Like most young brides, Jo Nasvik searched high and low for just the right wedding dress.
The analogy ends there. In no other way was Nasvik like a typical bride. She had no groom. She didn't want to look beautiful in a pristine white gown. She didn't have a lavish ceremony to look forward to. She didn't select bridesmaids, book a venue or hire a band.
Instead, Nasvik, a senior art student at the University of Montana, was preparing a piece for her thesis exhibition. She was searching for a way to confront herself and others with the amount of stuff we all throw away, all the time. So, naturally, she went around to thrift stores and tried to find a dress that she could wear comfortably every day for the entire month of February and that could accommodate every piece of trash she generated during that period.
It wasn't easy.
"It took me months to find the right dress," she tells me. "It was like a real wedding, kind of ... I didn't want it to have lace or anything extra, because I was going to be sewing my garbage all over it. And I needed it to have a big enough train so that I could fit everything."
We're talking in her studio, a small, crowded room in her Northside apartment. The dress, which is set up on a stand in the corner, is covered with furled yellow pages from a phone book, cut aluminum cans, a torn-open Emergen-C packet, layered paper, Big Sky six-pack cardboard and all the other detritus of being alive, all of which is carefully arranged and hand-sewn with red thread to the dirty white dress.
When she started this project, Nasvik was looking for a way to better understand her role in a consumerist culture that troubled her. "It was something that I think I needed to do for myself," she says, "because I'm a visual person and I have all these questions about consumption and consumerism and I try to be really aware, but I couldn't get a grasp on my own consumption without being able to see it. And then I started thinking about how I could go about doing that. I started thinking about what it means to buy what we buyand what if everybody saw what we bought? How would that change everything?"
She chose to use a wedding dress because it "symbolizes, to me, our relationship with industries that we support and buy from and our commitment that we have to those industries."
With the aid of a fanny pack full of sewing supplies, she spent February wearing the dress and affixing to it everything she otherwise would've thrown away. Or trying to. The stuff was overwhelming. "I couldn't keep up with myself. I tried so hard. I put in so many hours on this, more than I've ever done on any project, and still there was no way I could keep up." She points to a box overflowing with trash. "I'm still catching up."
It may not have changed everything, but wearing her gar-bage did change a lot for Nasvik. "I looked at everything as a package," she says, "rather than as a beverage or food or whatever, 'cause I knew I'd have to spend time working on that package." While she became the object of endless curiosity and questioning from strangers, she found herself isolated in her obsessive collecting. She couldn't even sit down with the dress on, which meant she couldn't drive, which meant she had to walk everywhere wearing the equivalent of what felt as heavy as a dozen lead X-ray aprons.
She endured all of this, Nasvik says, because she "wanted to challenge people. I wanted people to have to look at my garbage and be confronted with it, because we spend so little time with these objects usually. So, what if you were forced to spend more time with them? Maybe that would get you thinking, asking questions. I'm sure I got people asking lots of questions."
The dress project is one component of Nasvik's larger effort to interrogate the life cycles of objects and the proliferation of waste. Her other recent projects include a nest woven from the university's huge backlog of scrap paper and a cape that she made of aluminum cans and then delivered to the home of "the can man," the person who, according to Nasvik, hoards Missoula's cans. I'm not sure I quite follow what she means, but that's fine. Nasvik's work is a generator of endless questions.
Jo Nasvik's art is part of UM's BFA Thesis exhibition in the Gallery of Visual Arts and the UC Gallery at the University, with an opening reception on Thursday, April 26, from 5 to 7 PM. Free. The exhibit runs through May 11.