This article was originally published on Nexus Media News.
Art and the Plastics Crisis: Gaining Insight Through Creativity , Duke Riley began making seagoing vessels, such as sailor valentines and scrimshaws, made entirely of shells, bones, and other natural materials washed ashore on the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and greater New York. Then, on a walk in 2017, he picked up what he thought was a piece of bone. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was a plastic brush used to clean boats.
The moment marked a turning point in his practice.
“I want to make pieces that reflect the actual state of the shoreline,” said Riley, an artist who splits his time between Brooklyn and a houseboat moored off the coast of Rhode Island. This meant mixing his environment.
Last year Riley exhibited more than 200 works of art in the The Brooklyn Museum made from thousands of pieces of plastic — detergent bottles, toothbrushes and tampon applicators, among other things — that he and the full-time garbage collector Michelle Klimczak collected from East Coast beaches.
People produce approx 8 billion tons plastic every year. Plastics production is responsible for approx 4.5% of all greenhouse gas emissionsalmost double more like what the aviation industry produces. Only for 9% of all plastic ever produced has ever been recycled. It seeps into rivers and streams. It lives in the bellies of fish and seabirds. Microplastic pump through our veins and accumulate in our lungs.
The scale of the plastics crisis is almost incomprehensible. But more and more artists and museums are drawing attention to the problem and challenging the public to rethink their consumption habits.
In May, the Venice Architecture Biennale hosted The Eternal Plastic, exhibition an exploration of humanity’s “fulfilled kinship” with the material through the work of five artists. Works include baskets made from recycled plastic bottles and sculptures that appear to be dripping in hot, molten plastic.
One of Willie Cole’s water bottle chandeliers on Park Avenue, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. (Credit: Willie Cole)
“From toys to camping coolers, plastic is deeply embedded in the culture of the United States, where polymers are refined and exported,” said co-curator Lauren Leving in statement. “Our toxic relationship with the material is now a global phenomenon.”
In June, artist Beverly Barkat unveiled a 180-panel globe made of plastic waste in Lower Manhattan. And in July, sculptor Willie Cole installed four chandeliers made from 9,000 discarded water bottles on Park Avenue, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “In many ways, the issue is abstract and largely intangible,” Riley says, pointing out that the plastic problem continues beyond what we can see. “Although there are no easy answers, I think art can help people start to think and find a way to talk about these issues.”
Liz from the Brooklyn Museum. St. George, who is curating the Riley exhibit, said she has observed museum visitors reflect on their personal consumption habits while looking at Riley’s works. “They’ll see a plastic object like a toothpick and say, ‘I use this every day,'” she said.
Artists don’t just explore plastics in their work, St. George said. They are also dealing with the crisis in more tangible ways. Riley, for example, organized a cleanup along the shores of Gunnison Beach in New Jersey.
Back in 2008, the artist Aurora Robson, who creates ethereal starburst-like plastic sculptures began Project Vortex, a collective of artists and designers who create and support projects to reuse single-use plastics. The group has developed academic curriculum on working with plastic waste, and Robson often teaches workshops to students encouraging them to make art out of things they would normally throw away.
Robson sees the climate crisis and plastic as problems of the imagination, requiring creative problem solving above all else. She said: “If I do my job, I inspire hope and make other people think, ‘If she I can do this with plastic, what can I do?’
Willie Cole, an artist-in-residence at Rutgers University, said his chandeliers show how ingrained plastic is in everyday life — and how hard it will be to give the stuff up. The plastic bottles he works with are recalled 70,000 cases plastic water bottles that were distributed in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the city’s lead-contaminated water unsafe to drink.
Cole describes himself as a “perceptual engineer” whose work can offer a new way of seeing the world. He said he hopes his sculptures will inspire viewers to rethink their own consumer habits. “I can’t change the world,” he said. “But I know that every time I make a chandelier, people donate their plastic water bottles.”