Middlebury student exhibits photo study of trash cans

MIDDLEBURY — It’s the rare individual that takes real notice of trash receptacles.
But after spending two years making 1,300 photographs of a dizzying variety of garbage containers, Middlebury College student Ryan Kim has developed a bona fide visual study of those objects — and found that the duality of practical function and aesthetic form in them makes them very interesting indeed.
Kim’s created his collection of more than 1,300 photographs of trash bins using his iPhone camera during his travels across the United States and Europe. The best of the photos are on display at the M Gallery, at 3 Mill St. in the Old Stone Mill in downtown Middlebury through next Thursday.
The 50 photographs on display at the M Gallery depict bins that Kim encountered in locations ranging from the Middlebury campus to Astoria, Ore., and from the ferry terminal in Hyannis, Mass., to the Acropolis in Greece.
The bins themselves range from “big-bellied solar compacting bins,” to clear trash bags supported by a metal ring (Kim said these are common in subway stations, “because of bomb threats”). The menagerie also includes disposable, one-time-use cardboard boxes, concrete bins built into the sidewalk, trash cans with raised “hats” to protect the garbage from the elements … the list goes on.
Kim began the project almost by accident.
“One of my best friends from high school is studying industrial design,” he said. “He had a project to design a new trash bin, so he asked me to help him out gathering materials at work by photographing trash bins so that he could gain inspiration, to see what else has been done. So I started doing it and I got around 30 to 40 trash bins in and it just started getting really interesting.”
Indicating photos of some very different bins on display (one wrought-iron; another a squat, sculptural, urn-like garbage can with a wide opening at the top) at the gallery, Kim wondered aloud, “What is it about the human mind or the multiple cues or whatever it is that makes you recognize each as a receptacle for your trash?”
Kim is an economics major at the college, but says that he has taken many art and art history courses because of his interest in design.
“Long term I want to go into real estate, which I like because it is an intersection of economics and finance with aesthetics and design and urban planning,” he said.
Kim said he gets a range of responses to his project.
“People are usually kind of fascinated,” he said. “There’s obviously that shock, and almost repulsion — like, ‘You’ve taken this many photos of trash cans?’”
But once people see the display and the range of forms that trash bins take on across the country and around the world, the reaction tends to be very positive.
A particularly interesting feature of the exhibit, Kim said, is that so far people seem to recognize trash can designs from their home region — even if they can’t explain exactly why.
One friend of his from Iowa was able to point out all the Midwestern trash cans in Kim’s exhibit.
“I’ve taken hundreds of photos and I couldn’t tell you what a Midwestern trash can looks like,” Kim said. “She said that (those cans) looked very Midwestern to her and I thought that was amazing. Almost, in a weird way, cultural identity being reflected.”
Kim’s exhibit will be on display at the M Gallery at 3 Mill St. in Middlebury until March 21. Visiting hours with the artist are Thursday, March 14, and Tuesday-Thursday, March 19-21, from 3 to 5 p.m. The gallery is also open Friday, 3-6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.

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