Art Responding To Art: Poetry and Plastic

by Allie McAllister (Penn State University, Class of 2020, Environmental Studies major), with Professor Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, PPC Ambassador

When Penn State English professor and poet Julia Kasdorf challenged her undergraduate students to compose a poem based on a work of plastic art from the Plastic Entanglements exhibition at the university’s Palmer Museum of Art, she did it with a specific intention, both pedagogical and provocative. According to Kasdorf, “the dialogue between the visual and verbal arts is as old as Ancient Greece,” and she wanted her students “to see how looking hard at a work of art can enable them to make discoveries and write some of their own true poems.”

Kasdorf herself is a long-time environmentalist, particularly passionate about fracking, and of course the production of plastic is part of that story as well. The Plastic Entanglements was a framework for thinking about a different aspect of today’s petro-culture, and encountering the many dimensions of the crisis of plastic pollution as both an ecological crisis and as an ethical challenge.  

These four poems here are haunting literary transformations of art observation into personal meditation, emerging from a deep inner reflection of what it means to be human in the time of  “the Plasticene” period of our history (or more broadly, “the Anthropocene”). Each student presents a unique response to a chosen work, and thinks through the relationship between image and word. The poem complements the art work, and vice versa, while also drawing the reader/spectator through their own emotional and imaginative thought process. Writing and reading a poem about a work of art can push one past the passive “spectator” role, and beyond the apparent “face value” of the art work. The poet and reader, as spectators alike, experience how words conjured in the observing of the work can create imagery of their own, giving a shape to feelings, hopes, and fears about a damaged world.     

Take a look at these moving poems by Penn State undergraduates Will Campbell, Talley Kaser, Brandon Neal, and Megan Deam, whose reflections call into question the value of life and ecological balance, compared with imbalanced economics of materialism, and rampant consumerism. Kasdorf’s writing assignment is grounded in the belief that “the process of looking and thinking that produced these poems required a deep level of engagement with the work of art,” and she, like us, “hopes that readers of these poems will share that experience.”  


To a Dead Albatross, Will Carpenter

 (After Body Bag for Birds (Polyethylene Terephthalate / PET), 2013, by Marina Zurkow)

Funny isn’t it?

Isn’t it? Do you know

why we bother

to bag you up?

You will sustain us

like leftovers, plastic wrapped

in the refrigerator, recycled.

In just tens of millions

of years, you will be

oil, be useful.

All we ask

is that you decay

until the bag is no longer full

and wait for temperature

and pressure to work

their miracles.

The plastic inside you

remains;

The plastic enveloping you

remains — holds you close

as you decompose –and will do so

for over a thousand years,

ensuring you are not eaten,

displaced — wasted.

You may complain,

as you pool into black gold,

that your prospects

seem lackluster.

It’s true, we proffer only one solution

(CnH2n+2)

but let us assure you,

your possibilities are limitless:

you could fuel an oil tanker,

taxidermy a polar bear,

bind together a family of canned

sodas, soar in a hot air

Balloon, balloon into a five gallon water cooler spout into a mold for eyeglasses,

so don’t label us nearsighted.

Who knows?

Maybe you’ll even grow into

Another body bag for birds.

Albatross Ekphrasis, after Chris Jordan

By Talley Kaser

how unlike me

to look at a bird

and think of myself

and not the bird.

but still I wonder

which bright bits

stab jagged

through my even

Most silversoft lining. which

is the biggest bolus

drawing the eye

when

I am

opened

*

my little brother

is a doctor. my little

brother cut open a person.

cadaver corpse — for a

full year he teased it

into pieces. he says

they start you with

the back. the face

comes last. the face

is difficult. one morning

he gently lifted

a bright now tie from

the neck of his

corpse. he walked the scrap

of plastic to the trash

then turned to his lab mates.

we’re not doing that

again. he says

they covered her

hands to hide the color

of her nails, which was too like

someone’s mother’s.

*

the photographer’s hands

(bare) teased from the

dark bile of the bird that stuff

which cut and

lodged and

crowded but never

fed and therefore

killed. the photographer scrubbed

each bright piece clean

and lay it back against

the opened body

riddle: my father

is like unto or not

the photographer

*  

much of my mother

has been removed

but lucky she

remitted. I made

the mistake of googling

tumor. I am no doctor but

they don’t appear to come

in a wide variety

of colors. my mother

is farm-raised and

well bred. also uneasy.

and diseased. my mother

fed on food fresh

from the garden

which they sprayed

same as the cotton.

*

the birds swallowed

the bright bits on the sand, as they

have always done.

as they have always done,

they offered from the depths

of their bodies those same bits

and fed their children, tell me

what I’ve swallowed. tell me

how it’s killing me. given the chance

I would prefer to slough in the dirt

without particular color — no pink

clinging to my nails, no strange red

bulge collecting in my thigh, no evidence

of which stray memory choked

my growth or stunted flight,

which sadness I was fed

and ate. I would prefer

earth swarm what’s left:

an opened harmlessness,

soft, gnawable flesh

and clean, bright bits of bone.

Walden, by Brandon Neal  

In the woods

            Lies a pond deep and dark

It overtakes you

            Splashing through your eyes

Drizzling through the filtered

            Cracks in your skin

It calls to you.

Each step you take

            Flows into the next

You Sweep along

            All the mud choked reeds

And plastic

            And cigarette butts

You crash.

Into this world

Where children sleep in their beds

With your icy soft words

You fill their lungs

With the entangled mess

Of everything that you

Became.

They choke. 

Origin of Species, by Megan Deam

(After Institute for Marine Invertebrates, Mark Dion)

I see the irony:

Crustaceans crowned at the bottom of the ocean,

tucked under plastic eyes, rubber toys

Intermixed

with deathless colors

History — do we want to go down like this?

Will we be remembered as murderers?

Poachers of natural landscapes?

Our cabinets of curiosities are landfills

what we’ve collected in our

anthropomorphic thirst.

And we will continue to temporarily quench

our needs

while permanently infiltrating

the sands

            Sea

            Seagulls

            Gills

            Breathing in our scrap

We will discard our excess,

extra expensive

exotic and erotic

aphrodisiacs turned abstract

now

man-saved, manmade, once again

coral contamination

fluorescent fossils 

Preserved in their own synthetic

man makes us think there are no consequences.

We present our trash on shelves and make it a trophy.

Have we won?

We’ve only taken

the prize

so durable,

indestructible.


Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials features sixty works of art from thirty international artists who are exploring both the nature of plastic as a material, the role of plastic in our world and its implications, and finally how art can be used as a form of science communication.  Proposed by PPC ambassador and Penn State professor Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, and co-curated along with the Palmer Museum of Art’s curator, Joyce Robinson, and New School assistant professor Heather Davis, the exhibition has finished its four-month run at Penn State, as well as a second run at the University of Oregon. It is currently showing at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. through July 2019. It travels finally to the University of Wisconsin, opening in fall 2019. For questions about the exhibition, contact Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, jaw55@psu.edu.

The art installation ‘Vita Sensa Plastica’ (Live Plastic Free) created in collaboration by Dianna Cohen, artist and co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, and Alvaro Soler-Arpa, a PPC Artist Ambassador, opened on Friday, June 29 at club La Macchia on Macchiatonda Beach in Capalbio located in southern Tuscany, Italy.

The opening reception was attended by 300 guests and inspired conversations around plastic pollution, the impact as well as solutions and alternatives. Club La Macchia switched from bio-plastic to paper straws for the event and committed to serving paper straws moving forward.

Cohen and Soler-Arpa worked together over the course of five days to build and install the sculpture, using plastic gathered on Macchiatonda beach by the World Wildlife Fund’s beach cleanups. The installation was created on a sand dune about 100 yards from the shoreline, with trails of found plastic dug into the sand leading up to the main piece. 

“In this piece we attempt to express suffering,” explained Cohen, “with these animal skulls reaching up and out and crying to the sky. We are suffocating in plastic and consumption, and we have a plastic pollution blindness.”

Nadja Romain, the curator of the installation and the founder Art, Action, Change, said: “Art transcends thinking and logic. It holds the power to change our mindset allowing us to create new ways of seeing the world and living in it. It’s fantastic that La Macchia, a private member club in Italy is pioneering and using its position by the sea and its network to raise awareness about the pollution of the sea to stop the epidemic of plastic pollution.”

“We have done our best to find an artistic way to express how plastic is contaminating the world,” said Alvaro Soler-Arpa about the installation and process. “We have experienced firsthand that many Italians are not yet aware of the problem but are interested in the issue and looking forward to learning more about it.”

Dianna Cohen is a Los Angeles based visual artist, who has shown her work internationally at galleries, foundations, and museums. She uses plastic in her artwork to make a visual and social impact. With plastic bags as her primary material for the past 27 years, Cohen explores its materiality through modifications and the material’s relationship to culture, media, toxicity, and the world at large.

Cohen invited Catalan artist Alvaro Soler-Arpa to collaborate based on some ideas they had shared within their respective bodies of work. Soler-Arpa’s previous work includes Vida Tóxica (Toxic Life), which featured imaginary contemporary creatures composed of assorted animal bones, wire, and plastic waste. His “contemporary dinosaurs” draw a strong parallel to fossil fuels, the common denominator between plastic pollution and climate change.

See also: 12 Inspiring Works of Art on Plastic Pollution

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Plastic packaging is so ubiquitous in our modern world we might not even see it. A new exhibit of paintings by Victoria Mimiaga makes plastic visible by placing in a space it doesn’t belong: old master paintings.

Imagine The Son of Man, the 1964 painting by the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. In Mimiaga’s version, the green apple is encased in a plastic zip-top bag. While the bowl of mangos in Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women has no covering, Mimiaga’s version wraps both the bowl and fruit in a shiny layer of plastic. 

All photos courtesy of Victoria Mimiaga

“When plastic becomes visible again, we can begin the many conversations about its reflective aesthetic, its role in our society, and our responsibilities regarding its use,” explains the artist. 

Mimiaga’s first “Food in Plastic” show was displayed SF MOMA, and featured paintings of simple produce wrapped in plastic. Up next for the artist will be American Gothic + plastic and Monet’s garden at Giverny, complete with plastic bags floating in the ponds. 

“There are so many ways I can illustrate the evils of plastic without preaching,” says Mimiaga. “My goal is to open a visual dialogue.”

Visit Wrapped: Food in Plastics II The Masters at the Telegraph Hill Gallery in San Francisco, CA, through April 27. 

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Can art inspire action to stop plastic pollution? Explore these twelve works that put the spotlight on single-use plastic.

12. “Bristol Whales” by Sue Lipscombe

Works of art on plastic pollution

Created by Cod Steaks helmer Sue Lipscombe in Bristol, England, the larger-than-life whales are depicted as emerging and diving into a sea of plastic waste and were sculpted using locally grown willow. In contrast, over 100,000 single-use plastic bottles were collected from the Bristol 10k and Bath Half Marathon to create the Sea of Bottles around the Whales.

11. “Natural Plasticity” by Jana Cruder and Matthew LaPenta

Works of art on plastic pollution 2

Jana Cruder and Matthew LaPenta created “Natural Plasticity” as a large-scale commentary on the impact of disposable plastics in the natural environment. The public art installation replicates single-use plastic cups and bottles on a massive scale, and places them in in urban and park settings to stimulate conversation and thought around our interaction with these everyday things.

Works of art on plastic pollution 3

10. “Blox and Bax” by Kenny Scharf

Works of art on plastic pollution 4

In “Kenny Scharf: BLOX and BAX Scharf uses plastic and electrical appliances from the garbage along with plastic beads and decorations, layering colors and objects to create fantastical, intimate dioramas that reference Scharf’s lifelong concern about the detrimental environmental effects of discarded plastic. 

“While I intend my work to raise awareness of the over abundance of garbage and the indestructible non-degradable material that is plastic-petroleum, I also include messages of hope and optimism and joy; so essential with the mounting pressure of global destruction due to our dependence upon petroleum products,” he explains.

9. “Bridge” and “Ocean of Plastic” by Dianna Cohen

Works of art on plastic pollution 5

Dianna Cohen, a visual artist and co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, uses plastic bags to create vivid collages. “Cut like paper, sewn like fabric, these constructions have been presented as flat art (framed or mounted) with crumpled and shiny surfaces that are dulled by dirt and time: un-useful pieces of their former selves,” explains Cohen.

As part of the U.S. Art in Embassies Program, she recently traveled to Warsaw, Poland, where an art school organized a Trash Orchestra musical performance timed with projections of Cohen’s work. “The performance started with sounds of the sea and drops of water. Then images of plastic bags and bottles were projected on the walls and windows. The performance evolved through the life cycle of single-use plastic and even included the sounds of a garbage truck.”  Watch a video of the performance here.  

8. “One Beach Plastic” by Richard and Judith Lang

Since 1999, Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang have visited 1,000 yards of Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore, California, to gather plastic pollution washing out of the Pacific Ocean.

“By carefully collecting and ‘curating’ the bits of plastic, we fashion it into works of art,” they explain. “The viewer is often surprised that this colorful stuff is the thermoplastic junk of our throwaway culture. As we have deepened our practice we’ve found, like archeologists, that each bit of what we find opens into a pinpoint look at the whole of human culture. Each bit has a story to tell.”

Works of art on plastic pollution 6

7. New Roots Mural by Lila Roo Duncombe and communities in St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Works of art on plastic pollution 7

New Roots is a project-based arts program working with the children of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to create art from recycled materials. “It’s hard to explain what paintings mean to this community and especially to the kids,” says New Roots founder and artist Lila Roo Duncombe. “There are so few books, photographs, paintings, screens, or images of any kind compared, and it’s a very BIG experience for the village when a new intricate and beautiful image in the likeness of their life is created. It is not seen as ‘art’ or something even to just be looked at. It is touched and kissed and danced around, it is named and renamed, and guarded from harm.”

Check out Lila Roo Duncombe’s art here

Works of art on plastic pollution 8

6. “Sea Globes” by Dr. Max Liboiron

Max Liboiron is a scholar, activist, artist, and an assistant professor in geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “These sea globes are a representation of the waterfront environment in New York City today,” explains Liboiron. “The plastics came from the Hudson River in south Brooklyn, and the rocks are made of bituminous coal from in a landfill that closed in the 1930s at Deadhorse Bay, which now resides underwater at high tide, also in south Brooklyn.”

Works of art on plastic pollution 9

5. “Plastic Pollution Coalition” print by Raymond Pettibon

Works of art on plastic pollution 10

Los Angeles artist Raymond Pettibon’s eclectic inspiration ranges from surfing to 19th century literature. His early work in the punk rock scene secured him a cult following, and he has since developed an international reputation as one of the foremost contemporary American artists working with drawing, text, and artist’s books. Pettibon’s “Plastic Pollution Coalition” is a print from original painting. To purchase a print please contact us

4. “Bounty, Pilfered” by Pam Longobardi

Works of art on plastic pollution 11

Pam Longobardi is an artist, activist, and Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State University as well as Oceanic Society’s Artist-In-Nature. She founded Drifters Project in 2006 after encountering piles of plastic the ocean was regurgitating on remote Hawaiian beaches. With the Drifters Project, she collects, documents, and transforms oceanic plastic into installations and photography. The work provides a visual statement about the engine of global consumption and the vast amounts of plastic objects and their impact on the world’s most remote places and its creatures. Watch the National Geographic‘s video of Longobardi creating art from plastic pollution found on the Alaskan coast. 

3. “Washed Ashore” by various artists

The Washed Ashore project collected trash that has been removed from beaches through volunteer community cleanups. This trash is then washed, sorted, and prepared for the creation process. Each sculpture is designed and directed by a professional artist and then formed through a collaboration of Washed Ashore team members, volunteers, and students.

2. “Plastic Planet” by Calder Kamin

Calder Kamin, a visual artist from Austin, Texas, creates intricate animal sculptures from plastic bags that are stripped and twisted by hand. “Humans transformed nature to make our lives more convenient, only to leave a massive mess for the next generation,” says Kamin of the plastic pollution problem. “What are the steps to solve this crisis?”

1. “Vida Toxica” by Alvaro Soler Arpa

“Vida Tóxica” (Toxic Life) is fourteen sculptures created by Catalan artist Alvaro Soler Arpa with animal bones and plastic waste. The sculptures emphasize the human impact of runaway plastic pollution on ecosystems and individual animals.

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“I have been using plastic and electrical appliances from the garbage for over 40 years in my art,” writes artist Kenny Scharf. His installation Kenny Scharf: BLOX and BAX is on exhibit now at Honor Fraser Gallery in Culver City, California, until April 22.

In Kenny Scharf: BLOX and BAX, Scharf uses paint along with plastic beads and decorations, layering colors and objects to create fantastical, intimate dioramas that reference Scharf’s lifelong concern about the detrimental environmental effects of discarded plastic.

For his series TV BAX, Scharf uses abandoned television monitors found on sidewalks around the city and transforms the matte black and silver plastic TVs into brightly painted faces. Scharf’s Assemblage Tableaux Vivants series comprises wall-mounted assemblages pieced together from found plastic toys and games. In the painting below (Untitled, 2006) and in his Lixo sculptures, Scharf makes use of plastic pollution he collects from the beaches near his studio in Brazil (“lixo” is the Portuguese word for trash).

Kenny Scharf was born in 1958 in Los Angeles and lives in Los Angeles. In his paintings, sculptures, videos, public artworks, and installations, Scharf unites political ideas with a pop aesthetic, critiquing mainstream media and rampant commercialism through his art.  

“While I intend my work to raise awareness of the over abundance of garbage and the indestructible non-degradable material that is plastic-petroleum, I also include messages of hope and optimism and joy; so essential with the mounting pressure of global destruction due to our dependence upon petroleum products,” he explains.

“Innocence and its discontents are Scharf’s great subjects,” writes the LA Times of BLOX. “That double-edged drama plays out in eight intimately scaled wall reliefs, each made from a hodgepodge of consumer products and packages Scharf has glued together and painted in a rainbow of colors. These quirky assemblages recall the mobiles that parents often hang above cribs. But Scharf’s brightly tinted constellations seem to suggest that each newborn might be better off on another planet. And the more time you spend in his exhibition, the more it seems that that might be true for all of us.”

Visit Kenny Scharf: BLOX and BAX at Honor Fraser Gallery in Culver City, California, until April 22.

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By Emily DiFrisco

Before plastic became ubiquitous, many kitchen items were made from clay. A new movement called More Clay Less Plastic uses art installations and a Facebook group to bring people back to those roots—inviting others to rethink their everyday utensils, to substitute plastic with sustainable materials, and to find and support artists and craftsman.

Founder Lauren Moreira, who lives in Italy, chose the colander as the icon for the movement because “a strainer is an object that every single household in the world has,” and because it was the first utensil to disappear from ceramic production after plastic came along.

Moreira has shown the exhibition More Clay Less Plastic: Change in Your Hand in ten cities around the world, and the movement is growing. “It’s amazing how little people know about how dangerous plastic pollution is,” she says. “The visitors are attracted to the ceramic utensils, some of which they have never seen before precisely because they were substituted by plastic. We talk about why we are proposing a step back to natural materials and the audience is very interested, especially kids when they see the pictures of the animals trapped in plastic or killed by plastic.”

So why is clay a compelling material? “No matter how long a ceramic shard lasts, it will never harm the planet,” explains Moreira. “But what is most important for More Clay Less Plastic is the relation between ceramics and food. We are trying to make people go back to using real objects… Most of the worst plastic is the disposable that goes along with the food industry.”

Moreira, who is a potter herself, uses clay in school workshops with children. “I like to present the project in schools and then invite the students to make their own cup. It has a special value and anything that will be drunk from that cup will taste better!”

The More Clay Less Plastic movement recently culminated in a Less Plastic Day on Dec. 19 to create awareness about the problem of plastic pollution. Moreira collaborated with Blair Folts, from Green Mountain Conservation Group and Karen Payne, a science teacher, to present a screening of ‘Bag It’ at Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. The film was followed by a workshop where students made their own shopping bags from old T-shirts.

Moreira also showed Linda Booker’s documentary ‘Straws‘ in Venice, Italy, as part of Less Plastic Day, where the film had great impact. “Venice is the water city and one of the most visited places in the world. Disposable plastic is a problem there for the number of people who visit Venice every day.”

Clay is a means of starting the conversation about plastic pollution.

Lauren Moreira

Her vision for the future of More Clay Less Plastic is all about consciousness. “Clay is a means of starting the conversation about plastic pollution. My plan is to present the project in schools as many times as it will be possible. The division of trash in different bins and recycling was started in my house by my son. I’m convinced that if children understand the problem of plastic pollution they will convince their families to have better habits.”

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