Q&A with Artist Jan Eric Visser

Artist Jan Eric Visser of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has been transforming his everyday garbage into works of art since 1987. Here he reflects on his process, the public's response to his pieces, and the connection between plastic pollution and climate change.

1. Why did you start using garbage in your sculptures in 1987? How did this idea come to you?

At Art Academy I researched all conventional materials like ceramics, glass, steel, wood but I felt none of these materials agreed with what I wanted to communicate. From a very early age I had been confronted with life questions. Also my childhood in Apeldoorn, a town close to the woods, had made me aware of nature’s life cycle. The Club of Rome had already published their concerns about the depletion of Earth’s resources.

All of this seemed to come together in 1987 when I saw a newspaper – back then still a major communication medium - lying on the pavement that had hardened in the sun and wind after being completely pulped by a shower of rain. From that day I started making sculptures out of recycled paper. Filling them with my personal inorganic household waste and impregnating them with wax, these sculptures became like sturdy alternative waste containers. Thus I could rescue valuable resources for future generations from incineration. More over I had found a metaphor for human inability to understand anything of what this life is otherwise mankind would not pollute its own nest.

Jan Eric Visser, Untitled 2008 - 2015, Newspaper, reused printerpaper, inorganic household waste, votive candle residue. 109 x 91 x 87 cm. Photo: W. Vermaase

Jan Eric Visser, Untitled 2008 - 2015, Newspaper, reused printerpaper, inorganic household waste, votive candle residue. 109 x 91 x 87 cm. Photo: W. Vermaase

2. How do people respond when they learn about the materials you use in your sculptures?

At first people want to touch my sculptures. I put in a lot of effort, time and personal energy in making the objects - connecting with the material - and I think the audience feels that energy and wants to connect too. Once they learn the sculpture is made of waste they start asking questions in disbelief: How did I make it? What is inside? Where does the color come from? Often people start offering me their garbage, but I find it hard enough as it is to keep up with the pace of my own bin filling up. Sometimes people get annoyed as if I caught them red handed asking me if I drive a car or travel by airplane. Most of the time good discussions arise however about the inadequacy of mankind and our collective future. I must admit that I don’t look upon art as another commodity that is easily understood and consumed. Everyday I’m working towards a transformation of matter and therefore myself.

X-ray of interior of sculpture by Jan Eric Visser

X-ray of interior of sculpture by Jan Eric Visser

3. Do you think the tide is turning and people are starting to connect more to their own garbage and plastic footprint on the earth? 

Most certainly there is more attention for environmental issues on TV and social media and more and more people feel responsibility for their own legacy to the planet. Things move very slowly however when it comes to policy making. Last year, free plastic bags were finally banned in the Netherlands. It looks like private initiative is more important than ever, which makes me think of the words of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, who said: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Sometimes it feels like climate change is more of an issue in Europe than waste. Somehow these two are treated as if they are disconnected, whereas I think they are very much interrelated and both results of a fossil fuel oriented society. If we finally choose for renewable energy, our misuse of petroleum based disposables (= plastics) will also become more questionable.

Unfortunately, as the group of people who want changes is growing, those who want to maintain the status quo become more outspoken too. Society seems to become more divided instead of united.  

Jan Eric Visser, Untitled 2007. Newspaper, leaflets, inorganic household waste, wax. 75 x 30 x 24 cm. (incl. waste carboard box/pedestal) Photo: W. Vermaase

Jan Eric Visser, Untitled 2007. Newspaper, leaflets, inorganic household waste, wax. 75 x 30 x 24 cm. (incl. waste carboard box/pedestal) Photo: W. Vermaase

4. Tell us about your outdoor projects and the public's response.

My outdoor projects are about innovative recycling materials that are offered a platform in my work. For this I work together with scientists, manufacturers and craftsmen. In 2008 e.g. I collected litter from the countryside of Yorkshire (UK) – heart of the industrial revolution- which I assembled and wrapped in Aquadyne.  Aquadyne is a new material of 100% post consumer plastics which has macro and micro pores that enable the rooting of plants. It may be used for drainage, green roofs, green facades. Even vegetables may be grown on it! I think people like Mr. Gaskarth, who put everything on line to develop this material out of rubbish, are present day heroes.

Similarly, I have been working with a new type of concrete developed by Technical University Eindhoven that consists of waste and can eliminate air pollution.  Concrete is the second most produced material in the world after drinking water. Unfortunately, it is highly unsustainable in terms of CO2 emissions and resource efficiency. Now University of Technology Eindhoven have developed a new type of concrete in which aggregates and Portland cement have been replaced by waste materials, such as glass waste. Also a mineral has been added to render the concrete self-cleaning and eliminate air pollution. Thus it uses UV light to prevent the growth of algae and degrade small particles in the air we breathe known as nitrogen oxides. Its performance is increased by 40% as the various glass particles used in the concrete intensify the UV light.  I think both materials embody the new aesthetics of a post-industrial future in which valuable resources will be cherished and no longer incinerated as ‘waste’.

On the whole people respond positively to my outdoor sculpture as the works open up new possibilities.

Jan Eric Visser, Untitled (Ruins of Desire II) 2015. Translucent concrete and Aquadyne, 100 x 24 x 22 cm. Special thanks to: Eindhoven University of Technology and Center for Visual Arts Rotterdam. Photo: W. Vermaase

Jan Eric Visser, Untitled (Ruins of Desire II) 2015. Translucent concrete and Aquadyne, 100 x 24 x 22 cm. Special thanks to: Eindhoven University of Technology and Center for Visual Arts Rotterdam. Photo: W. Vermaase

5. What types of plastic pollution do you see in Rotterdam? Do you think the problem is getting better or worse?

Unfortunately, in Rotterdam like many cities, we have general litter in the streets and waters. Most of the litter is single-use plastic packaging and other ‘souvenirs’ of human presence like cans and paper wrappings. Sometimes it seems like the problem is getting worse. I’m afraid most people still think waste is something authorities should take care of. And they do. The lettering on the trucks of the Sanitation Department tells us that recycling is important. Yet most waste is taken to an incineration plant. This goes for most of the cities in the Netherlands, who have long term contracts with so-called waste-to-energy plants. To me it feels like we are burning our future as I look upon waste as our collective capital of the future. Fortunately, my waste is safe in the interior of my creations (instead of inside other creatures) waiting for future generations to excavate the valuable resources.

Plastic pollution in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Plastic pollution in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.