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Trash Art Litters Cologne

Louisa Schaefer
April 20, 2006

Some say German artist HA Schult likes to provoke. He retorts that artists are society’s litmus test. Provocative or not, his Trash People are relics of a distinctly human byproduct: garbage.

"Cologne People" next to the cathedralImage: HA Schult

"One man's trash is another man's treasure." Artist HA Schult takes that adage to the limit: he's installed 1,000 figures made of debris in front of one of the world's cultural treasures: the Cologne Cathedral.

"I started creating this kind of art long before it became fashionable," Schult told DW-WORLD.DE. "Back in the 1960s, I organized fashion shows atop trash depots to draw attention to our planet’s environmental imbalance."

Aktionskünstler HA Schult
Artist HA SchultImage: Wolfgang Jorzik

Trash People are life-size figures the artist began making in 1996 from rubbish collected at the municipal depot in Cologne, the city where Schult lives and works. The figures' faces are molded from tin cans, their chests constructed from computers, their limbs shaped from crushed plastic -- all carefully formed into sculptures intended to remind people of the waste they constantly produce.

Schult needed 30 assistants for over six months to help him create the figures. They began with cleaning the rubbish; the stench would have otherwise been unbearable.

Grandiose venues for a pressing message

HA Schult does not lack modesty when it comes to his artistic vision.

"I told politicians long ago that the subject of the environment would make or break future elections," Schult said. "We artists are the litmus test of society. People can gain a sense of the state of society by looking at the works artists are producing. The freedom of a society is measured by the freedom of its art."

Trash People vor dem Matterhorn-Berg
Trash People near the Matterhorn, SwitzerlandImage: HA Schult

Schult's monumental statements parallel his exhibition locations. His Trash People have been installed at some of the greatest sites in the world: on China's Great Wall, near the Egyptian pyramids, on Moscow's Red Square, at Switzerland's Matterhorn mountain, at the Grand Place in Brussels and La Grande Arche in Paris.

Cultural differences

"In Russia -- where nuclear fuel rods are thrown into people's backyards, people deal with trash and ecological imbalances differently than here in Germany," Schult told DW-WORLD.DE. "The Swiss are a complete contrast to the Egyptians, who just throw debris into a pit and let the poorest of society pick through it. Then they fill it up with sand and build a Hilton Hotel or Kentucky Fried Chicken on top," Schult said.

But consciousness-raising and altruism toward Mother Earth were not the only reasons for bringing the show to Cologne. In Brussels, the installation drew 1 million visitors, who also emptied their pockets in the city's stores. Cologne -- home to a world-renowned Gothic cathedral -- hopes the Trash People, renamed "Cologne People" for the occasion, will have a similar effect.

"It's an appealing installation that parallels our attempts to beautify the cathedral plaza -- out with the unsightly and in with art," Cologne Mayor Fritz Schramma said. Apparently, the Cologne People are not unsightly, even if they are composed of garbage.

Trash People auf der Großen Mauer von China
Trash People enjoying the view at the Great Wall of ChinaImage: HA Schult

The sculptures will also be fenced in and guarded in Cologne -- unlike in Egypt, Paris, China, or the Matterhorn, "where hikers were just too tired to vandalize."

So rather than walking freely among the Cologne People, viewers will be guided through the installation. Alternatively, they can book a 50 euro ($61) tour and spend a Sunday afternoon with the artist. There's even a deluxe trash package for only 160 euros which includes breakfast, cocktails and dinner. What more could trash-seekers ask for?

The Trash People, after all, have become valuable. Back in 1996, Schult paid the Cologne dump 80,000 German marks (41,000 euros) for rubbish to make 1,000 figures. Half of those have been sold and replaced by new ones, which currently sell for 6,000 euros. Doctors and dentists like to put them in their waiting rooms, Schult said. The sales fund the Trash People's journeys throughout the world.

With all the travel, the figures sometimes need a repair or two, or a good vacuum-cleaning. "You should have seen them when they got back from the Sahara. There was sand in every crevice of their bodies!" Schult quipped.

Trash People vor den Pyramiden Kairo
Things can get dusty in the desertImage: HA Schult

The Trash People are on show in Cologne from April 21 to May 1, 2006, after which they head to New York City and Santiago de Chile. The Antarctic will be their final station, after which Schult says he will divide up the figures and give them to three different German cities.

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