Object Study: Refuse Sculptures



By: Alina Enggist

I envision this piece to be an exercise of the dialogical imagination where objects are themselves real dialogues – active forms of communication between living entities.  I intend to take this serious idea of Bahktin’s in a whimsical direction and conduct a study of a community of things that I have come to call Refuse Sculptures.  As a succession of nomadic, shape-shifting, anonymous works of art, these Refuse Sculptures prompted me to capture their images, take this class, and re-think things.  I intend to create an inter-subjective and polyphonic back-and-forth that I hope will allow you to find meaning in the in-between and to hopefully also locate a space into which you can insert your own meaning. 


The portions in italics are to distinguish one side of the dialectic, the one where I believe the things were speaking through me.  I was often in contact or in close proximity to the things themselves as I wrote these sections, even to the point where I recorded portions on-site.  Following Jane Bennett who was inspired by Thoreau, I hope to augment my receptivity to thing-power through writing about it, “by giving an account of the thingness of things that might enable me to feel it more intensely.”[i]  The portions in non-italics are the sections in response to my experiential meditations, an attempt to induce a conversation with some of the thing-theoreticians that also have something to say.  I reference thinkers whose ideas regarding ‘things’ I felt resonated with this community of things that captured my imagination as I made my way to the university each day.


For the presentation portion of this piece I will pair italicized text with color images, and non-italicized text with black and white images.  My hope is that ideas and images will be coupled in a way that is loose enough for the viewer to be able to participate in the drawing of references, connections, dissonances, conclusions, and expansions.  There is space built into the structure, which can function like silences do in musical composition.  These are all techniques that I am experimenting with in order to draw out the dialogical imagination.



The structure is tall, it is short.  It leans tenuously, it is rooted firmly.  It is made up of ugly unsavories, it is a construction of beauty and balance.  It finds the north star, it is swallowed by the coming tide.  It is smooth and weathered, it is rough and ravaged.  It swings freely with the southerly wind, it stands stout with boorish authority.


The water’s edge is where the community gathers, like the far-off image of the animals of the Southern African landscape, navigating hundreds of kilometers in pursuit of the water’s lip.  These objects have found themselves here presently, the migration a combination of many, many trajectories some spanning long and meditative water-borne miles, some originating in foreign lands or subterranean worlds, and others just a short flight from suspension to the earth. 


When approaching these objects it is not clear whether they are facing us or have their backs to us.  Are they more intent on watching us go by and by, or are they staring out into the water, transfixed by the shifting surface and the steady rhythms?  As sculptural forms, they do not have a face, they are multi-faceted and have eyes on all sides.  Set against the backdrop of the water, they appear more fixed than they actually are.  The water, sky, ships, distant buildings, flying creatures and machines make up an ever-changing canvas that methodically brightens and darkens like a very slowly blinking eye.



Following Bill Brown, I would like to explore these Refuse Sculptures relationally and look at all the things that set this relationship on the ground and against the skyline.  These sculptures stand and fall, they are made of material and immaterial substances, they assemble and dissemble, they exist and then they do not.  When I happened upon these sculptures, I became a part of their relational hold.  And now I would like to imagine what that world may entail.  Enchanted and entangled as I may be, I will try not to stray from the things themselves.  However, my vehicle will be my imagination which, like the things themselves, is a shape-shifting, webby, and capricious force. 


When in the presence of these sculptures, many intensities advance: the city meeting nature, the solid ground giving way to water, the western shore facing the eastern, the verticality of the sculptures against the horizontality of the landscape, the lifeless materials laying about just beside a living work of art made of the same materials.  These sculptures incite an awareness of gravity’s participation, the relationship of the elements to materialities, and the overlap of the invented with the extant.



What is invoked in this space where structures are built not to last or to endow or to valorize?  When in fact they are constructed knowing that they are going to soon retreat back to the state that they were created (wood and debris caught between the rocks) and are built by people who will not be recognized for their effort.  A shape-shifting, but bounded and real space has been created by these people and their sculptures. 


And the space that is created and all that it encompasses is a fringe space.  The fringe is the most alive territory of the ecological, political, social, and psychological realms. Who or what do we find at the fringe?  The mad, the sorcerers, the artists, endangered animal species, the discarded, the anachronistic, the ethnographers.  The fringe is usually a wild territory, a frontier.  Far from the locusts of power, this area is a space of flux.  The vacillation between proliferation and retraction can be disorienting.  The violence can be on a massive scale.  The creation that follows the destruction can be astonishing. 


These sculptures are fringe elements in multiple senses.  Constructed by unconventional creators (anonymous and transient), out of unconventional materials (washed up refuse and natural materials), they are also physically located on the fringe.  They have no monetary valued assigned or designed.  They seem not to be created for any particular audience.  And they have no signature attached.  One must walk as far west as one can before hitting water.  And the stretch of rocky shore that they are located on is one of the longest stretches of coast without access from the Manhattan streets.  Bounded by 96th street on the south and 131st street to the north, a parkway to the east and the Hudson River to the west; this patch of Riverside Park can get as narrow as 15 feet.  Unless one pulls their car off the highway in a perilous manner, the only way to access this stretch is at one of the entrance points 35 blocks from each other.



Ingold writes about an environment that continually unfolds, and the materials that make up the world occur as opposed to exist.   Forms come “into being through the gradual unfolding of that field of forces set up through the active and sensuous engagement of practitioner and material.”[ii]  The materials engaged are processual and relational.  When describing the properties of materials, we must tell their stories, and locates the currents within these material narratives where they flow, mix, and mutate.  (Ingold, 14)


Flow, mix, and mutation… the currents of the Hudson bring the refuse to these shores.  The current of life in 2009 bring the refuse to these shores.  The sun, or the drone of the city, or an event, or a whim, bring the sculptor to these shores.  In the case of these driftwood and refuse sculptures, the artists are the invisible builders, balancers, fasteners, and schemers who travel to the banks of the Hudson and create a structure.  Or perhaps they are already at the river’s edge and they are inspired by other sculptures and feeling urged on to create one of their own.  A marked and undisputed act of individuality and communion is performed.  It is sensuous and vigorous engagement of hand, eye, light, current, temporality, form, and material.   Purpose, rigidity, amalgamation, and adherence are implicated.  Every parts story is equally important.  The miner of the tin, the waters that carried it there, the rock that dammed it into place, the person who balanced it on the end of a curved stick, the passerby whose eye lingers, the gull who rests upon it, the foot that kicks it over.  What can be perceived is a story of things coming together and things coming apart, so it is a story like so many others.


Ingold writes that, “things are not active because they are imbued with agency but because of the ways they are caught up in the currents of the life world.”[iii]  And so we are caught up in the currents of the world, being animated and dissembled and persuaded and persecuted. 


So I walk along the river, past these sculptures I can imagine the relations holding each other, my eye with the silhouette and the light; the driftwood with gravity and the rocky crevice; the passing ship with the suspended fishing wire against the uprighted root. 


“Things are in life rather than that life is in things.”[iv]


So things are in life, and I keep walking and nothing will be as it was, the light shifts its angle, the boat keeps moving towards the open sea, my eye wanders on.  Watching the Husdon’s current flow, it becomes clear what is meant by Ingold when he speaks of a current of materials that humans swim in, and how we are but one of the materials.  It is from within this current that life is manifest.  The materials are of an iridescent quality, we/they are transparent yet reflective.  They can be isolated as points in time, but never extracted from the flow.  Past, present, and future states are overlaid in holographic displays of interconnectedness. 



Alfred Gell forwarded the notion that art is not about observing, it is about doing.  Who or what is doing these Refuse Sculptures? 


They are of and in nature.  They are also by and through people.  They are in and out of time.  In one structure there is old wood weathered so much that it is less dense than the water that carried it to this piece of shore, there are twigs that came free from the live tree above, there are plastic bottles drained of their sugary innards, plywood pock-marked with gnarled nails, and nautical rope unraveled from its long-entwined fate. 


The materials have partially been assembled, and partially assembled themselves into a structure which hovers on the water’s edge like that most famous American architect situated the thing that brought him so much prestige.  A house of dreams, a house of fortune, a house of intrigue, a house of refuse.  The visionary house that is brought to the water, built for the water, and now accommodates not dwellers but transients- and the small house of congregated refuse, that will imminently fall away into the water – these two houses (one macro one micro) standing for the time being, whose being-in-the-world differs wildly, but whose participation with the world is less dissimilar.  It is possible to contemplate nature in a remarkably similar way when confronted with these two structures.  And I imagine the makers of these two structures may have had similar impetuses and impulses when embarking on their creations and working with their materials.  The materials themselves do not vary, wood, metal and plastic.  Both structures eventually will be reclaimed by their surrounding environments in time, pulled down by gravity, reintegrated into the current.


Spinoza said, “It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something of itself in us.”

 fishing rod


In a Gellian and Spinozan paradigm, the Refuse Sculptures are extensions of intensities that stem from both subjects and objects.  With the way that these sculptures affect me, I understand Gell’s idea that certain objects, through creative or representative involvements, acquire the capacity to become indexes of individuals and can thus extend and project ‘self’ beyond the corporeal.  I would then expand this line of thought to the material, for these sculptures also affect a further realization, that they acquire the capacity to become indexes of materiality, and can thus extend and project ‘object-power’ or objecthood beyond the material.  So in this extended expanse of inter-relations I imagine distributed personhood and distributed objecthood enmeshed.  And at the liminal boundaries of this expanse is where the formations occur, and these formations in this instance are the Refuse Sculptures that bring the projectiles of person- and object-hood into contact with each other.  At the boundaries, the friction of contact and movement, are generative. 


In a Latourian sense, this liminal area can be considered quasi-object and a place from which other hybrid objects can be generated and assembled.  In this sense, I can imagine the community of Refuse Sculptures coming into being by their very make-up.  Again bringing together an imagined mis-en-scéne of the edges or beginnings of all things, the universe, I see the unstable fringe as the moment when the material, immaterial, and imminent are forced into contact and create a quasi-object, quasi-event that then makes some other association, connection, or disintegration.  Hybrids, as it were, are not planned or preordained, they are forcefully thrown together and what sticks sticks, and what does not fall away. 


  1. And this man here, he is either fighting a futile battle, or dismantling one of the few enchantments that this city hasn’t already extinguished.


Christopher Tilley once wrote, “through the making, using, exchanging, consuming, interacting, and living with things people make themselves in the process.”[v]  Things are extensions of us and we are extensions of things.  Value is to be found in the in-between, the dialogical relations, and the rainbow-spectrum of connections.



The sculptures form a community, they are communal.  I have covered the entire 250 block long Manhattan coast along the Hudson and this parcel of land is the only with such sculptures inhabiting the landscape.  In this space there are some spots that almost always contain a sculpture, there are others that are almost always barren.  On certain days there are clusters of sculptures, seemingly one on top of each other.  During certain times of the year, there are less than four standing, in varying states of decrepitude.  On other days, there can be several dozen.  Going from one structure to the next has a lyrical affect.  Taken in a collective way, there can be a harmonic or dissonant result, all sorts of trajectories can be gleaned, and never to be experienced in the same way again.  Together they stand, separate they fall, in varying speeds, attuning the collective to a new modality.


Jane Bennett’s work centered around the agency of assemblages.  The concept of assemblage is borrowed from Deleuze, and she appropriates the following principles to inform her discussion: an ad hoc collectivity that is historically situated, alive, decentralized, and constituted of the human and non-human, the material and immaterial.  She uses the assemblage to illustrate, “the distributive and composite nature of agency” across “an ontologically diverse range of actors-or actants.”[vi]  The human and non-human actants interact each possessing agency, and she furthers that the assemblages that they construct and that construct them also possess agential propensity. 


These assemblages are: simple, matrixed, tied together, balanced, captivating, irregular, feeble, weathered, deconstructed, grandiose, reminiscent, hardly noticeable, scorched, rotted, figural, lyrical, scientific, mimetic, grotesque, beautiful.  In terms of material, they are primarily made up of driftwood, but also include: other types of wood, roots, scraps of cloth, a tennis shoe, athletic balls, plastic bottles, string, plant fiber, rubber, sticks, leaves, stones, aluminum, and unidentifiable bits of debris.  In terms of the immaterial, they are made up of: dreams, skill, patience, frustration, silence, communion, enchantment, creativity, impulse.  The elements intervene: the sun, wind, water, humidity, snow.  Nature plays: the tides, the seasons, the weather patterns, centripetal and centrifugal forces.  Humans participate: they create, destroy, overlook, contemplate, revisit, collaborate.


Jane Bennett put forward the concept of ‘thing-power’ that I find potent.  She paints a mise-en-scéne where relationships and intensities exhibit their power on a stage that is shared with us.  On this stage, objects become things that resist being reduced to the contexts which we situate for them.  Things that are considered inanimate like a sculpture or a piling of garbage animate, perform, and produce effects that resonate across recalcitrant dualisms.  “Thing-power entails the ability to shift or vibrate between states of being, to go from trash/inanimate/resting to treasure/animate/alert.”[vii]


The Refuse Sculptures possess thing-power, I have experienced it.  Thing-power can have a radical potential.  The eyes take in form, light, contrast, depth, balance, scale, and material.  Once it enters our system, the effects are manifold.  Things possesses a universe of potentialities, and thing-power is constituted of different gradients of presence and agency.  The assemblage, which was itself a creation, gains the ability to create.  A proliferation of the creative principle is at its apex revolutionary.  Mini-revolutions that move an individual to tears or to ecstasy or macro-revolutions can construct philosophies or tear down regimes.  Thing-power has the ability to give substance to fermenting potentialities.   But be sure not to overlook the fact that even at the zenith of its power, things are always is dependent on what they is made of: the viewer, the historical moment, the engulfing milieu, the substances that instantiates it, the medium that supports it. 


And as Bennett examined her particular assemblage of a glove, rat, bottle cap, and wood, she was struck by their singular materiality, “brought to light by the contingency of their co-presence, by the specific assemblage they formed.”[viii]  She experienced the thing-power of this assemblage and was able to appreciate what Merleau-Ponty meant when he observed how, “our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression.”[ix]


These structures and the space they encompass have presence.  In order to grasp this presence, one has to find an opening.  These structures are endowed with voice and verve, perhaps because there are no signs, no interpreters, and no mediators present.  The platform on which they perform is free of constructs and naturally ephemeral.  When walking past this stretch of sculptures, one begins to notice the way time works in different ways – sometimes destroying, other times enhancing.  The drifting material potentialities would accumulate indefinitely, but each structure was intrinsically time-bound.



Progress through throwing out theories,

through wreckage and refuse the pile forms a structure,

a layered uneven sculpture,

slipping into place as different parts are applied and tried.


Each configuration distinct,

relying on the past and the disregarded for structure,



grace and distinction.


The sculpture is left for others to view,




Sometimes it is a natural destruction,

sometimes man-made,

sometimes they last a long time and then are submerged,

as consciousness levels rise and fall,

as winds blow from west to east. 


Sometimes you can only see their outlines

set against a greater backdropping landscape,

nevertheless, they are made of us,

we can look or not look, 

we can add to the structure,

the authorship is communal if we make it so.


Sometimes we use material from one to add to another, 

the material will surely float down the river,

at some point,

and get picked up from amongst the rubble,

and weighted for its relevance,

and its utility,

its beauty,

its strength,

its hidden potential,

its well worn endurance.





[i] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 349.

[ii] Ingold, Tim. 2000a. On weaving a basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, pp. 342. Routledge, London.

[iii] Ingold, Tim. 2007. Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:1.

[iv] Ingold, Tim. 2007. Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:12.

[v] Christopher Tilley, “Objectification,” in ed. Handbook of Material Culture (London: Sage Publications, 2006), 61.

[vi] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 446.

[vii] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 354.

[viii] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 350.

[ix] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 350.

2 Responses to “Object Study: Refuse Sculptures”

  1. William Viney Says:

    Dear Alina,

    Thanks for this! I’m sorry that I’ve come so late to this post, and I hope you don’t find my questions a little tardy or redundant. I enjoyed reading about Refuse Sculptures and I’m glad to have some new vocabulary for all the peculiar and enigmatic things that I find on the seashore. But I was unsure what to make of your suggestion that,”These sculptures stand and fall, they are made of material and immaterial substances, they assemble and dissemble, they exist and then they do not.” I can accept that, as ephemeral assemblages, these things associate and disassociate with one another, but I struggle to see how they exist and do not, are material and are not. How is it, then, that they gain the stability for you to identify them, for them to have that exigent agency you so lyrically describe? Is it your description – text and image – that offers a pivot around which the dichotomy swings?

    I suspect that some of my confusion here arises from your distinction between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial’. Later, you write, “In terms of the immaterial, they are made up of: dreams, skill, patience, frustration, silence, communion, enchantment, creativity, impulse.” To call these effects ‘immaterial’ seems to undo much of your argument (following Bennett and Gell) of ‘thing-power’ and ‘agency’. It would seem that you’re saying that whilst these things have power and agency, we come to know this through their immaterial effects (dreams, skill, love, etc). This seems a false dichotomy to me, one that loses the intricate relation between affect and thing and replaces it with something far more formulaic. Surely the association between these things and “dreams, skill, patience, frustration, silence, communion, enchantment, creativity, impulse”, is a function of their materiality?


  2. Opciones Binarias Says:

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you
    penning this write-up and the rest of the website is
    also very good.

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