Paul Bulteel’s Waste Not, a series of photographs taken in Belgium, and his monograph Cycle & Recycle, depict the voluminous nature of recyclable waste produced by human beings in the 21st century. Consumption, capitalism’s close companion, is increasing at alarming rates around the globe and is predicted to generate 11 million tons of daily waste by 2100. Currently, the number is 3.5 million tons. Belgium’s rate of waste production recycling at 62 percent, one of the highest rates in the world, is nearly double that of the United States, which hovers around 35 percent.
With this in mind, Bulteel has created a body of work that uses abstract painting and formal qualities as points of reference to create artistic presentations of piles of trash that are being mindfully reinvented. As a native of Belgium who worked in the energy sector for 20 years, Bulteel’s interest in environmental sustainability and documentary photography has proven to be a timely fit for an enlightened conversation around recycling.
From clothing, tires and stoves to green glass bottles, crushed cars, and the filament for the weaving of tufting carpet, the gathering and compressing of materials in preparation for transformation and reuse is astounding to consider. Image captions for Bulteel’s photographs tell the story of Belgium’s successful recycling program, which includes the dismantling of fluorescent lamps to reclaim mercury to produce new lamps; the collection of bales of polypropylene extrusion waste that will ultimately be deconstructed to create a material suitable for the felt industry; and the shredding and separation of batteries into components that can be used in road construction and the building industry.
The theme of collection is consistent throughout the body of work and is represented at different stages. If the recycled waste presented in Bulteel’s photographs is not already established as a geometric form, via its tidy arrangement in bags, stacks or storage units, mounds of debris are elegantly captured as sculptural compositions. Bulteel’s stylistic choices seem to remove the stigma of trash as dirty, ugly and unrefined, situating it in a new light where it becomes more palatable to the viewer. Bulteel’s images are also able to create a sustained visual engagement in viewers through his use of color to help the eye move through an image, clear examples being splashes of red smashed cars in a sea of blue, and a pattern of yellow Ikea batteries popping out of a pile of thousands.
When looking at Bulteel’s images it is hard to escape a sense responsibility or a renewed desire to participate in a global movement toward sustainable waste management. At the very least, the work may make viewers think twice about how much they buy and where it ultimately ends up.
Paul Bulteel: Waste Not at Anastasia Photo is on view through November 22, 2017.