Trash, a curatorial : an ethnographic and visual study of waste in urban Hong Kong

  • Anneke COPPOOLSE

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


This is an ethnography of waste in the streets of urban Hong Kong and a curatorial inquiry into the significance of its visuality. Presented in the form of a triptych, the dissertation probes and portrays fragments of urban life in Hong Kong, consequently opening up a new vista for intellectual and social engagement at the juncture of aesthetics, lived experiences, and power. While urban density provides for its equivalent in trash, much of Hong Kong’s refuse first lands in the streets. It is thereupon regulated to be rendered invisible through government organisation which corresponds with what Gay Hawkins (2007) calls “the modern imaginary of the tidy city” where order and hygiene are brought together towards a ‘smooth running of things’ (Žižek 2006 in Moore 2012). Hawkins (2007) also states, however, that no city 'can hide the excesses of consumption'. Indeed, no matter the attempts at the ridding of rubbish in the modern city, trash keeps reappearing. Also Hong Kong has a waste problem that goes beyond its exhausting landfills. ‘It’s everywhere!’, as its collectors indicate. Both formal and informal collectors continuously pick up trash. This conflicting location between desired tidiness, persistent trash, and constant collection, it is argued here, is a political sphere that is largely negotiated visually. Taking on the collectors’ views of “trash in place” (in the streets; the city), I therefore rethink what is commonly understood as “matter out of place” (Douglas 2002) in the modern city. Emphasising the significance of the visuality of trash – understanding visuality as “an embodied process of situation, positioning, re-memory, encounter, cognition and interpretation” (Rose and Tolia Kelly 2012) – I advance the ethnographic project with curatorial practices, putting the collectors’ perspectives on trash and those of local artists in dialogue. From this dialogue, this thesis presents three “panels” on waste in urban Hong Kong. The “panels” engage in matters of order and duty, social networks and places, and the visuality and instantaneous of the everyday, to then reconsider the aesthetics of trash and the politics of urban life more generally. The thesis presents a range of different stories, therefore, about the instant undoing of disorder in the modern city, the (re)valuing of discards via social networks of excess, and the “unordering of the sensible” by means of a repositioning of trash. The triptych in its entirety, finally, manifests possibilities for methodological innovations on everyday matters of aesthetics and power.
Date of Award2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Cultural Studies
SupervisorJohn N. ERNI (Supervisor) & Yuk Ming Lisa LEUNG (Supervisor)

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