Art for Our Plastic Present

A wooden bookcase with jars of colorful plastic objects on the shelves

In 1972 Roland Barthes wrote of plastic that it is “a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not nature [. . .] at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.” While Barthes was actually discussing the twentieth- and twenty-first century childhood staple Lego®, his sentiment is reinforced and complicated in the feature exhibit currently on view at the Chazen Museum of Art, Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, and Materials. The traveling show was organized by the Palmer Museum of Art at the Pennsylvania State University and displays the work of thirty exceptional artists that each explore the nuanced consequences of our increasingly synthetic world. Broken up into three categories, The Archive, the Entangled Present, and Speculative Futures, Plastic Entanglements considers the aesthetics and materialities of plastic timescales.

Assemblage and Entrapment

A collection of plastic objects arranged in a circle

Steve McPherson, Wavelengths, 2012–13, unaltered marine plastic objects. Courtesy of Victori + Mo Gallery.

Throughout the show, artists assemble objects in surprising and provocative ways. Both Steve McPherson and Pamela Longobardi, for example, arranged found plastics in order of color and shape (the former), and in order of size (the latter). Even the seemingly innocuous books that Katrin Hornek collected for the photograph Title Search on Plastic*s are reflected on the library floor to redouble the endless work being done on this material. For viewers, the aesthetics of accumulation are at first pleasing, but quickly unravel into a sense of revulsion over the implications of scale.

Artist Marina Zurkow takes a different approach to assemblage through her monumental banner-size drawing, The Petroleum Manga: Polyurethane (PU) (condom, work boots, inflatable boat), which seeks to bring together other environmental activists. In 2014, Zurkow published The Petroleum Manga book with the goal of disseminating this work as widely as possible to increase awareness and advocacy about climate change. Her associated work, Dear Climate, takes this further by making similarly-styled posters completely open source.

The aesthetics of accumulation are at first pleasing, but quickly unravel into a sense of revulsion over the implications of scale.

Pamela Longobardi’s Economies of Scale engages with concepts of time in ways that inform the interpretation of other pieces in the show. On a basic level, it stretches across the gallery wall taking the form of a timeline. But each item on the “timeline” has meaning. The largest object, for example, is a buoy from Japan that floated across the Pacific Ocean after the devastating 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This buoy is a tiny percentage of the millions of tons of material that the disaster sent adrift and which subsequently landed on international shores.

The phenomenon of this traveling material bespeaks an unanticipated consequence of the plastic timescale: that these objects will continue to exist for long enough that their meaning will shift dramatically along with geographic and temporal contexts. What was originally a peripheral everyday object now stands in for a disaster that took, and changed, the lives of so many. While the longevity of plastic facilitated its travel across the ocean and the sense of empathy that it may evoke in viewers for victims of the Japanese disaster, objects like this also facilitated the “rafting” of invasive species across the ocean. The brilliance of this work is that viewers are left grappling with these contradictions and the bizarre idea that the timescale of plastic is closer to that of the shifting plate tectonics that caused the earthquake and tsunami.

Artworks by Mark Dion, Deb Todd Wheeler, and Marina Zurkow are productively in dialogue with Longobardi’s piece as they invoke ideas about decay and the uncanny. Marina Zurkow’s Body Bags for Animals are particularly arresting. Literal bags cut and sewn from recycled remnants of her Petroleum Manga series into shapes of animals, Zurkow unzips the containers revealing the contents to be plastic regrind. The animals in this show are installed horizontally on the ground, unflinchingly depicting death. This work, like others in the show, confronts the normalcy of decay and the ways in which plastic’s immortality pushes it outside of the human-nature nexus. Historian Michelle Murphy conceptualizes this condition as a kind of “afterlife” that we all now inhabit through our own chemically altered bodies.

A wooden bookcase with jars of colorful plastic objects on the shelves

Mark Dion, Institute for invertebrate marine biology, 2017, wood cabinet, plastic and rubber children’s toys, sex toys, glass specie jars, and books. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Mark Dion’s Institute for invertebrate marine biology recalls UW–Madison’s own exploration of “Wunderkammern” (early object displays meant to elicit wonder) and climate change, Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. The invertebrate marine biology that Dion refers to in his title is in fact plastic toys of all sorts (ranging from children’s toys, to dog toys, to sex toys) that are found in our oceans today. Dion’s plastic toys are uncanny in that they truly do resemble invertebrates, such as the gooseneck barnacles that travel across oceans on plastics. By putting plastics in glass specimen jars with polyurethane, he cleverly introduces the irony of preserving items that will never decay. The jars themselves are reminiscent of an object at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History—the Liotta-Cooley Artificial Heart—the first artificial heart that was implanted in a patient in 1969, which is now preserved in a similar manner. In the case of the artificial heart, the polyurethane is actually degrading the heart’s synthetic material rather than conserving it.

A display of several plastic objects resembling jellyfish

Margaret and Christine Wertheim, Plastic Fantastic 1 (Plarn jellyfish by Margaret Wertheim with black plastic sea creature by Arlene Mintzer), 2017, plastic bags, jelly-yarn, hair adornments, and (wasted) medical packaging. Courtesy of the artists and the Institute For Figuring

Nowhere is the uncanniness that exists between the organic and synthetic felt as strongly as in Deb Todd Wheeler’s Searching for Imposters. With an ethereal sound recording that is akin to being underwater, the visitor peers into a viewer to find a video of a plastic bag that very well could be a jellyfish. Wheeler’s work requires the kind of close looking and critical thinking associated with trompe-l’oeil. Yet as the viewer tries to discern whether they are seeing a natural object or pollutant, a different notion comes into focus: that those two categories are irreversibly blurred.

The notion of these categories blurring is what the exhibit conceives of as “entangled.” Archaeologist Ian Hodder’s work on the material culture of entanglement may shed some light on this topic. In his book Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things, he contends that humans are dependent on objects and objects are dependent on other objects (gas and oil for a car, for example). In this web of co-dependency, Hodder believes that “entanglements gradually increase in complexity and scale, and it becomes more and more difficult to turn back.” Usefully, Hodder then goes on to explore the difference between entanglement and entrapment, defining the latter as the sum total of these human and object inter-dependencies. The outcome of this show, with each work’s engagement around different kinds of entanglement—their perils and possibilities—is indeed a sense of entrapment. Yet as Michelle Murphy argues, plastic entanglements, like other chemical relationships, are one result of entrapment’s more powerful tentacles: capitalism and settler colonialism.

Plastics and Dependency

Plastic Entanglements lays the groundwork for future work that falls outside of the display’s scope. One such future avenue might be disability. As the exhibit’s introductory label mentions, the history of plastic is rooted in the medical field, but to take that history into the present, its importance to the disability community is now being highlighted through policies such as the contested plastic straw ban. This ban drew widespread criticism for a number of reasons—among them, that plastic is uniquely useful for individuals who use straws to drink (the alternatives cannot easily be sterilized, and both paper and metal straws fail for individuals with biting impairments), and that disabled persons are shamed for requesting and using an item that they need to survive. More recently, others in the disability community pointed out the irony of highlighting the environmental impact of inhalers, a device that many individuals with breathing disorders use precisely because of air pollution.

A photograph of an artificial heart

Domingo Liotta and Denton Cooley, M.D., Artificial heart, 1969. Smithsonian Institute, 1978.1002.1.

Both incidents are endemic of a larger “environmental disablism” in which climate activists disregard disabled persons in their solutions to global warming and then blame them for their perceived unwillingness to comply. Part and parcel of this rhetoric is a culture of climate Darwinism that prizes “survival of the fittest.” Language such as “dependency on plastics” may also fuel this exclusion of disabled persons, as “dependency” is framed as excess. While Plastic Entanglements engages with the ways in which plastics and pollutants heighten divides across race, gender, class, and ability, perhaps future exhibits will also engage with the ways in which critically important environmental activism has the potential to do so as well.

What might it look like to approach Plastic Entanglements from a disability perspective? Its core themes of timescales and bodies are ripe for this intervention. In her creative nonfiction essay “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” UW–Madison Professor of English Ellen Samuels explores her relationship with “crip time,” an idea referring to the different ways that disabled persons experience time. Samuels writes that crip time “requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling and moving through the world. [. . .] I want sometimes to be part of nature, to live within its time. But I don’t. My life has turned another way.” The Anthropocene, too, means living out of natural time. Crip time requires thinking differently about our own bodies and the world around us. A similar personal reflection around alternative experiences should influence future discussions around the climate crisis. Plastic Entanglements invites that reflection.

Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials is on display in the Pleasant T. Rowland Galleries at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin from September 13, 2019 to January 5, 2020.

Featured image: Mark Dion, Institute for invertebrate marine biology, 2017, wood cabinet, plastic and rubber children’s toys, sex toys, glass specie jars, and books. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Natalie Wright is a Ph.D. student in Design History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where she studies disability design and the questions it raises about dependence and independence at the core of American history. Wright holds an M.A. from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and a B.A. from Trinity College, University of Toronto. She has held curatorial positions at The Chipstone Foundation and the Canadian Museum of History. Twitter. Contact.