An insightful artistic obsession with waste

It's a bizarre feeling for someone like me whose heart sinks at the sight of a discarded plastic bottle to be mesmerised by a collection of waste collected on English beaches. But there is something surprisingly beautiful in Stuart Haygarth's photographs of the waste he collected in 2011. The photos are part of Strand, a book recently published by the artist.

A collection of blue waste collected and photographed
by Stuart Haygarth.

Between February and October 2011, the British artist walked along the entire coast of the South of England with the goal of collecting man-made material. His aim was to collect waste to create an installation commissioned by UCL hospital in London for its new cancer wing. Haygarth did it in several stages. As a whole, he walked about 800 kilometres, from Gravesend in Kent to Land's end in Cornwall, over 38 days. At a talk held at the Design Museum in London last week, the artist explained that his intention was to put himself through a mental and physical process which echoed the journey of patients diagnosed with cancer.

Photo by Stuart Haygarth

As far as he can remember, Haygarth has always been obsessed with waste, he explained. "I don't see myself as an environmental designer but I always hated waste and I've always been fascinated by things left at the end of someone's life and the stories they tell", he said. When Haygarth set off on his walk, he was pulling a trolley behind him to store all the pieces of waste that caught his eye. But, in the thick wintry mud of Kent, the trolley quickly proved very inconvenient. So he bought a military rucksack in a charity shop in Folkestone and ordered a litter picker online.

Photo by Stuart Haygarth

"The closer to London I got, the more debris washed up on the sea", Stuart Haygarth noticed. The vast majority of the waste he collected was made of plastic. Lighters, buckets, dolls, rubber gloves, pieces of laminated floors etc. - the range of plastic waste collected by the London artist is incredible. Haygarth even found a number of plastic flowers. His assumption is that the fake flowers had been left on benches close to the coast in memory of deceased people who used to sit on a particular bench, for example.

Photo by Stuart Haygarth

Back in his studio in London Haygarth washed the waste, categorised it and photographed it before using it to create the installation commissioned by UCL. The precision used by the artist to lay the artefacts on a white background reminded me of best-selling author Marie Kondo's art of tidying. It looks to me as if they have a similar fascination for well-ordered objects.

Photo by Stuart Haygarth

It's not surprising when you know that the award-winning design artist used to be a commercial photographer in the 90s. It was before the invention of Photoshop. "Everything had to be perfect, accurate and precise", he recalls. Haygarth enjoys "reconfiguring something overlooked and quite banal into something interesting". He manages to make a series of well-used shoe soles look like the produce of an archaeological dig. Also, some of his colourful compositions are not too dissimilar from entomological collections.

Photo by Stuart Hygarth

Among the compositions featured in Strand (beach in old English and German), I have a particular fondness for the toy collection and, more specifically for the beaten-up dolls. How did they ended up in the sea? It's the same question I ask myself when I see a pile of clothes or bed linens fly-tipped on one of the streets nearby my house. I find lonely pairs of shoes particularly distressing. Behind the waste, there's inevitably a human story. And I can't help thinking that belongings piled-up on a London street-corner tell a very sad, if not sometimes sinister, story.

Strand, photos by Stuart Haygarth, texts by Robert Macfarlane and Deyan Sudjic, Art / Books, April 2016, £28
To find out more about Stuart Haygarth, you can visit his website.