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Sustainability lessons from objet trouvé art

“Objet trouvé” (literally: found object) is an intriguing phenomenon in the world of environmental art. But what is it exactly, where did it come from, and how does it apply to our own lifestyles and worldview?

"Eco-Visionaries" at the Royal Academy of Arts

The term describes art created from but objects which are not normally considered art materials. Marcel Duchamp is known for using the concept in his “ready-mades”, unaltered everyday objects designated as artworks. The most famous example is Fountain (1917), a urinal on its side displayed on a pedestal. The term “ready-mades” only refers to work by Duchamp, who borrowed the term from the fashion industry (“prêt-a-porter”: ready to wear) while living in New York.

Found objects become art because of their designation, as well as their social history (which can be indicated by either wear and tear, or a well-known brand). Although it’s accepted as a viable practice, objet trouvé continues to arouse questioning; the Tate’s Turner Prize exhibition of Tracey Emin's My Bed consisted of a transposition of the artist’s unmade bed, surrounded by debris, directly from her bedroom to the Tate. Emin gave the audience time and a platform to contemplate the object, garnering worldwide attention and strong reactions from the public.

My Bed (1998), Tracey Emin

The RA’s “Eco-Visionaries” exhibition applies this concept to environmentalism, exploring how architects, artists, and designers are responding to the climate and waste crises.

From species extinction to resource depletion, the damaging effects of our lifestyles are evident. The exhibition examines humans’ environmental impact and presents innovative approaches to reframe our relationship with nature. The works interrogate urgent efforts within architecture, art and design to react to a changing world beyond mainstream notions of sustainability; this includes objet trouvé art. The museography was created using materials from previous exhibitions, including the panels, explanatory brochures, and advertising materials. The exhibition brings together artists like Olafur Eliasson, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Andrés Jaque, and more- their provocative responses are a wake-up call, urging us to acknowledge our ecological impact.

Objet trouvé is also used in fashion, giving a new ironic meaning to the term “prêt-a-porter”. Trashion is a subgenre of objet trouvé; the term is used in creative circles to describe any wearable item constructed using recycled materials, including thrifted and reconditioned pieces.

Rescued, Marina DeBris

The birth of the term Trashion in 2004 was obviously not the beginning of this practice. Indigenous people have used salvaged materials to create new objects for generations, including in art, architecture, and fashion. Trashion, however, refers to "making something from nothing" for aesthetic purposes, not practical ones. This distinction is key, reminding us that our sustainability must be intersectional. We should appreciate and not appropriate these historical practices, always taking this principle into account when considering objet trouvé in fashion.

Objet trouvé questions the abundance of waste we create, as well as highlighting the alarming speed of the trend cycle. Trashion provides important commentary on this phenomenon, forcing us to confront unsustainable practices in art and fashion and encouraging conscious consumption. As well as eliciting strong reactions and reflections in audiences, objet trouvé encourages a more cautious way to consume and fosters a healthier planet.

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