reverse garbage

Last Sunday I visited Reverse Garbage, a non-profit organization that collects all kinds of junk and secondhand goods – especially industrial discards – and sells it to the public out of a warehouse in Marrickville. The concept is sound enough; it’s the type of thing I think we can all agree we need more of. But the experience of the place itself was unexpectedly inspiring and fun.

The first thing you see in the unkempt lot outside Reverse Garbage is a huge sculpture, welded together out of scrap metal, imposingly postapocalyptic, roughly the shape of some sort of larger-than-life toy mobile. Suspended from one of the arms of the mobile is a scrap-metal creature that’s part giant spider, part praying mantis, with the lithe torso and head of a bare-breasted mannequin. You know, I’ve seen a lot of found-object installations in my life, and a lot of them really lame, but something as well-executed as this still has the power to amuse and disturb. The only way it could get any better is if this she-monster were robotically animated and did battle with a cyber-scrap giant wasp.

Behind this attraction is a junk yard-cum-art garden, featuring an ugly foam sculpture of the Sydney waterfront and a bicycle graveyard, leading you to the warehouse. Inside is the largest collection of used stuff I’ve ever seen. In the front it looks like a garage sale or a vintage shop, except it goes on and on and on, tables and shelves full of decor, toys, jewelry, stationery, lighting, kitchenware, pottery, knickknacks, bric-a-brack, sundries, hand-me-downs, flotsam and jetsam and whatnot stretching for what seems like hundreds of yards into a haze in the far reaches of the building.

It’s hard to know where to begin. There’s an entire shelf full of sheets of stickers, the kind that are used to decorate kids’ schoolpapers and notebooks. Honestly, I get lost just with those. There’s some nice furniture here. Over there are plastic flowers, and some weird old VHS tapes. Further back are heaps of used speakers and other audio equipment, some of it unidentifiable.

Moving into the far corners of the warehouse, you find the purely industrial detritus, some of it hilariously, almost childishly alluring, stuff you just wanna play with: rectangular portions of pink foam stored in clear plastic bags bigger than I am, vast shelves loaded with cardboard tubes. Out back is the hardware, the unclaimed makings of infrastructure: metal pipes, lumber, restaurant equipment, PVC tubes.

Out of everything here, what draws me in the most are the loose ceramic tiles. They come in many forms and colors, the loose and haphazard stacks defying the geometric order we naturally associate with them. The cool feel of the tiles, their surprising weight as I pick them up, the earthy scraping sound they make, is strangely appealing. Especially as I was recently in İstanbul (tile central), I’m seized by the urge to take a bunch of them home, break them into pieces, and teach myself to make mosaic art. But I reckon I don’t have time for a new hobby – I have too much on my plate as it is.

Obviously the main clientele here will be artists. I see a couple of them milling about, with their piercings and boots and torn stockings, longingly touching the cardboard tubes. The pink foam alone would be enough raw material for an entire group show. And, perhaps to make them feel at home, there are more of the found-object sculptures here – a life-sized T-rex skull, and a smiling robot towering overhead, its readout saying WOMEN NEED TECHNICAL JOBS NEED WOMEN.

Often secondhand shops depress me. This is particularly true with records. As much as I love music, sometimes sifting through bin after bin of beat-up old records and CDs gives me a terrible sense of how much bad music has been mass produced. Reverse Garbage, on the other hand, makes me feel lighthearted. I think it’s because it’s not just an inert pile of trash, but a living collection of quality goods, lovingly tended and promoted with activism and a definite aesthetic. Like an enormous punk-industrial antique shop.

But honestly this place also makes me feel a little guilty. Yeah, I’ve spent money at Ikea recently. And, why, why, WHY? Considering the cheap fiberboard and plastic crap they trade in will crumble to dust before any of the great old furniture on display here, or anything I could fashion for myself with the lumber and PVC in the back if I was halfway clever enough to learn how. (I’m so damned unhandy it’s not funny.) If there’s one lesson to be learned at Reverse Garbage, it’s that we as a society probably can probably just stop manufacturing things right now. There’s enough material and resources in all of the mountains of stuff that’s already out there in the world to get by just fine. The indictment of our consumer addiction and our environmental crisis is too obvious to go on about in depth, even for me.

I find myself thinking again about İstanbul. There you see men pulling big wooden carts through the narrow streets, calling for people to bring them their junk and scraps – dead appliances, bits of metal, anything. And people do; the carts get filled up, the stuff gets re-used. You get the feeling that nothing there is wasted. It points to an economy of conservation that we’ve almost forgotten about in the West, where we’re taught to feel self-conscious about a faded polo shirt or a TV that isn’t brand-new and perfectly flat.

What’s even more impressive about Reverse Garbage is that the secondhand wealth on display isn’t limited to the one facility. Stretching around the property are a number of other storage buildings open to the public, inviting us in to survey more collections of junk and ceramic tiles and used speakers and tubes. And out in the grassy, tree-lined area between the buildings is a big Sunday market: dozens of stalls offering local and organic produce, wine, the inevitable jams and chutneys – and more used stuff, much more.

Taken all together it’s a zone covering a few city blocks in which everything is used or handmade or locally grown or DIY. It’s like a castoff carnival. Rejects rule. You could come here every Sunday, shop for the apocalypse, and never go to Coles or Ikea or Target again.

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