Portraits by Leigh Keily

PHOENIX aren’t known for talking rubbish however when our eye is caught we are always open minded. Transforming recycled trash into an art installation, Gayle Chong Kwan’s work combines both innovation and installation to create a fantastical mise-en-scène landscape.

Kwan who usually works with photography creates environments out of disturbing arrangements of waste materials, sensory remains and documentary sources. Milk bottles now grace the walls of London’s Southbank alcove like stalagmites and stalactites as a man-made cave has been erected with plastic replacing limestone all with the aim of raising awareness. A positive cause, a positive reception.

What does the project mean to you?

“When I was invited by the Southbank Centre to develop a work for their Festival of the World, I was keen to develop a sculptural installation. I’ve always loved the architecture of the Southbank Centre and was keen to develop an immersive experience in one of the less used and more hidden spaces within the complex, and to develop an all-encompassing cavernous landscape made out of waste materials carved into buildings from the UK and Colombia, that could both create and question the connections around waste, urban planning and the importance of culture in communities, between two seemingly very different places – Moravia in Medellin, Colombia, and the Southbank Centre, London.”

What was the inspiration behind this work?

“‘Wastescape’ was inspired by the creativity and innovation of the residents of Moravia, a neighbourhood in Medellin, Colombia which is built on the city’s unofficial rubbish dump. The community, who I have worked with previously, have developed various local initiatives based on re-using and recycling waste, and their vernacular architecture is made out of discarded materials. In recent years, culture and creativity have come to play an important role in the regeneration of the area and in the political organisation of the community.

The Cultural Development Center of Moravia opened in 2008, and has been so successful that new temporary and flexible structures have had to be built. These new spaces, which include a reading space for children and an arts and crafts workshop, have been made from locally recycled materials such as plastic crates, fridge doors and discarded bus seats.

The installation is made out of tens of thousands of used and new plastic milk bottles, carved into a cavernous environment containing references to buildings in Moravia and in and around Southbank Centre.”

How long did it take?

“I started working on the ideas and planning around seven months earlier, and went through many different stages and plans in developing ‘Wastescape’, but we had only three weeks for the actual installation.”

What’s next for you?

“I’ve just finished a new work ‘The Golden Tide’ for a Film and Video Umbrella project, ‘Our Mutual Friends’, which explores Dicken’s final novel as an allegorical tale with numerous echoes in the present. As well as a number of national and international exhibitions, I have been invited to develop a project with Artangel starting later this year, and I also start a practice-based Phd at the Royal College of Art this autumn.”

What relationship is there between the sound and the visual?

“As you move through ‘Wastescape’ numerous voices in Spanish and English, featuring sound recordings of people’s reflections on waste and urban development from both locations, confront you with the different realities and experiences of waste management, urban planning, community and one’s material surroundings, laying personal experience with a visually immersive landscape which seemingly grows and develops out of its setting and context.”

– Declan Higgins 


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