In SoHo, Recycling Celebrity Trash Into Cash
By Alona Wartofsky
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page C01
NEW YORK -- Spend time visiting galleries here, and you may conclude that some art is garbage. In "Star Trash," a new exhibition in SoHo, the garbage is art.
French photojournalists Pascal Rostain and Bruno Mouron have spent the past 15 years surreptitiously sifting through famous people's garbage. They select various items of interest, arrange them on a black velvet background, and then photograph the display. The resulting poster-size works, titled only with the name of the celebrity, are more fascinating than Us Weekly or People magazine could ever be.
It is vastly entertaining to learn that someone in Marlon Brando's Mulholland Drive home crushes their emptied Evian bottles. If these items were all discarded by Brando and not a member of his family or household staff, "Marlon Brando" (2004) tells us that Brando drinks copious amounts of peach-flavored diet Snapple iced tea and eats quarter-pound Hebrew National jumbo beef franks. He snacks on Rocheach raspberry and apricot hamantaschen pastries. He reads the Los Angeles Asian Journal. And, perhaps, he dyes his hair with the L'Oreal Preference shade of soft black.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's garbage seems to confirm his penchant for Casillas Cuban cigars, a vice that would mean that the celebrity governor violates U.S. laws restricting imports from Cuba.
But the trash that attracted the most attention here since the exhibit opened last week belonged to CNN yakker Larry King. His garbage yielded a wrapper for Depends, a product for adult incontinence.
The gossip columns have had a grand time with that tidbit, with the New York Post going so far as to point out that King, 70, "likes to boast that he had two young sons with his much-younger wife, Shawn, 'without Viagra.' " King later told the tabloid's Page Six gossip column that the big diapers were not his.
Rostain and Mouron quickly removed the King photograph from the exhibit. "We made a mistake -- a big mistake," Rostain said at the gallery last Friday as he watched someone load "Larry King" (2004) into a station wagon parked outside. Being French, he is somewhat unfamiliar with American products, he explained. "We thought it was for kids."
Another portrait in garbage that was pulled from the show belonged to Ronald Reagan. "We know the emotion of a president's death in America," said Rostain. Still, he'd like to display the Reagan piece in 10 or 15 years. Getting to an ex-president's garbage is particularly challenging, he explained, and the goodies he discovered included a list with names of Secret Service agents protecting the former president and the weapons they used.
Walk through the rented space that has been temporarily named the Star Trash Store (until July 16, when the exhibition comes down), and you'll find that some discarded items reveal glamorous, pampered lives. A receipt suggests that Tom Hanks's son Colin racked up a $1,107.95 bill in an overnight stay at Bellagio, presumably the hotel in Las Vegas. A sheet titled "Tom's Toiletry List" found in Tom Cruise's garbage reveals that Cruise requires no fewer than 13 products just for "Face Care."
But Tom's Toiletries also include an electric nose-hair trimmer, and that and other everyday items serve as a comforting reminder that in many ways, the stars are just like the rest of us. Halle Berry's cat is indulged with fuzzy toys. Schwarzenegger's trash yielded ripped up unflattering photographs of him and Binaca breath spray. Someone in John Travolta's household shops at Tiffany, Neiman Marcus and Trader Joe's. And someone in Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith's home is lactose-intolerant.
Rumpled fan letters in several of the works seem either fawning or desperate. Jack Nicholson threw out a check for $1.25 from a Charles J. Kelly of Boston; the memo at the bottom reveals it was meant to reimburse the movie star for "autographed photo postage." Did Nicholson's staff ever send Kelly an autographed photo? Did Nicholson cover the postage? Why would Kelly want an autographed photo of Nicholson, anyway?
Actually, these works, which are priced at $6,000 (15 have sold), aren't meant to be about celebrities or celebrity. Rostain, 45, and Mouron, 49, both longtime photographers for Paris Match magazine, aren't necessarily dissecting the lives of famous people. Instead, they say, their interest lies with documenting our consumerist culture. "For us, it's really socialogique and archealogique," said Rostain in charming French-accented English. "If in the next 50 years the work that we do is helping people, students, to understand our society, then we will win what we intend to do."
A friendly Frenchman with ruffled hair who smokes exactly 44 centimeters of Cuban cigars daily, Rostain explained the purpose of their work. "We are not artists. We are not archaeologists. We are journalists, and this is not tabloid journalism. We threw away everything that was medical or sexual," he said.
"Some people, they think we are like paparazzi. They are wrong. You have to think a little bit. We are sure of one thing: This is a real portrait of our society."
So why celebrities? "If we do the same thing with normal people, we would not have the media," he said.
Rostain and Mouron came up with their concept of garbage investigation after reading an article about a sociology professor who instructed his students to collect trash. Look at someone's garbage, Rostain said, "and you know what people eat, what they are drinking, if they smoke, if they have kids, animals. You can see the personality."
They have examined trash in the United States and in France. He once photographed Brigitte Bardot. "But the best picture I had of Brigitte Bardot came from her garbage."
Rooting through people's garbage requires countless pairs of yellow dishwashing gloves -- "that stinks!" he said Frenchly. But trash work is not so awful. "A lot of people do it," said Rostain. "Of course, homeless do it every day to eat."
For their next project, Rostain and Mouron plan to root through the trash cans of ordinary families all over the world. "We'll go to China, India, Africa, Greenland," Rostain said. "It will be a print of the century through garbage."
He paused for a moment and examined his cigar stub. "Imagine if we could see the garbage of Lafayette or Mozart, what we would know. Imagine!"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company