Entangled in Plastic at SCMA

Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials
Smith College Museum of Art
Through July 28, 2019

In the 1967 blockbuster The Graduate–certainly among the great classic films– Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) spends his pre-college summer days alienated and adrift. At a tortuous party putatively in Ben's honor, Mr. Maguire a family friend, corners him to impart surefire advice for success: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word. … Plastics." 

That line often throws viewers under the age of 60. Plastics are ubiquitous–so much so that when we imagine a world without them it's a good thing. Plastic is so slow to decompose that it clutters our landfills and fouls the seas and waterways. It is pretty much a death sentence for birds and marine life that consume it, and its very manufacture depends upon toxic chemicals and non-renewable petroleum. In 1967, though, it wasn't nuts to link plastics to the future. Rudimentary forms of the stuff have been around for a long time, but plastics as a commercial product such as you know it is largely a byproduct of World War II. This made mass production plastic less than 20 years old when Ben was given the word. 

We know better now, right? Nope! We are drowning in the stuff and the United States is the world's largest producer of plastic. What do we do with it once we're done with it? One response is to use it to make art. A new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) focuses on plastic as a "material." That alone wouldn't be such a big deal; wearable art shows make liberal use of plastic panels, fasteners, shredded strips, and molded shapes. In that sense, Dianna Cohen's "postconsumer mandala," a brightly colored bag, might at first seem little more than an eye-catching version of the ordinary–until you read the wall panel. The curators of the SCMA show are aware that aesthetics and materials also link to ecology. Cohen's bag also makes a statement about "the worship of profit, power, and the accumulation of things." Its undulating shape is a plastic version of El Anatsui's metallic bottle cap curtains. In each case, we marvel over the artistic vision (and labor) but wonder about the state of civilization in which there is such a proliferation of cast-off material–or garbage, if you prefer.  

Pamela Longobardi wordlessly makes this point. Her 20-foot-long "Economies of Scale" is a small-to-big metaphorical timeline that takes us from a nurdle (plastic pellet) to a large fishing buoy fashioned from plastic. Talk about data visualization! It made me return home to notice how plastic is everywhere in my life, including the keyboard keys upon which I typed these words. The question, as always, is what happens when we're "done" with the plastic. We know that much of it will be landfilled and leach chemicals into the soil and water table, but amnesia is psychologically easier to digest. 

Mark Dion tries to help us remember. He grew up beachcombing along the New Bedford shoreline. There are several of his "cabinets of curiosity" at the SCMA show, His "specimen" jars are filled with plastic objects, some of which look like human organs. Others (pictured) are children's (and sex) toys that make up his "Institute for Inveterate Marine Biology."

Sure, we can make weird art out of the garbage, as Aurora Robeson has done with her "Ona," though you might also want to muse upon the fact that it also means "only child." Indeed, though "Ecosystem of Excess" from Turkish artist Pinar Yoldas isn't as instantly powerful as some of the other pieces, it's wallop comes from forcing us to consider how a world in which the oceans contain more plastics than plankton might alter evolution of marine life. Will the future be one in which organics and plastics meld? That's probably not what Mr. Maguire envisioned.

Rob Weir

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