A Human History in Rust

In refuse, there’s beauty—and hope for what can be renewed

By Dorothy Woodend Published May 6, 2024 14:59:07 IST
A Human History in Rust Old tractor parts went into the creation of this buffalo sculpture in South Dakota. Photo Credit: Courtesy of John Lopez

The relationship between people and their junk is a curious one. A 2022 documentary called Scrap shows just how oddly intertwined these two things can be. When the film’s director, Stacey Tenenbaum, came across a photo of an airplane graveyard just outside of Moscow, the place’s ghostly quality—seemingly frozen in time—led her to wonder what happens to these kinds of things when they are no longer useful. 

The film is chockablock with visual pleasure. Viewers float alongside retired trams and peer into the rotting husks of muscle cars spotted with moss and lichen. But a harder message lurks beneath the lilting images: The way back from irrelevance and obsolescence demands work—often the hard, dirty and dangerous kind. 

That humans use and then discard endless amounts of stuff isn’t exactly news. But how do we interact with what we throw away? The film showcases an alternative approach to the cycle of junking things once they’ve reached the end of their active life: There is worth in the saddest old hulks of refuse, including a downed plane, a wizened train or an ancient phone booth. In fact, old stuff can be transformed into something not only useful, but beautiful.

image-76_050624025727.jpgOld phone booths were given new life for this art installation in London. Photo Credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Take, for example, the iconic red phone booth, an object familiar to any anglophile. Back in the 1980s, when Tony Inglis, who ran a trucking firm in England at the time, got the contract to remove phone booths that had fallen into ruin, he thought, “We can’t just let them go.”

So he started fixing them up. Over time, he purchased more than 2,000 of the decommissioned booths and set about resurrecting them: scraping off decades of buckled paint, replacing broken glass, slowly restoring dignity and handsomeness. Now, decades later, the refurbished booths are being put to a variety of new functions—everything from miniature libraries to coffee kiosks to defibrillator stations.

There is something deeply soothing, even redemptive, about watching a person attend to the act of restoration with care and precision. Surely if an ancient crusty thing can be brought back to a state of shining glory, humans can also be returned to a state of wholeness.

The film is as much about objects as it is about the people who love them. Consider Ed Metka of Kenosha, in the US state of Wisconsin. In the 1980s the retired civil engineer began purchasing out-of-service streetcars from several North American cities, including Toronto, with a plan to refurbish and resell the vehicles.

As a child he was enthralled by streetcars and watched the operators so carefully that by the age of five, he imagined he was fully capable of driving the trolleys himself. “I was fascinated by the trolleys, by their appearance and their clickety-clackety sound.” Today, some of the streetcars he purchased are back in active service. “It’s very satisfying to see these cars running again,” says Metka.

The tenacity of metal, which stands long after fragile human bodies are gone, is the subject of South Dakota artist John Lopez’s metal sculptures. He welds old tractor parts, bits of machinery and rusty lengths of chain into larger-than-life figures of buffalo, tigers and draught horses. In a stunning homage to his late father, he even created an ancient, gnarled tree covered with delicate pink metal petals.

As Lopez explains, part of his inspiration came from an old farming custom in South Dakota: dragging broken pieces of equipment up to the top of hills. “It just brings back all the memories from the old days,” says Lopez. “It has meaning—a lot of meaning.”

Poised against the landscape, the sculptures stand like dinosaurs, markers of a time and place—and a lifetime of work. His intent was that the relics would take on new life as conversation pieces, and so continue to be useful.

In another part of the world, abandoned machines become a home for families and a source of income. Just east of Bangkok, Thailand, Fah Boonsoong and her kids and grandkids live in a hollowed-out jumbo jet airliner—just one of many spread across a field. Tourists pay to take photographs with the derelict planes.

As the kids bounce up and down on the wings of the aircraft, their grandmother talks about being the caretaker of this airplane graveyard. But she takes issue with the word “graveyard,” insisting this is a vibrant community, alive with laughing, playing kids. “Graveyards are for the dead. We’re living people, not spirits.”

Resurrection is also the focus of architect Tchely Hyung-Chul Shin, who works in South Korea and France. His architectural firm repurposes sections of old tankers and cargo ships into churches and other structures. Freed from rusting turpitude and fashioned into soaring vaulted spaces, ships’ hulls, ribbed like the inside of a whale, become things of airy beauty.

But such startling transformations aren’t easy. Cutting massive ships into their component parts is gritty, rough work. Retired vessels are sourced around the globe, but the reconstruction takes place mainly in Spain, where an international team of shipwrights disassemble the boats. Scrap shows extraordinary scenes of the behemoths being dragged out of the water, turned on end and sliced into parts.

As Shin explains, when wiping away decades of accumulated rust from a section of hull he feels connected to these old aquatic warriors like he does members of his own family. “There is a lot of emotion when I see these pieces and this boat. It’s like taking care of a friend or a parent.”

image-78_050624025841.jpgIn Delhi, India, workers strip parts out of discarded cellphones. Photo Credit: Saumya Khandelwal

Meanwhile in the United States, the disintegrating hulks of old cars emerge out of the landscape of White, Georgia, like some new type of growth. Throughout the 14-hectare site—known as Old Car City—more than 4,000 vehicles have permanent parking spaces, and curious sights emerge from the gloom. Atop a 1950s roadster heaped with pine needles, an abandoned doll pokes out. Some vehicles have been here so long that trees have grown through them. It’s kind of beautiful, and a little eerie.

Proprietor Dean Lewis sees the White junkyard as a kind of a museum. “It’s art, nature and history,” he says. Lewis inherited the place from his parents, who started it as a used car lot in 1931, but since then it has evolved into something more akin to a kingdom of decay.

From the hand-painted signs that declare ‘The Meaning of Life is to give Life Meaning’ to the worn dirt paths carved through the woods, the place is a distinctly rustic venue. The constellations of automotive rust possess great beauty, patterns and colours stippled on the metal exteriors like a modernist painting. It is both lovely and sad: the hopes and ambitions of another age slowly disintegrating into rust and dirt.

In other parts of the world, the scale of disposable culture takes on epic proportions. In Delhi, old cellphones and TVs are dismantled by workers who make a living stripping the parts out of junked technology. Photographer Saumya Khandelwal documents the lives of these workers, her images driven by a need to do something in the midst of a juggernaut of waste: “When there is something that bothers me, the only thing I can do is photograph it.”

The intermingling of decay and new life as portrayed in Scrap makes for an interesting conjunction of opposing forces. The sheer magnificence of elemental, brutalist scrap remade into functional, beautiful things is a reminder that with care and love, almost anything can be brought back from the brink.


©2022, Dorothy Woodend. From Human History in Rust, by Dorothy Woodend, The Tyee (21 October 2022), thetyee.ca

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