The Dutch tradition of still life paintings dates back to the Golden Age of the 17th century. These paintings were known for their abundant depictions of expensive objects and foodstuffs. As the country prospered, Dutch still lifes developed into a unique genre known as “Vanitas”, meaning “futile” or “worthless”. These were philosophical paintings which criticised the wealth they exhibited as being frivolous and empty. While reflecting the wealth of the times, the paintings were filled with symbols that spoke to the transience of life: Rotting exotic fruits and wilting flowers alongside silverware and skulls, all of which pointed to the ultimate fate of mankind and reminded the viewer that nothing is eternal.
Bob Eshuis (1966) is a Dutch photographer who photographs the waste he collects on the streets of Amsterdam in compositions similar to traditional Vanitas paintings, depicting used, mundane objects in an extravagant light. He places plastic bottles on pedestals and replaces the fruit and flowers of the Vanitas paintings with old containers. The representation of these objects is misleading: At first glance, they present a harmonic picture reminiscent of the hedonism of the old Dutch paintings. Upon a closer look, however, they are revealed to be common waste, which unlike the Vanitas objects is neither transient nor perishable.
By photographing 21st-century waste in the style of 17th-century still lifes, Eshuis’ work not only links two different artistic media but also seeks to rekindle the criticism of ostentatiousness and the worship of material things which stood at the heart of the Vanitas genre, reflecting it in its modern form – a world in which people may still be disposable and temporary, but their non-perishable waste, the result of materialism and short-term thinking, has become devastatingly permanent.
In collaboration with the Netherlands Embassy
Inbal Ben Yaakov