Vassar Stories

Turning Trash into Testimony

Alejandro Durán might be the first and only artist to show up on the Vassar campus hauling a carload of garbage. And within a few hours, Durán and about a dozen students enrolled in Vassar’s Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) summer program had transformed some of it into works of art.

Alejandro Durán, installation artist, leading a workshop with students in the Creative Arts Across Disciplines summer program

Durán, a native of Mexico currently living in Brooklyn, discovered mountains of trash – most of it plastic -- on a remote beach on the Yucatan peninsula in 2010. He says he was struck immediately by the silent statement these piles of debris were making about modern culture’s unhealthy intrusion on nature. Over the past six years, Durán has been fashioning this rubbish into colorful installations, both on the beach and elsewhere, photographing them, and posting the images on his website

Since he began collecting the trash on this remote beach, Durán has traced its origins to 58 countries on six continents. “My installations mirror the reality of our current environmental predicament, where even undeveloped land is not safe from the far-reaching impact of our culture’s disposable products,” he says. 

In early July, Durán delivered a lecture on campus about his project, which he has dubbed Washed Up, and he agreed to return to create some art with some of his garbage. He came back to Vassar two weeks later, and after some preliminary discussions and some location scouting, Durán and the students went to work near Noyes Circle.

Omri Bareket ’19 fashioned a toy tennis racquet, some plastic boxes, bottles, a soccer ball and a baseball bat into an abstract depiction of a drunken bum sitting on a bench. “This guy is someone I hope I never become,” Bareket, a drama and math double major from Brooklyn, NY, told Durán and his fellow CAAD students. The bottles he scattered at the bum’s feet symbolized not only the abuse of alcohol but also “needless and wasteful consumption in general,” Baraket says.

Elisebeth Boyce-Jacino ‘18 “planted” about 20 red plastic bottles among a patch of ferns and grass. She noted that placing the bright red bottles among the lush green vegetation created an image that was both attractive and jarring. “I wanted to show that something that may be aesthetically pleasing might also be harmful,” Boyce-Jacino, a cognitive science major from Princeton, NJ, explains.

Andrea Orejarens ’17, a cognitive science major from Colombia, crumbled some of the plastic rubbish into tiny pieces and arranged them on the edge of an asphalt sidewalk at the edge of Noyes Circle. Orejarena noted the size of the bits of plastic she was scattering on the ground would make her work difficult to remove at the end of the day. “Garbage is hard to pick up – it’s hard to get rid of,” she says.

Durán says he was impressed with the creativity and skill the CAAD students had displayed as they transformed his bags of plastic trash into artistic and political statements.  “I’m amazed by what they were able to create here in just one afternoon,” he says. “I’ve been working on this project for nearly six years, and they took some of the same material and went off in many directions I had never thought of.”

CAAD coordinator Tom Pacio said he and the students were thrilled to have Durán and his garbage spend some time on campus. “I first met Alejandro when he visited a class last spring, and I was immediately struck by how interdisciplinary his work is,” Pacio says. “It was a great opportunity for us to have Alejandro here, not only to give a lecture but to do some hands-on work with our students.”

—Larry Hertz

Photos: Buck Lewis and Larry Hertz

Posted Monday, August 8, 2016