Garbage, Things and Art

Apr 18, 2021

Put a matchbox on a pedestal in a museum and people will look at it as art. Throw the same matchbox away on the street, and it is rubbish. The museum context makes all the difference in how we look at things. We look from the fire extinguisher in the corner of the room to the matchbox on the pedestal and start looking for meaning in the latter. After all, there should be a reason why the artist made this work. An artwork is an intentional object and the purpose is not always clear. The presence of the fire extinguisher on the other hand is obvious; it is a utensil and an obligatory requisite in a museum.

 Now let’s suppose this matchbox is really part of an artwork: together with this fire extinguisher it forms an installation.

It is a work by Alessandro Ignoto, and the title is ‘FireLight’. The artist made this seminal piece in the early 1960’s for a specific room in a particular museum, at a moment in his career when he started questioning the role of the museum in the perception of art.

Now the artist also left precise instructions on how his work should be installed. It should be the only work in the small museum room. The matchbox should be put on the floor ten centimeters from the corner – so not on a pedestal – and the fire extinguisher should be hung on the opposite wall in the same way as all the others in the museum. The title card should be on normal museum height and in the same layout (like the title cards in the rest of the museum) on the wall in between.

Here it is:

Alessandro Ignoto (1936 – 2019), ‘FireLight’,1964, mixed media installation

The visitor enters the room and sees the title card in front of him, the matchbox in the left corner and the fire extinguisher on the right wall. Now there can be no mistake anymore: this was meant to be a work of art.

Let’s leave it to the visitor to decide whether this really is an artwork. In our thought experiment, the components may also be useful objects or garbage after all.


“The whole world, everything which surrounds me here, appears a boundless dump with no ends or borders to me, an inexhaustible, vast area of garbage. In this refuse of an enormous city, one can feel the powerful breathing of its entire past. This whole dump is full of flashes, twinkling stars, reflections and fragments of culture: either some book, or a sea of magazines with photographs and texts, or things that were used by others…”

With these words Ilya Kabakov reflects on an important theme in his work: garbage. This description of his desolate environment creates a second cosmos consisting of piles of junk and rubbish. Why this fascination with a universe of waste? he asks himself.

“But still, why does the dump and its image attract my imagination over and over again, why do I always return to it? Because I feel that a person living in this region is simply suffocating in his own life among the garbage, since there is nowhere to take it, nowhere to sweep it out – we have lost the border between garbage and non-garbage space.”

If there was ever an artist who created art out of garbage it was Ilya Kabakov.

Exhibition Lissitzky – Kabakov, Utopia and Reality, Van Abbemuseum 2012

room 2: Clarity of Forms versus Garbage, photo Peter Cox

Keep me posted

Sign up below for a notification of new blogposts


You have Successfully Subscribed!