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Artist Sells Naming Rights to a Landfill

Project banner at the UPFI Film Center. Photograph courtesy the artist.
Banner for Yoshinori Niwa’s “Selling the Right to Name a Pile of Garbage” at the UPFI Film Center (all images courtesy the artist and the project team)

Common wisdom has it that when you’re facing a problem, one of the first steps should be to identify the heart of the matter and name it. The sooner the issue is named, the sooner you can discuss what’s to be done. Tokyo-based artist Yoshinori Niwa is taking this idea to a comical extreme in his attempt to address landfills in metro Manila.

During a short stay in the Philippines for an exhibition, Niwa discovered that the country’s law prohibits the incineration of trash. This means that ever-growing landfills filled with refuse from the city’s 12 million people are creating a dire situation. Niwa is now holding a silent auction on Tumblr for the naming rights to a landfill. This tongue-in-cheek campaign/artwork, entitled “Selling the Right to Name a Pile of Garbage” (2014), has raised only 4,000 Philippine Peso (~$89) so far; bidding will continue until 5pm on January 13, 2015. The money will, according to the website, be used to “make legal documents authorizing the name change, new designating flags for location and surrounding property, and uniforms for all employees directly involved in the daily operations of the newly named property.” Niwa hopes that by literally naming the issue and determining how much we as a society care about it, we might begin to work towards a solution.

Image of a Philippine landfill by the artist.
Yoshinori Niwa, image of a Philippine landfill

This isn’t Niwa’s first time making work about garbage and alternative markets. Reacting to countries like Japan and the US selling their waste to landfills in Southeast Asia, Niwa made “Going to San Francisco to dispose of my garbage” (2006), wherein he brought his own trash to the US. More recently he enacted the performance “Exchanging between Turkish Lire and Euros in Istanbul Until there is Nothing Left” (2011) to more clearly articulate issues of trade and international commerce.

“People should really understand landfills more,” Merv Espina, an artist and the curator of the current project, told me over email. “As a society and as an art community, we have become far too divorced from certain realities — like the afterlife of art and everyday objects.”

Niwa’s piece highlights the fact that art’s invaluable nature usually translates to little real economic value, while also pointing out society’s preference for ignoring the looming impact of our trash. It’s tied to cultural economics in Manila as well — namely, Espina has found that recent high-profile financial successes in the Philippine art market have begun outshining more radical local spaces. “The entrance of international auction houses and Philippine galleries actively participating in international art fairs, the high speculation in auctions, and the secondary art market contrasts with a shortage of opportunity for more experimental and critical art practices,” Espina said. In its creation of a new marketplace for both art and garbage, the curator hopes that “Selling the Right to Name a Pile of Garbage” can do some good for Manila on multiple fronts.

project information kiosk in front of Vargas Museum entrance.
Project information kiosk in front of the Jorge B. Vargas Museum

“Selling the Right to Name a Pile of Garbage” is part of Holdings, a series of two art projects curated by Espina at the Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center. (The other piece features the Working Artists Group [WAG], who’ve formed a temporary department to facilitate the retrieval of unclaimed art objects that have, for various reasons, stayed past their intended display at the museum.) Aside from the banners, blog, and Facebook page, Niwa’s project has a physical presence at the museum, where he is holding regular office hours.

Correction: This article originally misstated the population of Manila as 1.6 million people. It has been fixed.

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