Off Campus, Arts

‘Aftermath’ Sculpture, Exhibited at Boston University, Reveals Impact of Global Textile Waste

As trends come and go, Goodwill, Savers, donation bins, and other thrift stores get overstocked with discarded clothing. And though thrifting and upcycling of used clothing are on the rise, offering a more sustainable way to shop, most of this unused and unpurchased clothing ends up in landfills and pollutes the environment. 

The Aftermath textile and bioreactor sculpture demonstrates the effects of clothing waste. It’s on display in the lobby of the Talbot Building at Boston University as part of the Activist Lab at the School of Public Health from on Sept. 19 to Oct. 7

“We’re not saying that people should stop buying clothes,” said Julia Whitcavitch-Devoy, the Lynch School of Education’s associate dean of undergraduate students and programs. “We’re saying that there needs to be a lot of thinking that goes into what kind of clothing we buy, how that clothing is produced and what happens to it after we’re done with it.”

The towering mass of clothes is both a piece of art and a science experiment. To the side of the shelving unit is a bioreactor simulation in which visitors can insert a piece of clothing and see what toxins and gasses it releases, according to Mark Cooper, a sculptor and director of undergraduate studies in studio art at Boston College.

The project is a collaboration between Whitcavitch-Devoy, Cooper, and Dielle Lundberg, project manager of the Aftermath Learning Lab and a BC alum.

Whitcavitch-Devoy will speak on an Oct. 6 panel at BU about the project. The sculpture will then move to BU’s Charles River Campus. 

Cooper designed the sculpture based on the idea of a mountain and landscape of recycled clothing. The clothing is haphazardly set on a tall, high-end, sculptural shelving unit. 

Addison Metzger, a research assistant on the project and LSEHD ’24, noted how the towering height of the sculpture makes the art seem as daunting as the issue of textile waste is. 

“It’s supposed to really catch your eye, which it totally does, and make you feel a little bit anxious about the issue so that you look further into the research that we’re doing and the suggestions that we have in terms of personal changes, but also larger policy changes,” Metzger said. 

Aftermath is ever evolving. Since the sculpture is composed of pieces of clothing draped over a shelving unit, it will never look the same after moving locations. In its most recent incarnation at BU, the team added protest signs, one of which reads “We need political solutions to reduce textile waste.”

Whitcavitch-Devoy first dreamed of the sculpture in 2019 as part of her larger ongoing research project with Lundberg: the Aftermath Learning Lab, which examines environmental racism and public health injustice. 

Whitcavitch-Devoy and her team received a Schiller Institute Grant for Exploratory Collaborative Scholarship for the research and began to work on the sculpture in 2021.

The McMullen Museum of Art first displayed the sculpture in early 2022 before it moved to the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. for the ACCelerate Creativity + Innovation Festival in April 2022. 

All of the clothes on the sculpture were donated by BC students around Thanksgiving in 2021. The amount of clothes—many of which still have tags—is meant to showcase the overwhelming surplus of textile waste across the world. 

Informational plaques about sustainability and QR codes that lead to more resources on the topic surround the sculpture, according to Evan Warns, an Aftermath Learning Lab research assistant and a graduate student in Lynch. The resources highlight how the United States and Europe ship massive quantities of unused clothing to Africa and Southeast Asia, according to Whitcavitch-Devoy. 

“Like any, any good piece of art it opens up questions” Cooper said. “And, hopefully, it will motivate people to be more responsible about the clothing they buy.”

September 27, 2022