I got some rather strange looks as I rifled through the bins outside the
A few doors down, the British artist
"I thought sorting through rubbish was going to be a necessary evil," says Sofaer, "but people are really getting into it. There are personal stories in every single bag. Like all the kids' lunches – Thomas has accidentally thrown away his mum's spoon with the yoghurt,
Sofaer's expecting eight and a half tonnes of paper and cardboard, litres of cooking oil from the kitchen, old exhibition displays, bottles, crisp packets, plastic forks and even sewage. It's part of the museum's ongoing Climate Changing programme, which uses art to explore important environmental and ecological issues.
The ideas behind the project are, of course, far from throwaway. By archiving, processing and, one month later, exhibiting all the rubbish, Sofaer brings into tangible, sticky, rotting relief our attitudes to value, hygiene, environmental responsibility and contemporary art practice.
"While I totally believe in art, it's also the ultimate capitalist model," says Sofaer. "You buy a couple of paints, apply them to a canvas and then suddenly they could be worth millions. In the 1960s, the artist
Sofaer has already spent years creating artworks about waste. His project Scavengers, for Tate Modern, gave members of the public clues about objects to find on the streets of
Confronting the public with our waste-heavy culture is a political act in itself. So how does this sit with the the fact that the Climate Changing scheme is, in part at least, sponsored by the oil company Shell? "I didn't know about that until I saw the press release," says Sofaer. "But if this project can raise questions to Shell about what's going on right now with the mop up in the
Sofaer has designed the show to have "a happy factory feel". Down in the bowels of the museum he, his four assistants and an army of museum volunteers wear identical Maoist grey boilersuits, while sorting through bags of rubbish on pristine white archive tables. The public, of course, can keep their clothes on. "I want it to be a haptic process. And while I don't want the returned waste to just be plonked, I don't want it to look too artful either. I want the materials to speak for themselves."
To research the project Sofaer toured recycling plants, incinerators and waste disposal units around
Repurposing rubbish as contemporary art may call to mind Wordsworth's description of a dog returning to its vomit. Is Sofaer worried that this confrontation with our throwaway culture will turn some visitors off? "Of course, some people will walk in and think, 'No, that's not for me.' But, I hope that by actually handling the waste, something shifts. When we put something in the bin it disappears from our consciousness, but at an atomic level it never disappears; it just gets transformed."
The transformative power of art; maybe it's not such a rubbish idea after all.
• Visitors can help sort through rubbish until 15 July, then see what a month's worth of waste looks like from 25 July to 14 September. Venue:
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