Plastic. Its history, benefits and drawbacks through art

Plastic. Its history, benefits and drawbacks through art
Yareah Magazine
Aurora Robson. 'Midas,' 2011. Plastic debris (PET), aluminum rivets, tinted polycrylic and mica powder. Courtesy of the artist.

Aurora Robson. ‘Midas,’ 2011. Plastic debris (PET), aluminum rivets, tinted polycrylic and mica powder. Courtesy of the artist.

From being a key ingredient in medical supplies and refrigerator insulation to surfboards and toys, plastics are part of our world. Life as we know it wouldn’t exist without plastic. On the flip side, humans produce more than 300 million tons of plastic a year—and more than 7 million tons of it winds up in the ocean annually. A new exhibition at Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House looks at the good and bad of plastic through art—and art making.

Why plastic, and why now? Since 2013, the museum’s Spalding House location has presented exhibitions using art to illustrate key aspects of a school curriculum, such as literature, science, math, and social studies. This year, as he was planning future shows, Spalding House director and curator Aaron Padilla wanted to expand the concept to create a multidisciplinary exhibition that focused on a single topic. At the same time, Kim Johnson, co-founder of the Kōkua Hawaii Foundation and the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation approached the museum about doing an exhibition that looked at plastic pollution, and something clicked.

“Plastic, for better or worse, is a huge, global issue.” says Padilla, “I realized it was an ideal topic for an exhibition that can be used as a lens for all school subjects, whether as a way for science teachers to illustrate scientific advancements or a biology teacher to make the ecological connections between plastic and pollution. And with artists using plastic for decades, it makes for an engaging exhibition of contemporary art.”

Made from chemical compounds called polymers, plastic—a term that covers everything from nylon to fiberglass—has shaped our culture and our habits. Plastic brought us records, tamper-proof medication seals, Bakelite, Hula Hoops, portable food, and solar energy. It makes aircraft and cars lighter.

Plastic can be used to create durable, long-lasting parts for spaceships, or single-use disposable items like water bottles and grocery bags. Invented more than 100 years ago, plastic in our culture has an interesting history. Use of the lightweight, inexpensive, and durable material exploded during World War II and today, it literally covers the globe. The amazing durability of plastic also means that it doesn’t go away when consumers throw it away—it can persist in landfills and in our oceans for centuries.

To reveal the complexities of plastic—and the human behavior that causes plastic to have dire repercussions on human life—Plastic Fantastic? is divided into three sections:

• The past: Plastic isn’t just used to make toothbrushes and affordable watches—the history of plastic is visually narrated through works from the museum’s collection by such artists and designers as Takashi Murakami and Charles and Ray Eames.

• The present: Work by five artists makes tangible the current state of plastic as a waste material. Plastic bag collages by Los Angeles–based Dianna Cohen speak to a throwaway culture born out of the ubiquity and proliferation of plastics. Sculptural installations by New York–based Aurora Robson and Maika‘i Tubbs make references to a new plastic-driven world formed and created with the man-made material. The textile work of German artist Swaantje Guntzel reveals the global reach of plastic pollution through visual mapping. And a photography series by Seattle-based Chris Jordan illustrates the sober reality of what plastic pollution ultimately does to living creatures.

• The future: Plastic Fantastic? concludes with an interactive space that invites viewers to consider the exhibition and the pros and cons of plastic, as well as to make art—visitors can construct assemblages of plastic debris fragments. These plastic assemblages made by exhibition visitors will be used to create a large public art installation to be unveiled in September 2016, during the IUCN World Conservation Congress being held in Honolulu at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii has collected two tons of plastic debris from beaches throughout the Hawaiian Island chain over the last year for this art-making component of Plastic Fantastic?

The museum has developed a free Plastic Fantastic? guided school tour, which is now open for registration by educators.

Funding for Plastic Fantastic? has been provided by the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, founded by Jack and Kim Johnson to support environmental, art, and music education.

The exhibition and related education programs are also made possible by Hawaiian Electric. Additional support is provided by the Louis L. Borick Foundation.

This project was developed in partnership with the Kōkua Hawaii Foundation, Surfrider Foundation–Oahu Chapter, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, and NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

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