By Stanley Wlodyka
Perhaps start by acknowledging that abundance is present in the most unexpected ways. Unexpected because it’s disguised as something else, something unwanted and sometimes discarded. But even that is by design: it sits there watching the multitudes pass by, waiting for the one who recognizes its hidden value.
55 Bethune Street was at one time the headquarters of Bell Laboratories, the birthplace of extraordinary scientific achievements and the site of Nobel Prize winning research. Once the powers that be decided to relocate the HQ to Jersey, 55 Bethune was left sitting pretty waiting for the wrecking ball, until someone realized it could have a new life. In 1970, exactly 50 years ago this year, it was converted into what is now the largest artist housing in the world with over 380 subsidized apartments, providing a home to everyone from noted photographer Diane Arbus to action movie star Vin Diesel.
Ann Hamilton joined the Westbeth ranks about 15 years ago, after having been on the waitlist for an apartment for another 15 years previous. She carries on the legacy of reinvention beautifully, as evidenced by That’s Rubbish, an exhibit of her work lining the hall leading to the lobby of Westbeth, currently on display until January 11th.
The exhibit features articles of clothing made from discarded materials creatively repurposed for a new use. Hamilton uses the sensibilities she’s developed throughout an illustrious career in fashion to create these fanciful garments. Where does she get her inspiration? She actively looks for it.
“I actually walk wherever I have to go if it’s within 30 minutes. I look at everything. I see things, whether it’s what people are wearing or what stands out on the street and I’m always amazed by what I see,” divulges Hamilton in a recent interview.
During a walk she took after a rainstorm a few years back, she saw umbrellas littering the street. You’ve seen them too. The remains of the day, the dregs of war that stem from those opportunists who wake up eager on the days that every other person in the city dreads—when it’s gonna pour droplets so large that even hard-nosed NYC cats and dogs whimper. These opportunists head to the busiest subway entrances to hock their wares: “Umbrella’s—fiiiive dollars!”
If bought in bulk, it’s possible to get umbrellas wholesale for as low as $0.50 a piece from China, which not only invented the modern collapsible umbrella two thousand years ago, but manufactures the majority of the world’s supply to this day. One city in particular, Shangyu, has more than one thousand umbrella factories, feeding America’s $348 million umbrella addiction each year. It seems that subway entrance umbrellas are made to last for exactly one deluge, after which the metallic spindles get all spindly, sticking out in odd directions. After being used and abused, they’re tossed aside, unwanted on the street.
Manhattan is arguably mankind’s best attempt at conquering nature, with steel and cement towering thousands of feet above the ground, a monument to man’s indomitable will to rise above the muck of mortality. For some, these modern day towers of Babel declare a promethean urge to establish an artificial immortality. But this attitude is proving to be wrong-headed: the oceans are full of plastic, the air of pollutants, and the climate of a vengeful rage intent on forcefully bringing about a return to homeostasis.
Ann Hamilton’s exhibit presents a different way of being in the world by challenging traditional notions of utility. Shower curtains, newspapers, mail packaging, plastic shopping bags, materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill— and, if made from plastic, would stay there for thousands of years—are transformed. They become beautiful, unique, and unexpected, which are all hallmarks of good fashion.
Taking in That’s Rubbish is a wonderful way to start the new year (not to mention decade) off on the right foot. Hamilton’s driving artistic philosophy centers around positive and uplifting stories. The best example of this in the collection is a jacket made from the few-and-far-between newspaper clippings that promote “good news”: an article about Mr. Rogers, a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty shielding immigrant children, and the WestView News logo.
“The newspaper jacket wouldn’t do too well in the rain,” Hamilton warns. No, for that, the umbrella dress might be better suited.