The Guy Who Leaves Modern Trash at Roman Ruins

Don't worry, it's for art.
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Leonid Tsvetkov grabs recyclable materials out of dumpsters and trash bins—plastic bottles, Styrofoam take-out packages, cardboard egg cartoons, soda cans and more—puts them in concrete casts, and then leaves them on and around ancient Roman monuments, carvings, and inscriptions. So far, he says, nobody's noticed them. Can you?

The idea came to him while, as a fellow at The American Academy in Rome, he was exploring the intersections of history, material culture, and consumption as they affect social and physical landscapes from antiquity until today.

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Tsvetkov is a conceptual artist who was born in the Soviet Union and moved to America when he was 14 and is now in Rome. He says his aim with this project was to use the archaeological findings from Monte Testaccio—what he calls the biggest dump of antiquity—and juxtapose them with discarded contemporary household-product packaging.

"I was always fascinated with these shards from the past, which are essentially trash, laying around everywhere in Rome," he says in an email. "People's obsession with ruins in romantic as well as political terms always intrigued me, too."

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He says today's trash, if you can actually see the form of it—which is why he cast his artifacts in cement—is not any less beautiful than the trash from ancient Rome. Seeing the old and new side by side, he says, should make viewers start to thinking differently about artifacts and about the products they use every day—which, some day, may be considered artifacts themselves.

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He prefers the object forms that are more abstract, but did not discriminate in that direction for the project. The places where he deposits them are selected somewhat by chance: He has to be sneaky about it, taking opportunities as they come.

"I circle different sites quite a bit until I choose the one that works," he says. "Most of all I want the object to 'fit' or belongs to the environment so that someone will think more than twice about removing the object." Tsvetkov's plan is to return to the sites over the years to come and check up on the objects.

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He told me he wants people who see the artifacts and get confused and question formal aesthetics or beauty: "They should think twice about what is going in the trash and question their use. To come back home and pour cement into packages and use these as ready-made decorative building blocks for their back yard or what have you."

Is this a joke? "It is a serous exploration of perception as most other things I do," Tsvetkov says. "Humor doesn't necessarily hurt though. I never meant this to be funny but seeing a cement egg carton along side with Constantine I cannot help but smile."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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