The Story of Plastic and Toxic Art

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The stuff of war is the stuff of art.  Some of the earliest cave drawings depict tribal strife.  Since before history, the material and materiel of war has served as a vast palette for artists to explore and explain the times in which they live.

Eighteen-year-old Lovetta Conto designs jewelry—some is made of fine metal, but others are shaped from bullet casings pulled from the soil of her native Liberia, a nation rent by civil war.  Lovetta crafts beauty from bullets, finding meaning in the things that have ripped her homeland apart.  No daisies, no meadows, no fairy tales for Lovetta.  She’s a child who escaped civil war, suffering and violence to look upon the world with the eyes of an artist.

(Image left – “see food” sculpture by artist Karissa Vasil)

Today, we are in the midst of a new sort of invasion, not of foreign armies but one that is often invisible and insidious.  In this occupation, we are willing if unwitting participants in our own oppression.  The materiel of this occupation is not hand grenades and bullets, it drifts in the ocean and washes up on our shores.  The material of this invasion is plastic.
Our oceans are fringed with this toxic residue.  The ground is layered with plastic straws and bottle caps.  Rivers carry minute colorful fragments. The wildest most isolated animals on our planet have our trash in their stomachs.  The chemicals from these materials occupy our bodies and will be passed to the next generation.

Each day scientists churn out new data on the total volume of plastic entering the biosphere, the hundreds of species harmed by plastic pollution, and the health threats related to plastic.  Economists have documented the staggering costs to society of this misguided invasion, the most devastating of which will be pushed off on those without voices: the disenfranchised, the unborn, and the endangered members of our animal kingdom.

Like Lovetta and her necklaces made of bullets, artists and designers are using the stuff of their occupying force—plastic—to create meaning for the world.

Photographer Chris Jordan has been traveling to Midway Island, one of the most remote places in the world, over the past year to document albatross carcasses whose guts are filled with plastic.  The birds eat plastic from the sea and feed it to their babies.  Jordan photographs the contents of the dead birds intact to show the reality of the plastic inside them.  His work has made him aware that he is both artist and subject—the one taking the picture and the one in the picture, though perhaps not literally.  In the plastic, Jordan sees himself—a citizen of a consumption-dominated world trying hard not to contribute to the problem he is documenting.

“Standing over the dead bodies of these magnificent creatures filled with our plastic garbage is like looking into a macabre mirror,” the photographer told us.  “The tiny brain of an albatross is unable to distinguish between what is nourishing and what is harmful; and yet with all of our advanced intelligence, we humans suffer from this same lack of discernment.”

Lila Roo welds costumes out of plastic pollution and performs elaborate interpretive dances.  Recently at the TEDx conference in Santa Monica she appeared as a raptor in plastic made from truck-stop waste gathered from across America. She wears toxic things as a cry for action—and to call upon the traditions of theater and visual imagery to shock the viewer into seeing the world anew.

(Opposite: Lila Roo “Oil and Water”)

Dianna Cohen works with plastic to create sculptures, clothing and artifacts  When she was making her work initially she believed that there must be a way to lift the plastic out of the world, to “hoover” it up and transport it somewhere in one fell swoop.  As she learned that this was impossible, that mere removal or recycling is not possible as a total solution, she was filled with despair.  So, Cohen turned her despair into more art, and then went on to co-found the Plastic Pollution Coalition to address the issue head on.

Plastic is not a benign occupier, it is toxic.  Nothing about it—from its genesis as petroleum, to the manufacturing plant, to your life, to its recycled resurrection—is clean.  Plastic is toxic through and through and it never breaks down or disappears.  It just wears down, it fragments and it gets smaller.

At some point it gets so small that fish begin to think it’s plankton.  The smaller it gets the deeper it buries itself in our soils and sands, beside our food and our water.  Plastic becomes so small it is virtually invisible in our daily lives, but it never, ever goes away.  We have created it and it is ours, forever.

It is only natural that artists would use plastic: because plastics are pervasive, because they are strong and malleable, because they are colorful.  Artists see the plastics all about them and they see ideas.  They see meaning.  They see beauty.

This is nothing new.  For ages, artists have used what is around them to tell the story of their time.  These days, some are choosing shell casings and plastic pollution the way their predecessors chose wood or marble.  For Lovetta, Chris, Lila and Dianna the materials they work with are the materials of life and death.  They are committed to using art to
educate and to create beauty from the profane, working with the very materials they would like to dispel from the planet.  They are documenting a global crisis of consumption.

There is a risk that their art may transform the medium too well and make plastic pollution look too beautiful, masking the true nature of the invasion.  It is this paradox—the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and the profane, the life-affirming and the deadly—that makes their work so powerful and filled with meaning.  It is a fine line to walk for those deeply gifted at creating beauty.  Art can and should create discomfort—even when it looks beautiful.

As Jordan has cautioned, “by dwelling on the awfulness of these tragedies—and the smorgasbord of others we survey in the news every day—we may lose our already tenuous connection with life’s beauty, mystery, humor and joy.”

As we make art from death and waste, we ought to keep in mind its role in shaping the future.

Sun Tzu famously stated “all warfare is based on deception.”  The same might be said of art.  When artists turn deadly things into beautiful things they are deceiving us to win the war of ideas.  Art that deceives also enlightens, enrages, shocks and provokes.  And, it leads to change.  The choice is ours.  We can heed the artists and the scientists and force out these occupying toxic armies, changing the future of our planet for the better.  Or, we can do nothing and succumb to the plastic invasion.

“Even something as ugly as a bullet that was fired in a war can be made beautiful,” Lovetta Conto wrote, “if you are willing to work to change it into something else.”

By Wallace J. Nichols, Sarah Kornfeld and Andy Myers

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