“oh you’ve got to be kidding me.”
At first glance at the 96th Street subway station, it looks as though the contents of a garbage can have been violently strewn across a dozen square feet or so of the platform, a bent-backed worker shuffling to clean it up. Spoken under my breath, the words above escape me seemingly automatically, without effort, as I step off the express train and take in the scene. My fellow passengers waiting for the local are giving the rubbish a wide berth.
As I look more closely, I see an open suitcase, items spilling out. Then a heavily-loaded pushcart. A football jersey. Cables for Apple products; cassette tapes. Juice bottles. Birthday cards. Books. Newspapers. Food wrappers. Clothing.
The hunched man is opening up an industrial-sized black garbage bag. He’s not a subway employee; I can see that now. He picks up a plastic grocery bag from among the items spread before him and peers into it, considering whether to put what it contains into the garbage bag.
In Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this summer, one room presented viewers with the possessions of Ye Haiyan, a Chinese women’s rights advocate. These household goods had been hastily gathered and packed when the Chinese government abruptly evicted her and her daughter as punishment for her activism. Museum-goers moved slowly around the room, taking in the cardboard boxes, the suitcases, the fridge, the brightly colored reproductions of additional items (fuzzy animal slippers, underwear) on all four walls, pulling meaning from the banality of the stuff that surrounds us everyday, ripped violently out of context.
I recall that scene as the local train pulls into the station. Passengers stream around the man at 96th Street to board it, while he slowly puts his life in order.