Turning trash into artistry is an alchemy long overdue for a species who according to the U.N. throws out over a billion tonnes of solid waste every year. The artists in Convergence which opened October 16 at Lumenhouse in Brooklyn, New York, want to draw our attention not only to our excesses, but to the confounding and enchanting ways waste can be diverted from oceans and landfills and resurrected as cultural beauty.
Curator Mariko Tanaka says the idea for Convergence came from her work with Project Vortex, a group committed to repurposing plastics on their way to and already accumulating in the world’s oceans. Their modus operandi of reuse and recycle is through art and design. All of the artists in Convergence belong to Project Vortext (PV) which boasts artist-members from around the world.
One of PV’s main concerns is the growth of “plastic islands” — vast expanses of plastic debris that accumulate in regions of the world’s oceans due to circular currents. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, lying roughly midway between North America and South Asia in the north Pacific, is one of the largest covering an estimated area the size of Texas.
A slurry of plastic particulate
Contrary to popular misperception, plastic islands are not visible heaps of plastic trash. They are a deadly slurry of plastic particulate — the accumulation of trillions upon trillions of tiny plastic particles about 5mm in diameter called ‘nurdles’ — suspended below the water’s surface. Nurdles are what remain from plastic after it breaks down in the open ocean. Insidiously, these particles absorb other toxins like PCBs and DDT making the islands a slushy, unbreathable (for aquatic life) poisonous mess.
Artist Anne Percoco, for example, chose water bottles for her piece Indra’s Cloud (see above), a massive bundling of hundreds of empty plastic containers tied together into an amorphous cloud-like shape. Why water bottles? Because, she says (as we know all too well with more than 200 billion consumed every year), they were there.
“There was a yoga group staying in the same guesthouse as me, in Vrindavan, India,” Percoco explained. “Over the course of a month, they used all these bottles and they piled up in the hallways. I just collected them.”
The bottles were symptomatic of a larger regional problem, the destruction of the Yamuna River from an estimated 3 billion liters of sewage and other waste that drains into it daily from Delhi’s planned and unplanned suburbs. “According to a local myth,” Percoco says, “Krishna protected the people of Vrindavan from the fury of Indra, the rain god, who brought down a cloud of destruction during an argument about where water really comes from.”
Indra’s Cloud, a weird and enchanting life raft made from refuse, has had a small but direct impact: as a result of Percoco’s project, the yoga center stopped using bottled water, saving some 3000 bottles per year.
An enigma of straws
Another of the artists, Annie Varnot, was drawn to the enigma of her polluting medium: plastic straws. Her sculpture “Swelling” is a visual feast of an amoebic mound lit from below and throughout on a light bed. Varnot was drawn to both the pedestrian qualities of the humble drinking straw and its potential for what she calls “ironic transformation” into “something unearthly or unimaginable”. But not entirely unimaginable. The straw sculpture draws meaning from living forms.
“It is my aim through the accumulation of drinking straws cut and glued in a particular way to evoke glowing topographies, New York City biota, swelling oceans with human habitations, and luminous coral reefs.”
Cosmic bursts, jellyfish and creepy pink tables
We call it the ‘digital age’, but we could just as accurately call it the ‘age of plastic’. It infuses every aspect of our lives. Our yearly bottled water consumption alone tops 1,5 million tonnes of plastic. All in, globally we consume about 100 million tonnes of the stuff per annum, and our consumption increases 15% each year. No surprise, our North American per capita consumption of 90 kg is almost 4 times the global average. If we stuck an American or Canadian flag into the plastic island of our choice, we’d pretty much be right. It really is ours.
In a preemptive strike against these islands of plastic malignance, artist Yuko Oda gathers her materials from the streets of New York. “One day I was walking down the street and I realized that materials such as plastic and wood, perfectly good materials were being thrown away on the streets. The more aware I became of this, the more false it felt to paint images with a brush and expensive paints, and creating art with found materials became much more immediate and authentic.”
Oda’s “Cosmic Burst” brings together the jetsom and flotsom of urban litter into a playful collection of freeze frame explosions reminiscent of a baby crib mobile.
The other works are all just as compelling: Tyrome Tripoli‘s sculptures (“Catchment, “Red form”) with found plastic shapes, puzzles of trash refashioned into strange and often comical assemblages; Miwa Koizumi’s beautiful “Marrus Orthocanna” jellyfish like shapes strung together from reimagined plastic containers; Portia Munson’s hilarious and equally creepy “Pink Project Table”, the most vast array of pink plastic things ever assembled; Auroa Robson’s enigmatic “Everything all at once forever” and “Breathe Albatross”.
Activism is linear; art is spherical
Of course, what brings these rather disparate expressions together is a bundle of metanarratives about the planet, about environmental security, about habits of living and consumption and excess, about waste and about imagination.
“People enjoy the work formally from the get go,” says Lumenhouse director and PV founding artist Auroa Robson. “But as they spend more time with it, only then do they see the material and conceptual relationship that is tying the work together. It is very clearly defined but each artist has such a different approach that it isn’t entirely obvious until you spend some time with the work. It becomes a much more meaningful and rich experience, giving access to myriad approaches to working with the same kinds of issues.”
In a sense, the politics is submerged in the form — it is the medium, afterall, that grounds these sculptures in a political conversation. The content of the politics is as enigmatic as the sculptures themselves. As Oda explains, “I believe successful artwork is one open for interpretation, pose questions and bring wonder instead of being literal and didactic. The experience of encountering such art can be more open-ended and sublime, sometimes impacting us immediately, while other times leaving a lasting impression that is not so obvious but influences our way of viewing the world.”
“If activism and art are reactions, activism is a linear response while art is spherical,” says Tripoli. “Art encompasses a broader spectrum of energy than activism. Art can be activism and should be. But art can also be a product. This art can be seen as activism, but that’s not why I make it. I enjoy working in this medium for the discovery of potential energy.“
No matter how one approaches this exhibition, it is compelling on many levels — not least for its ecological integrity and its no doubt comparatively small ecological footprint. But these sculptures were not trapped in their creation by the instrumental reasonability of science or politics. These sculptures isolate the excesses of scientism and rationality and in doing so transform them into objects that are terribly, hilariously and beautifully human. There is reclamation at work in this exhibition.
Slavoj Zizek argues that we must learn to love our garbage, that hating pollution is like hating nature — and ourselves — and a dangerous political choice. Convergence seems like a wonderful first step in this direction, a chance to fall in love with what we loathe and to reimagine our relationship with it, and maybe come to understand the ways in which waste is really an extension of who we are and what we do.