Plastic Heart

The multifaceted Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through offered a fascinating overview of art made of plastic, its physical attributes and how our view of plastic has been evolving since its invention in the early 20th century. It has since come to pervade many aspects of our lives. Were it not for environmental issues — the fact that we, for example, ingest micro-plastics since it forms a component of the dust that collects in our homes and is used to make things like tea bags is but one — caused by the amount that continues to grow and grow, we would likely not be aware of how much of it we touch on a daily basis.

Organised by The Synthetic Collective and shown at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto — it will also be shown in Paris, France, Fall 2022/Winter 2023 — the exhibition highlighted the material’s inherent beauty and versatility, as well as the artists’ response to it. As wilful experimenters and key observers of the social, political and commercial dimensions that affect day-to-day life, it’s no surprise that so many artists embraced it. The visual and conceptual potential presented by various kinds of plastic and the processes by which it could be manipulated precipitated a divergence of artistic approaches and ways of thinking. Plastics could be moulded, filled with air, used as a quick drying paint medium, are/were available as ready-made objects from store shelves or recoverable from any trash heap.

Installation view: Amy Brener, Flexi-Shield (Empress) 2018, platinum silicone, pigment, larkspur and chrysanthemum, flowers, fern leaves, miscellaneous objects. Courtesy of Jack Barrett Gallery, New York. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Source: syntheticcollective.org/exhibition/

Just compare the image of Iain Baxter&’s PLASTIC, 1965 (featured at the top of this post) with Amy Brener’s Flexi-Shield (Empress), 2018 (directly above) to get a sense of the material’s moulding and encapsulation capabilities, and how its appearance will change as it ages. These images also present evidence of the material’s irresistible characteristics, such as its glass-like transparency, chromatic impact and versatility in terms how its composition and surface features can be tailored.

Installation view: Les Levine, Disposables 1964, polyexpandable styrene. Photo: Tony Hafkenscheid. Source: https://syntheticcollective.org/exhibition/

Looking at Les Levine’s Disposables 1964, also prompts consideration of how the artwork may have originally appeared. It seems to have yellowed and has likely become increasingly brittle. Realisations of this kind also encourages viewers to imagine how Woomin Kim’s Steady Stream 2012/2020 will look sixty years from now.

Woomin Kim, Steady Stream 2012/2020, silicone. Detail view (on left): Photo: Tony Hafkenscheid, source: https://www.instagram.com/p/CVn3jSmPP1x/; Installation view (on right), source: https://www.woominkim.com/

Contrasting these art works are others, which point directly to the seductiveness of consumer products produced on an industrial scale. Lan Tuazon’s method of bisecting found containers and nesting them inside each other to create vibrant objects produces highly contradictory depictions. She converts waste material into compositions that do resemble luscious fruit. The query generated by these pieces is: What are we really producing?

Installation view: Lan Tuazon, False Fruits 2020. Courtesy of the artist and the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Source: https://momus.ca/an-aesthetic-of-enough/

Tuazon began her Future Fossils: False Fruits series in 2015 and it is ongoing. The detail view of Concrete Coconut, a component from a set that was exhibited at Essex Flowers Gallery in New York during 2017, clearly illustrates how these splendid works are put together.

Detail view: Lan Tuazon, False Fruit: Concrete Coconut 2017, concrete, ceramic and plastic. Courtesy the artist and Essex Flowers. Source: https://sculpture-center.tumblr.com/post/155692864812/whats-on-lan-tuazon-false-fruits-january-7

In addition to the fascinating physical properties demonstrated by such items, the exhibition included some general examples of aged plastic. Note the pair of images (below) that showcases a sample of the the unstable cellulose nitrate — it’s highly flammable — and Synthetic Collective member Tegan Moore’s You are impossible 2003. This rather sad looking drinking cup is made of expandable styrene and carries the words in the title and a sketch Moore’s added in black ink. These images not only provide a snapshot of the kind of objects (and their various problems) that museums, libraries and archives are trying preserve, but also provide a good representative samples of how plastic can degrade over time. Regeneration is impossible in most, but likely all, cases. The major challenge is slowing down or the outside change that such processes could be halted. That is the current focus of conservation measures and scientific research into the objects’ material makeup. Maintaining appropriate environmental conditions and discovering the how and the why of the chemical processes so that objects may be stabilised is an ongoing challenge.

A grouping of aging plastic objects including: Garrity Life Lite Flashlight, (1969-1980 estimated); Back Comb, 1919-1930 (estimated); Cellulose Nitrate; Ear Cup Prototypes, 1960-1970 (estimated); Lichtenberg Discharge Embedment, 1960 (estimated); Acrylic (Polymethyl Methacrylate); Rilsan Sample, Courtesy of Special Collections Research Centre, Syracuse University Library; St. Vincent de Paul Medallion, Bois Durci, Courtesy of Kelly Jazvac; Tegan Moore, You are impossible, 2003, Sharpie marker on expanded polystyrene cup; Christo & Jean Claude Swatches from “The Gates”, 2005, Nylon fabric. Photos: Toni Hafkenscheid. Source: https://syntheticcollective.org/exhibition/

While the installation process of Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through also followed the greenest approach possible, the exhibition also called attention to the material’s impact on general environment in the Great Lakes Region. As The Synthetic Collective comprises visual artists, cultural workers and scientists, they are investigating the chain that leads from the material’s production through its many uses, the way it ages and, ultimately, lives on as trash. Notice, for example, the rich variety of debris Sara Belontz collected from an area of beach on Lake Ontario measuring only 1 x 10 metres (below). This seems to be what was likely readily accessible on the surface. Imagine how much more there must be in sewers and pipes, land fill sites, where ever illegal dumping occurs and floating in the water. Recall that this is readily visible material. Obviously, micro plastics are another order of pollution.

Sara Belontz, Fragments and pellets from a 1x10m sample area, Bronte Beach, Oakville, 2019, 2–7mm plastic fragments, pre-production pellets, Courtesy of Sara Belontz and Western University Earth Sciences. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Source: https://syntheticcollective.org/exhibition/

Consider too that the Great Lakes Region forms part of the border Canada and the United States and that this area encompasses some highly industrialised areas. Not only do major cities — they include Chicago IL, Detroit MI, Cleveland OH, Buffalo NY and Toronto, Ontario — dot the region’s shores, but plastic producers can also be found among numerous smaller centres. The exhibition includes several posters, one of which provides rows and rows of names of the plastics producers that are known to be in the region. There must literally number in the hundreds.

In addition to the exhibition the program included a series of dialogues, which continue to be available on the project’s webpages.

Dialogue # 1: Plastic Pollution, Toxicity, and Policy Change

Dialogue # 2: Plastic Pollution in the Laurentian Great Lakes: Industry and Invisibility

Dialogue # 3: The Plastic Conservation Conundrum: Preserving Plastics in Museum Collections and Plastics’ Durability in the Environment

Dialogue # 4: Sustainable Museums

Scroll down further on the exhibition‘s main page and you will find even more resources. They are categorised under the following the headings: Virtual Spotlights and Exhibition Resources.


Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through was exhibited at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (8 September — 20 November 2021) and will appear at the Canadian Culture Centre / Centre Culturel Canadien, Paris, France (Fall 2022/Winter 2023).


Featured image at the top of this post and bottom too: Iain Baxter&, PLASTIC, 1965, plastic. Collection of the artist. Installation view at the Art Museum. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid. Source: https://syntheticcollective.org/exhibition/

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