October 29, 2021

Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through

The Art Museum at the University of Toronto is hosting an experimental exhibition. This one has a twist. It questions the whole idea of exhibiting art at all.

The work of The Synthetic Collection, a collaboration between scientists and artists, comprises the basis for the exhibition, in particular their work studying the microplastics pollution of the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes: Accumulations by Kelly Wood, member of the Synthetic Collection

Whereas the exhibition does a great job of displaying numerous art works, it also posits an institutional critique, and it is hardcore. It’s not just a show, but a manifesto on responsibility in making and showing art, a series of public dialogues, and a call to action.

A Manifesto for Curating and Making Art in a
Time of Environmental Crisis

1. If you’re going to make it, make it count.

2. Lead by example.

3. Take steps to mitigate environmental damage of art making and exhibitions. Doing so reveals other economies of inequality and acknowledges the art world’s culpability in upholding systems of oppression. Projects should enhance initiatives aimed at preventing, reducing, and mitigating harm.

….

excerpted (first three steps of ten) from downloadable booklet: A DIY Fieldguide for Reducing the Environment Impact of Art Exhibitions

Unlike most other exhibitions, here the gallery space has not been made immaculate in preparation for a new exhibition. Nail holes, scuff marks, scratches are left as is.

Signage at Plastic Heart

Signs are handwritten and pinned to the wall. Nothing is hidden. There is no dumpster filled with incidental debris that is hauled off to a landfill. The “Plastic Heart” exhibition aims to be totally transparent.

Waste on display

It’s a big show, featuring numerous artists – contemporary and historical – and tackling a breadth of topics, some truly nightmarish. Particularly in the visual depictions of toxic pollution in the Great Lakes, one difficult upshot of the exhibition becomes clear, i.e. the overwhelming sense that there is no way out of this mess.

Watching one of the teaser videos for the show, the following phrase stood out as alarming, verging on terrifying: “All the plastic we have ever made is still with us.”

Visual depiction of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes region, by Synthetic Collective member Skye Morét

I was so impressed by Skye Moret’s website! She describes herself as a designer /scientist /adventurer and the site provides a glimpse of the many roles she inhabits.

Mermaid’s Tears
Description of Mermaid’s Tears by Synthetic Collective

Some of the artwork took the form of lists of plastic producers or plastic descriptors.

Research documents by Synthetic Collective

The names of the various plastic compounds have a particularly chilling, incantory quality. I randomly googled “crystal styrene” and learned the following:

The conventional method of producing styrene involves the alkylation of benzene with ethylene to produce ethylbenzene, followed by dehydrogenation of ethylbenzene to styrene. Styrene undergoes polymerization by all the common methods used in plastics technology to produce a wide variety of polymers and copolymers.

 

And voila! …”crystal” styrene is the fully transparent form of styrene, a rigid and rather brittle low cost thermoplastic. When you by a box of organic baby spinach, chances are you are buying crystal styrene. Is it recyclable? Maybe.

Some of the artists in the show decided to bite the bullet and work with the ubiquitous material.

Flexi-Shield (Eostra) by Amy Brener is made from Platinum silicone, pigment, larkspur and chrysanthemum flowers, fern leaves, miscellaneous objects.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png
Detail of “Permeations of a Dataset’ by Tegan Moore

Tegan Moore has a very successful piece in the show, balanced beautifully on the edge of elegance and banality. The photo above depicts a very small section of the long, complex stream of material. The work is made from “Factory reject’mystery foam’ sheet with anti-static agent, haildamaged polycarbonate roofing, photodegraded corrugated plastic, plastic pellets, plastic fragments, salvaged phone, starch packing peanuts, mulberry paper.”

Detail of “New Balance,” sculpture by Meghan Price is made from used sneakers

Detail of “Water Song” by Hannah Claus, made from acetate, thread, pva glue and plexiglass

In the notes about Hannah Claus‘s piece, “Water Song” the fact that it “packs small” is mentioned.

I couldn’t help thinking about some of the superstar global artists and the “bigger is better” sensibility that has existed for many decades.

For example, below is an installation shot of a 2020 show of the work of Anselm Kiefer. Clearly, this work does not “pack small.”

Installation view of 2020 exhibition of the work of Anselm Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer — and he is only one example! — talks about his work in extravagant terms. He claims he is trying “to articulate the known fundamental interactions of the universe and forms of matter.” Could it be that this type of work, boundless in its ambition and scale, corporate in its fundamental self-absorption, might be slightly out of touch?

That is the really interesting thing about seeing the “Plastic Heart” exhibition: suddenly we are thinking about a different moral equation and a different motivation for making and exhibiting art.

Artwork by Christina Battle

For instance, Christina Battle‘s piece alerts us to those “plants helping us to remediate land and wonders how we might support them in return.” Part of this artwork is to invite her audience to receive a Natural Plant toolkit in the mail, and to plant and monitor seeds appropriate to the region. (I was too late. All the seeds were sent out.)

And then there is this video by Leticia Bernaus. What can I say?

Excerpt from video by Leticia Bernaus

Plastic Heart: Surface all the Way Through includes work by the following artist.

Christina Battle, IAIN BAXTER&, Sara Belontz, Leticia Bernaus, J Blackwell, Amy Brener, Hannah Claus, Sully Corth, Heather Davis and Kirsty Robertson, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Fred Eversley, Naum Gabo, General Idea, Kelly Jazvac, Woomin Kim, Kiki Kogelnik, Les Levine, Mary Mattingly, Christopher Mendoza, Tegan Moore, Skye Morét, Meagan Musseau, Claes Oldenburg, Meghan Price, Françoise Sullivan, Catherine Telford-Keogh, Lan Tuazon, Marianne Vierø, Joyce Wieland, Nico Willliams, Kelly Wood

The featured image at the top is by Iain Baxter.

Author: ssnbrttn

This blog is all about looking at art in Toronto now.

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