I visited the McLean County Art Association a few months ago and was intrigued by the big, beautiful pile of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. I walked around the exhibit, smiling when I saw one of the toys my children had played with a decade ago.

The brochure explained, “Chicago artist Patrick Miceli creates installations using consumer products such as fast food promotional toys, Play-Doh, or M&M candy. These large scale works evoke the multiplicity of meaning inherent in the individual building block materials and speak to the connection between identity and consumership.” Okay, I thought, I should have saved those colorful fun toys. I could have built a small art sculpture.

A recent New York exhibit included 3,000 or more used cell phones in a pile. Photographer Chris Jordan perched high above the pile in the hopes of capturing on film the entire collection. More than a photographic artist, Jordan is an environmentalist. He wants to draw attention to the environmental consequences of people’s own actions and lifestyles. The fact that there are more than 130 million discarded cell phones annually and 65,000 tons of toxic materials—battery components and elements like cadmium—thrown into landfills is alarming indeed. Many discarded phones are still active; imagine the eerieness of a cell phone ringing from somewhere within the pile.

The New York Times stated, “Mr. Jordan is an openly passionate advocate. While he is aiming for visually resolved images as an artist, the point is to heighten awareness about our collective environmental disregard. But art and advocacy can be at odds, the goals of one often canceling out the other. ‘My goal is to try to face the complexity of the issue and honor it.’”

I began to think about the many computers, hairdryers, curling irons, plastic containers, glass bottles, videotapes, and cans I’d tossed through the years.

Besides the “artistic collections” of discarded products showing consumerism, other collections give us pause for even more serious reflection. The memory of seeing the millions of shoes piled in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and the buttons encased at our own Shoppes at Grand Prairie still haunts me. Is it art or a memorial? Is it art or a pile of junk?

The artistic medium in the form of “piles of material goods” has done its job. It’s caused me to think philosophically about life, our environment, and consumerism. It’s made me realize I can appreciate art in many forms, as each work tells a story.

I’m seriously thinking about how to photograph my shoe collection…and providing the story behind each purchase, of course! AA!