Made Of Plastic

ana de la cuesa,
ana de la cuesa, untitled, 2013. mixed media

From the beginning artists sourced nature to create art: paint originally made from plants, sculpture formed from stone and clay, and now artist reuse discarded plastic for creating art.

Some artists use this plastic and other trash-destined debris in their artwork for both material and conceptually as embodied points of view onto the world they live in, and a few, ahem…perhaps, one, consider human detritus as simply anart medium without reflecting on or moralizing it’s impact in our world.

Tony Feher’s material is our civilizations toss-a-way packaging. He finds delight in plastic bottles, but also boxes, and bags with labels removed yet easily recognizable by their trademarked shape. With a wink to modernist sculptors before him and well, the public, his audience, he creates serious sculpture (or at least with serious price tags). Is he intentionally drawing attention to the wastefulness of excessive packaging, or is he intentionally drawing our attention to how branding influences our visual vocabulary that consciously and unconsciously manipulates consumer choices. Is he ridiculing our addiction to consumption of both wasteful, trash-bin-destined debris and at the same time passionate global art consumption? My inclination is that he doesn’t think about important environmental issues nor is this what his art is about, in his esteem; but, as they say, when the art leaves the studio, the object takes on its own symbolic in the world, it carries it’s own meaning—the place in which to access the real the imaginary must be conjured.

Another ambiguous work of art by Kris Martin, Water, 2012 an assemblage of various size, shape, and colored glass vessels, each containing water, either half full or half empty, depending on the viewers perspective seems to inquire into the worldly water issue. Does each vessel represent all the nations in the world and our dependence on water for existence? Is the piece questioning how much more time do we have before the half full glass empties? Martin’s art ponders humankinds most vital issues, like the fleetingness and fragility of existence, mortality, time; albeit, he challenges the seriousness of his art with a wink and whimsical playfulness, like an art jester.

Kris Martin, Water, 2012. glass bottles, water.

Kris Martin, Water, 2012.

On the other hand, Alejandro Duran leaves no ambiguity about the intention of his art. His latest project Washed Up, he states is intentionally to address the issue of plastic pollution. He focuses his lens on the debris from around the world that wash up on the shores of Sian Ka’an in Mexico making Andy Goldsworthy like forms and capturing them in photography.

Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang turned their daily strolls along the Kehoe beach in Point Reyes National Park into a collaborative art project. They consider themselves artist archeologists. Since 1999, they began gathering and sorting by color and or theme the varied thermoplastic junk or our throwaway culture and recreating it into inspired colorful art pieces.

Pam Longobardi’s mind continually analyzes and investigates humans’ relationship with nature. Drifters Project began in 2006 when she came across mountainous heaps of plastic detritus washed up on the shores in Hawaii. She began following the ocean currents to catalog, study, and collect the floating waste from the perspective of a scientist, artist, and anthropologist. She describes her passionate pursuit,

“Traveling expanses of space and time, ocean plastic is a material that can unleash unpredictable dynamics. I am interested in plastics in particular, as opposed to all garbage, because of what it reveals about us as a global economy and what it reveals about the ocean as a type of cultural space and a giant dynamic engine of life. As a product of human consumer culture that exhibits visibly the attempts of nature to reabsorb and regurgitate it, ocean plastic has profound stories to tell us about the interconnectedness of the fate of the planet and our impact on it. “

Pam Longobardi. Installation View.
Pam Longobardi. Installation View. “One World Ocean” SoS (So Sorry). Ionion Center for Arts and Culture, Kefalonia, Greece. 2011

Pam Longobardi

Pam Longobardi 2013 exhibition image.

Underlying all of Mark Dion’s art is a high-minded ecological agenda. Like the other aforementioned artists, Dion considers himself an explorer, a historian, and a dilettante archeologist. I see him as an intellectual ecological artist. He creates installations or assemblages that are a take on the form of the tableaux-like scientific arrangements found in natural history museums or historical cabinets of curiosities. Like Longobardi he is fascinated by the histories the found objects hold, he treasures the stories a washed up piece of plastic tells us about civilization as much as he would value discovering artifacts from the Antikythera shipwreck.

Mark Dion, Landfill 1999-2000. Mixed Media. Image courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Landfill 1999-2000. Mixed Media. Image courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Ichthyosaurus, 2003. Synthetic Ichthyosaurus, backdrop, misc. obects, sand, rocks. image courtesy of Tanya Bondakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Ichthyosaurus, 2003. Synthetic Ichthyosaurus, backdrop, misc. obects, sand, rocks. image courtesy of Tanya Bondakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Marine Invertebrates, 2013, 70 objects in glass jars, isopropyl alcohol, glass and wood cabinet. image courtesy of Tanya Bondakdar Gallery.
Mark Dion, Marine Invertebrates, 2013, 70 objects in glass jars, isopropyl alcohol, glass and wood cabinet. image courtesy of Tanya Bondakdar Gallery.

The common theme connecting many of the artists who use plastic and humankinds detritus as their material is how they begin to look upon their material from the viewpoint of an archeologist and a conservationist, as well as an artist. I, too, find the history of plastics in our civilization intriguing; although, I wonder how future generations will remember us. Just as we learn about the precision of the Incan architecture and the aesthetics of the Greek design, what story will the heaps of plastic and technological debris say of our era?

Remains of our Day

MASS MoCa, a reconverted factory in North Adams, Massachusetts, with capacious exhibition halls can accommodate large-scale art works, perhaps more than any other art museum. Considering other vast visual art buildings, such as, Dia: Beacon, White Cube in London, the Hermitage in Russia, and Hauser and Wirth’s new expansive gallery in NYC, this is saying a lot. The huge scale of the building and of the immense interior spaces within MASS MoCa create an optical illusion making the works exhibited in them seem smaller than they actually are. As I stand in one of the exhibition chambers, I wonder, how do the artists who exhibit here visualize how their art will fill the spaciousness? I presume not many have studios as large. I ponder, where and how do they find the space to create such massive constructions? And what will become of these large-scale works once the exhibition ends?

In the case of the artist, Xu Bing and his installation Phoenix, he answered these questions. Stepping back for a better vantage point to take in the immensity of the suspended birds, I bumped into a ledge installed along the wall. It held copies of a text that accompanies the art–the story of the creation of the mythical birds. Slowly I wondered the length of the room reading page by page, the start to the present, the birth of the Phoenixes (‘Feng’ and ‘Huang’); and, indeed Xu Bing alludes to them as being born, taking on a life of their own. He relates that within the time of their ‘hatching’ two collaborators who helped create the Phoenixes also gave birth to children. This coincidental occurrence of creating new life offered deep symbolism for Xu. It offered another layer to the materials used for the sculpture, the collaborators, and the resulting art object.

Xu Bing, Phoenix Project (2008-2012). image courtesy of www.nothingmajor.com
Xu Bing, Phoenix Project (2008-2012). image courtesy of http://www.nothingmajor.com

Made from construction-site essentials, such as hard hats and shovels, as well as construction debris like rusted corrugated metal and striped plastic tarp, the two Phoenixes take up the entire length of the main exhibition space, appearing to have been constructed specifically for MASS MoCa. However, Xu’s art journal explains that when he began this art project MASS MoCa wasn’t even a remote contributing thought to his creation. He began this commission for one of Beijing’s glitzy new skyscrapers. Standing under Phoenix, two gargantuan birds suspended from the ceiling, I had the sense the sculpture possessed a spirit, as if alive.

I saw the life within the sculptures that came from all of the people who worked the construction site, who wore the hard hats, who dug the dirt with the shovels, who labored to build both the towering skyscraper and the sculptures. Their toil and sweat are the life within the art. One cultural critic, as mentioned in Xu’s journal, has likened the Phoenix Project to Diego Rivera’s mural of the Mexican laborers.

image courtesy of www.hiffingtonpost.com
image courtesy of http://www.huffingtonpost.com

I also see Vic Muniz’s Wasteland project and JR’s global photomurals. These art projects bring people together as collaborators with the artist and the art creation. Inseparable, the artist, those who inspire, those who work in the creation, and the art all become one.

Vic Muniz, Death of Murat, garbage series (2011). images courtesy of www.sikkemajenkinsco.com
Vic Muniz, Death of Murat, garbage series (2011). images courtesy of http://www.sikkemajenkinsco.com
JR, La Havana, Rafael Lorenzo y Obdula Monano, Cuba (2012). image courtesy of www.jr-art.net
JR, La Havana, Rafael Lorenzo y Obdula Monano, Cuba (2012). image courtesy of http://www.jr-art.net

Soaring with the spirit of the Phoenixes, I cruised down highway 2 to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Entering the museum I detoured through the fenced and roped-off areas surrounding the building and beyond. The Clark Art Institute, like SFMOMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Kimball art Museum, and the Coleccion Jumex in Mexico City is one of the many ever-expanding art museums that are either newly completed, under construction, or about to begin. P1050438 Wandering the galleries in the Clark, I stopped to look out the window to the men in hard hats driving the tractors and pounding the metal stakes into the steel beams. I reflected back on Xu’s artistic monument to the hard working construction laborers. Paradoxically, I couldn’t help but wonder, while considering all this construction done in the name of art, are art museums simply a polished dump for too much cultural debris?

image courtesy of www.berkshireeagle.com
image courtesy of http://www.berkshireeagle.com

With this thought I felt guilty. Even my conscience would persecute me. Maybe it wasn’t an epiphany, but a resonation. Perhaps this is a symptom of an oversaturation of art by attending too many art fairs where there seems to be an abundance of inventory from prolific artists; and, I wonder from all this creative production and consumption what will sustain and remain of value as a cultural recording of this time in civilization? I wonder, in our current prosperous art culture with massively monumental works created by artists, with an abundance of global art museums and private collectors building art sanctuaries or ‘warehouses’ for their collections, are we building temples for our creative consumption?

Andrea Lolis sculptures
Andrea Lolis sculptures

I considered artists who sculpt marble renderings of Styrofoam packaging, cardboard boxes, and plastic water bottles. Discarded debris becomes inspirations for Andreas Lolis to solidify and immortalize into stone, actually turning our debris into marble artifacts. I considered artists who use trash as their medium. Tony Feher I have nicknamed the garbage artist. His material can be foil chip bags to plastic water bottles.

Tony Feher sculptures
Tony Feher sculptures

In Blast From the Past (1972-73), Gordon Matta-Clark swept up all the debris on his studio floor, put the contents in a box with instructions on how to display this dust and cigarette butts; and, even now, from his grave, he asserts an importance to what most people discard to the waste bin day after day.

GORDON MATTA-CLARK Blast from the Past 1970-1972 cut color photograph, 12 inch steel ruler, sheet of text in pencil and floor sweepings dimensions vary with installation
GORDON MATTA-CLARK
Blast from the Past
1970-1972
cut color photograph, 12 inch steel ruler, sheet of text in pencil and floor sweepings
dimensions vary with installation

If art is a cultural recording of our history, what does it say about our present moment that artists like Xu Bing and others create art from our waste, using ever-expanding variations of garbage? Furthermore, if it survives how will future societies interpret these art objects? Hopefully, it may make one pause, to take note of the everyday detritus in our lives.

Tony Feher sculpture. Image courtesy of www.hammer.ucla.edu
Tony Feher sculpture. Image courtesy of http://www.hammer.ucla.edu

Something to think about before you quench your thirst from a single-use plastic water bottle rather than carrying a reusable container, or toss away your plastic straw that you used for two seconds to stir your cocktail.

And, I wonder, what art will remain, which museums will endure over time, and what ruins shall tell our story, many years from now?