Meng Wei
Culture Hybridity

Upcycling: Making Fine Art out of Cardboard


When people think of cardboard, ‘cheap’, ‘low-quality’, ‘unstable’ are some words will usually come to their mind, and it is not usual to associate cardboard with fine art – which is supposed to be delicately created and be able to last for centuries. However, in the 21st century, a trend of cardboard art creation is growing around the world. In principle, it goes paralleled with the eco-friendly and environmental sustainable revolution - upcycling - is one the key words to describe the on-going phenomena. Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value. In practice, this process is supported by technology development such as digital simulation and internet. The content of cardboard art is largely based on already pre-existing objects (e.g. Thomas Demand uses photographs from the media), this technique aims to provoke the audience’s attention of everyday object and appreciate the beauty of it. The artists also embed political and cultural signs in their work to create sort of collective memory to which the audience can relate themselves.

Key Concepts


The first recorded use of the term upcycling was by Reiner Pilz of Pilz GmbH in an interview by Thornton Kay of Salvo in 1994. "Recycling," he said, "I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling where old products are given more value not less." The upcycling concept was also the theme of the 1999 book with the same title written by Gunter Pauli and Johannes F. Hartkemeyer. The concept was later incorporated by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. They state that the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. This reduces the consumption of new raw materials when creating new products. Reducing the use of new raw materials can result in a reduction of energy usage, air pollution, water pollution and even greenhouse gas emissions.

The idea was soon transferred to the domain of art design. Many artists started working with existing industrial products such as resin, plastic and cardboard. For example, in a project from School of Art Design & Performance (UCLan, UK), the students used recycled materials such as glass and bricks to recreate a functional material to build wall tiles and floor tiles for buildings. The end products are eco-friendly, yet they have very high aesthetic value.

Another example is an American artist Don Porcella who creates sculptures from pipe cleaners, and plays with the concepts of consumerism, reality and our own weird mortality. Pipe cleaners aren’t the most common art medium an artist can use, but that’s just what makes Don Porcella’s creations so special. His art consists mostly of “humorous representations of a widely imaginative reality” made with lots and lots of pipe cleaners. Some categorize his crazy sculptures as creepy, while others find them amusing, but personally I think they’re a fluffy combination of both.

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The cradle-to-cradle design is not what people used to imagine about trash collecting, it’s productive and functional, yet it emphasizes on

Cardboard Art

In this paper I will focus mostly on cardboard. There are a variety of artists using different techniques for their work. Some use only pre-existing cardboard, while some produce cardboard themselves. Some insist in keeping cardboard in their original plain look, while others paint and decorate them with fantastic colors. Some converge cardboard sculpting with other art forms such as photography and computer art. This kind of hybrid is very important to the flourish of cardboard art in several ways: first, the artists use materials from other media as their sources. Thomas Demand, for example, uses photographs he found in newspaper as prototype of his cardboard settings, and Ana Serrano, uses digital camera to take photos of the stores and houses and built their cardboard representations according to the photographs. Second, during the process, artists used pre-programmed software to control blades to a get more accurate result. Third, the display of their artwork is reformed with digital technology. Many cardboard artwork are distributed on the internet to a broad cast of audiences. The seamless 360 degreed display technology enables audiences to view the sculptures from different aspects. In some cases, only the digital version of the artwork is kept and the “actual” one is destroyed or recycled after photographs are taken.

With hundreds of showcases of cardboard design, ranging from architecture to furniture, from animal to human statues, from everyday objects to abstractions, no one would deny that cardboard does have a value of aesthetics, but wait a minute – fine art out of cardboard? Many people still doubt it.

In Las Vegas, a war of the arts between cardboard and marble was taken place. The CityCenter, a 9 billion dollars luxury development on the Las Vegas Strip, has a contemporary-art collection that cost 40 million dollars. It includes an imposing white stone sculpture “Reclining Connected Forms” by famed sculptor Henry Moore. A few miles away, in a Las Vegas county government building houses "CountyCenter," a parodic art show displayed a replica of Moore’s work which was made of cardboard. "I'm bringing it back to my people," said Justin Favela, the artist who created the cardboard version of Moore’s sculpture. “It really annoyed me when they said the CityCenter was going to be the culture center piece of Las Vegas… like they are going to educate people, they are going to show people what art really is. And then when you go there, it’s just not about that.” Favela argued that art was not about the 40 million investment, that art was not about the luxury marble, it was about the spirit it shows and how it interacts with the audiences. In Favela’s work, although his sculptures are imitations of other’s work, they have distinctive characters and meanings. For instance, the cardboard sculpture, shows how money and fame come and go so fast in the city, just like the unsustainable material it was made of. He chose cardboard as part of his argument, and the argument was so impressing and strong that it even intrigued a lot of people to visit the CityCenter to see the original sculpture.

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The original piece
Reclining Connected Forms by Henry Moore

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The cardboard version
image by Wendy Kveck

Representation of Everyday Object

Besides using pre-existing material, artists also use pre-existing symbols and norms and objects as content. The game they play with everyday objects is for provoking audience’s recognition of the object. In the digital age, people encounter huge amount of information everyday and almost every piece of information is a copy, combination, remix, or adoption of other information. In this information rich environment, people pay less and less attention to everyday events and objects, and even a terrible earthquake was simplified to a headline on newspaper and was forgotten on the next day. Andy Warhol was aware of this phenomena and in a recent exhibition titled “Headlines”, there is one series of paintings I felt very impressing: They reproduce the front page of an Italian newspaper as it cries out "Hurry Up," a plaintive cry for relief for victims of a devastating earthquake. One panel is rendered in straightforward black and white, a second is almost all white, the third almost all black. Late in his career, after recycling tabloid inanities as high art, Warhol seems sobered by the actual news in a newspaper. He is earnest, even somber, acknowledging in one panel that the news can be so glaringly urgent that it is blinding, and in another so impenetrably sad that it threatens the mind like a black hole.


One of the key findings concerning how groups process information is the ‘common knowledge effect’ - information shared by many group members plays a larger role in group process and performance than unshared information. The reason why cardboard artists chose to represent everyday objects is very well explained by Chris Gilmour:

“The reason for the choice of objects has always been pretty much the same- they call up memories and emotions connected to our experience of these (everyday) things. Since this is both a visual and conceptual work I choose objects for their visual appeal and cultural resonance, but I also usually choose objects which imply an action or interaction of some sort.”

Also, Ana Serrano talked about her motivation of choosing objects in her cardboard installation:

“I basically created my own environment based on these details that I’m attracted to, because these details are always presented next to each other in the real world. And when you pull them out from there and you put them in a setting, where they are highly focused on, then you are really able to see them for what they are. And maybe when you take them back out of the gallery and into the real world, you are able to appreciate them and be more aware of them.” I will discuss about Serrano more in detail in the following section.

Case study

Thomas Demand

Demands culls his subjects from reports in the mass media, usually of a political event, using them as the starting point to create expansive sculptures out of paper and cardboard which transpose the two-dimensional original into three-dimensional form. His handcrafted facsimiles of architectural spaces and natural environments are built in the image of other images. Thus, his photographs are triply removed from the scenes or objects they purport to depict. Once they have been photographed, the models are destroyed.

He never paints on the surfaces of his model. He used ordinary colored paper that can be found in the store. “Because you always think you have seen it before. You’ve seen something look like it. You are familiar with it. Everything… the paper looks familiar, the color arrange looks familiar. Somehow you have a feeling of a… you feel kind of home in that.”

Demand is best known for his evocative photographs of (mostly) life-sized 3D models – impressionistic ‘reverse mock-ups’ that he builds from construction paper, highly visible media references, and scraps of both personal and collective memory. He uses famous and forgotten historical pictures as his models, generally selecting images from old new media. This act of reduplication introduces layer after layer of hidden meaning into his work, referencing twentieth-century European history and politics, Cold War censorship, the relationship between the public and the private, and the question of what defines an individual within a bureaucratic society.

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One of my favorite pieces of Demand is Badezimmer (bathroom). In this piece Demand constructs what appears to be a seemingly ordinary washroom scene; a bath has been drawn, the room seems quiet. Upon further inspection one finds a loss of surface visibility; the scene is not as “cut-and-dry” as initially thought. The water filling the bathtub; the door is slightly ajar allowing only a partial view into th next room which is cast in an abysmal darkness. The lighting present in the scene is somber, creating the feeling of quietude. However, this ‘quite’ is not one of peaceful tranquility but one charged with an aura of dread, as if something terrible were about to happen or has already occurred. In fact, this is very true. This was adapted from a 1988 photograph of a German politician, Uwe Barschel, who was found dead in a hotel bathroom in Geneva. Demand has engineered his bathroom scene in a specific manner in order to elicit these feeling from his viewers.

The way Demand named his work is devilishly laconic, providing only the most obvious denotative information that anyone could have gathered from the images themselves. The bathroom is not any bathroom but the bathroom where Uwe Barschel was found, similarly, in his another piece, Office, this office is not any office but the office the 1990 raid on abandoned Stasi offices by East Germans looking for their personal files. The title doesn't provide any clue to the referrene and the audiences have to observe the objects in the image very carefully to recognize or guess what had happened or would happen. In Demand's work the space is not background noise but rather the storytellor.

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Ana Serrano

Ana's Salon of Beautywas my inspiration for the whole paper. Compared to Demand's work, her sculptures are colorful, warmer, and focused on local community and ordinary people's life. Salon of Beauty is currently installed at Rice Gallery in Houston, where an entire room serves as one of Serrano's ideal city blocks. There's a liquor store, a check-cashing store, a strip club, and of course the "salon of beauty" after which the show is named, a real-life lost-in-translation sign Serrano saw on a beauty salon. "There's so much activity in these streets that they make for great inspiration," she says. Some of the details seen in the above video are absolutely staggering, from the hundreds of cardboard shingles affixed with hot glue, to gorgeous Spanish "tiles" that cover a floor of a house, to a tiered wedding cake in the bakery window, complete with paper roses.

While cardboard provides a practical and economic way to produce Serrano's vision, the medium also captures the ephemerality of these neighborhoods, where no structure is permanent and a real-life stucco box could disappear at a developer's whim. Her previous work, Cartonlandia, used cardboard boxes to create a dense, rambling hilltop community. "I like that cardboard is accessible and not a formal art making material," says Serrano.

While her pieces are not exact replicas of specific buildings, Serrano's work both celebrates and memorializes these seemingly inconsequential decisions by homeowners and businessowners to say, paint the bars outside their windows hot pink, or build a wall using stacked concrete blocks. Just as Serrano gathered her inspiration by driving through South Los Angeles and photographing her favorite details, she hopes that highlighting these quirky details will allow anyone to see the simple, handcrafted beauty in their own urban environment. "I do hope that people notice these details in a different light than what they are usually perceived as," she says. "But ultimately it's up to the viewer to decide what the impact of the work is going to be for them.

When I first saw Serrano's installation, I was inspired by the scale of her work. She has done many smaller-sized cardboard sculpture in the past, but this time the changing of scale really brought something novel to her work. Rather than observe the sculpture from different angles outside, this time the audiences are able to really walk through the sculpture and observe from inside. And cardboard provides the best media for the audiences because it’s so friendly - not like fragile glass or porcelain - that the audiences can touch and interact with the environment easily.

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Serrano's scuplture Cartonlandia


There is so much to talk about cardboard as a type of art material, but I don’t want to limit this paper only in this aspect. What I understand from Serrano and Demand and other cardboard artists is that cardboard is not just the material but also part of their argument they made with their artwork. As Serrano said in the interview: “when you pull them out from there and you put them in a setting… then you are really able to see them for what they are.” Part of the impression that they wish to leave on the audiences is also brought about by the blankness of everyday objects made from cardboard. Though they are imbued with enough detail to be mistaken for being real, they are also devoid of the details we all know to expect, such as the black, greasy color of bike chain or the metallic shine of the frame. By creating a bicycle out of cardboard without these characteristics, the viewer is able to place his or her own memories onto that paper replica of a bike, we are able to turn it into the bike we had when we were ten years old and just learned how to ride without training wheels.

Maybe it’s a way of re-appropriating or taking control of the things around us, which if you live in a city are pretty much all man-made. The use of re-cycled or found materials is brought about by our proximity to these things and their familiarity. One of the reasons cardboard artists use cardboard is because it’s so easy to find- they have an immediate access to these recycled materials in a way that could never be possible with bronze or marble. It is also free of the historical and cultural weight of those classical sculptural materials, and can offer new readings of the work. By using a material which everybody knows and understands, they can build on the pre-existing associations to develop ideas and ways of reading the work. It’s a way of creating a language which is understood by many.

Works Cited


Adams, Parveen. (2000). Out of Sight, Out of Body: The Sugimoto/Demand Effect.

Berzon, Alexandra. (2011). In Las Vegas, Art Imitates Art. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from:

Tindale, R. Scott; Sheffey, Susan. (2002). Shared Information, Cognitive Load, and Group Memory. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations: Vol5(1) 5-18.

Tylevich, Katya. (2006). Hide and Seek: Thomas Demand Creates Achingly Familiar Space Through The Use Of Construction Paper and Photography.

Wright, Karen. (2006). Cardboard caveman: Thomas Demand develops a grotto mentality. Modern Painters Je: P86-89.


Ana Serrano's website