Plastic: Where would we be without it?
It seems as common as air, water and wood, an integral part of myriad manufactured products, from food packaging to cars to furniture to plumbing supplies. As a key component of light-weight but tough water bottles, tents, backpacks and other outdoor equipment, plastic has made exploring the wilderness, as just one example, that much easier.
Yet it’s also a “malignant” substance, says Joyce Robinson, an insidious form of pollution that is choking rivers, oceans and the stomachs of birds and fish. Soft water bottles, discarded toys and utensils, shopping bags — plastic garbage is everywhere you look.
But Robinson, the assistant director of the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University, notes that plastic’s dual nature makes it a good subject to explore artistically. That’s the theme of a new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), “Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials,” in which 30 artists have created works made from plastic to examine the ways in which these petroleum-based substances are inextricably woven into the fabric of modern life.
The exhibit, which originated at the Palmer Museum in 2018, offers a range of art — some 60 pieces — from bizarre and funny sculptures made from plastic bottles, computer cables, flexible tubing and other material to a video installation in which costumed actors do a synchronized dance in an enormous landfill.
Perhaps the most dramatic piece is “Chandelier,” by U.S. artist Willie Cole, made from over 700 water bottles carefully arranged in multiple rings. Hanging from the ceiling of one part of the SCMA show, the giant piece has a strangely engaging, shimmery quality even as it stands in as a blunt symbol of our throwaway society (exhibit notes say an estimated one million water bottles are purchased worldwide every minute).
“We’re all engaged with plastic in one way of the other,” said Robinson during a recent tour of the exhibit that she led with Emma Chubb, SCMA’s curator of contemporary art. “It’s both miraculous and malignant, and it’s ubiquitous.”
“Plastic Entanglements” is divided into three sections: The Archive, The Entangled Present, and Speculative Futures. The last one might be the most disturbing, as it contemplates the increasing presence of plastic in all walks of life, like the food chain, and what unexpected effects could arise as a result.
One seems to be here already. Canadian artist Kelly Jazvac visited a beach in Hawaii where large amounts of plastic regularly wash ashore from a vast, floating pile of garbage in the Pacific Ocean. Some of that plastic has now been fused, through the heat of campfires, to beach sediment and charred driftwood to form rock-like solids dubbed “plastiglomerate.”
The examples Jazvac has contributed to the exhibit, which have strands of shredded plastic sticking out and entwined with what looks like rock, may not meet textbook definitions of art, but they offer a fascinating if creepy ecological commentary.
As exhibit notes put it, the presence of plastiglomerate and other human-made substances marks a new epoch in which “petrochemical companies have literally written themselves into the geologic layers of the earth.”
On a lighter note, Aurora Robson, a Canadian-born artist who now lives in upstate New York, has fashioned two colorful standing sculptures from a variety of plastic junk — tubes, streamers, cut-up bottles and goblets — that at first glance look like giant gift baskets adorned with purple, pink and red ribbons. The two pieces, “Isla” and “Ona,” one about three feet high and the other a bit shorter, are named after the artist’s two young daughters, Robinson noted.
“[Robson] takes all this stuff out of the waste stream and turns it into something quite exuberant,” she said.
In the “Archive” section of the exhibit, Pamela Longobardi’s “Economies of Scale” speaks to the growing rate of plastic consumption on the planet. Longobardi, an American artist, has fashioned a nearly 20-foot-long horizontal sculpture of plastic junk washed up on beaches: bottle caps, toy figurines, air fresheners, pock-marked buoys.
The items are arranged from left to right, smallest to largest, beginning with a “nurdle,” a tiny, preproduction pellet used in plastic manufacturing. Scientists say these pellets have become a serious source of shoreline pollution and a deadly hazard for small marine creatures that ingest them.
Next to Longobardi’s sculpture is Mark Dion’s “Institute for Invertebrate Marine Biology,” in which the New York artist has mimicked a laboratory or science classroom by filling a wall-mounted case with glass jars of “specimens” and some textbooks. But these aren’t creatures, or parts of them, floating in alcohol solution: They’re colorful and oddly shaped forms of plastic, like weird futuristic lifeforms.
In fact, said Robinson, many of these objects are sex toys (of indeterminate purpose). “That there are so many varieties [of sex toys] suggests the depth of our engagement with plastic,” she added.
The exhibit’s appeal lies partly in the way in which Dion and the other artists have refashioned waste products in imaginative forms. For instance, Ifeoma U. Anyaeji, a native of Nigeria, has used traditional plaiting and basket-making techiques from that country to weave hundreds — perhaps thousands — of plastic bags together to make a wall hanging, “Akpalakpa II (Weave).”
And Brazilian-born Vik Muniz has recreated a famous 1864 photograph, by Félix Nadar, of the French actress Sarah Bernhardt by photographing a backdrop of thousands of colorful plastic toys, leaving patches of white to form the contours of much of Bernhardt’s face, neckline and dress.
Yet given the environmental perils of plastic, perhaps the most haunting pieces from the exhibit are the documentary photos of Chris Jordan; he’s a Seattle-based artist and photographer who visited Midway island in the Pacific to capture images of baby albatrosses that died from eating plastic. Much of it was evidently plucked from the floating garbage dump in the Pacific by the birds’ parents and mistakenly fed to them as food.
The photos are horrifying: The amount of plastic inside the albatross carcasses would seem enough to kill a fair-sized mammal, let alone a small seabird. It’s a grim reminder that our convenience comes at the expense of gruesome deaths for many smaller, helpless creatures across the globe.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.
“Plastic Engagements” is on exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art through July 28. To learn more about the exhibit, as well as visiting hours and ticket prices at the museum, visit smith.edu/artmuseum.