This article explores the relationship between precarity, waste, and the ragpicker in contemporary Chinese visual culture. It asks first why precarity has come so little and so late to the theoretical scene in China, a society in which precarious experience is so rife as to be almost endemic. The essay then goes on to show how some of China's leading artists now work profusely with refuse—as a core theme of the precarious present—while noting the strange anomaly that their works offer up scant if any space for the figure of the waste picker. The artist, instead, has taken over her mantle as the sifter and sorter of garbage. This missing human figure matters, in part because waste is always about people—and their absence from aesthetic space suggests that art is responding to a felt sense that personhood is coming under assault as basic life sureties fray. But this essay also argues that the garbage takeover is part of a sustained practice of appropriation, effacement, even cruelty in the artistic representation of precarity in China. China's wasteworks are art forms born at the tense interface between different class actors, and they disclose fraught fears over where brittle life experience begins and ends in a society that has tried to eliminate class as a category of political action and analysis.

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