, Australia found herself on the windowsill of my Bandra apartment giving me rubbish updates. We'd met a few months before on couchsurfing.org though I had no couch to offer per se, and in that time she'd made herself busy collecting garbage (I caught a glimpse of her once), segregating it and reinstalling it into rainbow-coloured sculptures all over the city. I caught up with Georgie Mattingley again this month.
Georgie, why did you decide to work with trash?
It started off as a simple idea that came to me in an instant, when I was taking the train from Kolkata to Delhi. Looking out the window, I was mesmerised by the huge mounds of trash that gathered up in every big city and small town we passed. I found them beautiful and captivating and disturbing and tragic all at the same time.
Did you know you wanted to colour code it from the very beginning?
Yes, right from the beginning, this was the most important detail in the idea, transforming the appearance of trash, so it appeared beautiful.
Was your work meant to be site-specific?
Yes. Well, initially I just came up with the idea. I had a small drawing of colour-coded piles of rubbish in my sketchbook, and then I went looking for the right space to put it in. I was living in Bandra and had a studio near Sandhurst Road [Space 118} at the time, so I was planning all of my trash installations to take place around these areas. I ended up making four site-specific installations at Bandra Station, Bandstand, Juhu Beach and Sandhurst Road.
Tell me a little bit about what your project entailed.
It was pretty much just a lot of collecting rubbish! I collected all of the trash from Bandra Railway Station, Khar Road Railway Station and Dharavi. The railways were the juiciest spots to get rubbish from. There’s always massive piles building up alongside the train tracks.
I collected rubbish over three months, but could only really dedicate three days a week to it, because it’s such hard work. I truly respect anyone who does this for a living.
I’d try and start early in the morning. I’d take two big garbage bags and head to the railway station. I’d literally just walk to the end of the platform and jump off the edge and keep walking along the tracks, picking up rubbish, shoes, old saris, anything I could find along the way. Sometimes I met people along the way who helped me, sometimes I didn’t and I just ventured alone. I have very fond memories of my time spent collecting rubbish in Mumbai.
I brought all the rubbish home with me, sorted it by colour and stored it on the rooftop of my building. Once I had enough for the installation I hired a tempo to transport the rubbish back to a public location.
What were the reactions you observed both while collecting trash and reinstalling it in the streets?
I think people’s reactions to seeing me collecting rubbish were far more interesting than final product.
Many people were shocked and surprised, but mostly impressed. The locals were so welcoming and genuinely excited to see me getting in there and getting my hands dirty. They would often approach me and bombard me with a million questions, like “What are you doing?”, “Why?”, “Is that art?”, “Who sent you?”, “Are you being paid by someone?” I explained to everyone my intentions to sort the rubbish into colours and put them back on the street. Some people laughed at me like I was crazy. But most were fascinated and excited.
There was one day in particular that something very interesting happened. I was collecting rubbish in my regular spot on the tracks near Bandra station with a group of more seasoned rubbish collectors from the local slum. They were showing me the hot spots, like where the more valuable items of rubbish could be found, and which areas to avoid, like where people went to the toilet.
One of the railway officers in uniform approached us on the tracks and told me that the place was dangerous and I was not allowed to be there. I respectfully accepted to walk with the officer back to the station platform, as they explained the danger of being hit by a train. It was nice they were looking out for me, but they just left the locals standing there in this so-called dangerous spot. The officers obviously have a duty of care towards me, as a western foreigner, that doesn’t apply to local slum-dwellers. Their safety was not acknowledged.
That’s when I realised that this project was more about social class than it was about rubbish, colour or beauty. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in an ideal world the officer would have either left all of us there together as equals, or removed us all to safety as equals. But hey, my naivety often makes people cringe.
This divide in social class was made even clearer to me when I brought the rubbish back to the streets. In lower socio-economic areas the rubbish was literally devoured by the locals. They climbed over the piled of rubbish, collecting it all up to sell it off. If I put the same piles of rubbish in a richer area, people approached it and observed it with curiosity, much like people do with any public artwork.
Your art deals with a lot of ugly or taboo subjects. How would you describe your art? What are you most interested in?
Yes, I love taboos. I often like to focus on the hidden or ugly truth. I have done this in many ways through different projects, looking at rubbish, shit, animal exploitation and death. I believe that society trains us to push all these things aside, or to go on ignoring they exist. But life doesn’t exist without them. Whether we like it or not, we have to face these issues and come to terms with it in some manner. For me, this is the whole reason I am making art. By facing some of these issues for myself, by transforming them and making them appear beautiful, I am trying to come to terms with it and understand it in my own way.
See more of the project and find more of Georgie's work here.