Plastic as a medium? What is the value of such a substance? Is value to be found in its ease of manipulation? It's economy? For these reasons alone plastic is a ubiquitous feature of our everyday life - love it or loathe it. A medium for art and craft must be able to be shaped to suit the desires and needs of the artists/craftsperson. Plastics are varied in composition and qualities; they come in so many colours and forms, it shouldn't surprise us that the creative individual should see plastic as an exciting opportunity. The relatively low cost of the substance itself makes it within the reach of the restrained artist budget. But significantly, where else but in the manipulation of common substances is the value of the artist's mental touch more clearly felt - whether that be wood, clay, paint, fabric, paper or glass, plastic has its own place here.
It is tempting to feel a certain resistance to plastics. After all, plastic is inorganic, cheap and landfill is full of it. Plastic has become synonymous with rubbish - a poster child of man's disrespect for the planet, environmental disaster, rabid consumerism and impersonal mass production. While this is true of so much of how plastics are used, is it fair to dislike the substance in all the forms it takes? I found this question delightfully answered in the negative by every work in the exhibition but it was the hand-woven hangings by Helena Stulgis at its centre that forced me come to terms with Plastic Fantastic and the questions posed by designing in plastic.
Helena Stulgis's piece 'Dress Series' is hung in the centre of the gallery; it consists of two individual woven pieces held flat and rigid from the ceiling. The weavings nearly reach floor level and are arranged parallel and slightly overlap each other visually. Each is an open weave of fishing line, with striping made of white cotton twine, lacey paper ribbon and medical plastic tubing. As an installation the transparency of the work stimulates a flow of focus around the room. Though I was able to see through it physically, it was the last piece in the exhibition I was able to come to terms with. It was the stone in my shoe, the pea under the mattress; the uncomfortable question lingering beyond conclusion and ultimately it was the secret key to my discovery. This piece bothered me, I came to realise, because it encapsulates both the positive and negative associations built into our current relationship to plastic more than any other piece in the exhibition.
I hadn't noticed it so distinctly with the other works because a majority of the artists use plastics from an obvious recycled source and/or have organic references. There is, 'You're id', the striking black textures of tire inners used in a geometric-like, repeating pattern of stylised leaf forms by Hayley Cavanagh. The seams and the faded white lettering on the rubber give variety to each individual cut out, and often mimic the line of leaf veins. Not only is this work recycled but it also references the organic world.
The effervescent and colourful wall installation by Liana Kabel recycles Tupperware plastic. She takes recycling still further by exploiting her collection of imperfect extras that didn't make the quality standards of her jewellery designs. These extras are made of fused circles of coloured plastic, ranging in size from half a centimeter to the size of a fifty-cent piece. Spanning two perpendicularly joined walls, the work seems to be blown into being from a point on the left and then expands like a cascade of bubbles across the two walls to the right. An interesting duality of freezing time in a moment and simultaneously experiencing the activity of movement occurs - I felt I could 'hear' popping bubbles. I was pleased to find my imagination confirmed by the title, 'Pop!' An exciting aesthetic journey aside, recycling of Tupperware has been a predominant conceptual base of Liana Kabel's current arts practice and so I was joyfully numb to the disquiet in my heart.
Mark Vaarwerk's new brooch range applies his trademark use of recycling plastic shopping bags in a new way. The bags are cut into ribbons and wrapped around an inner core of silver, the plastic and silver is fused into a log shape and cut like candy into flat slivers roughly half a centimeter thick. The brooches themselves, are either a single sliver or a combination of them. The different colours of the plastic when heated intensify unexpectedly into deep blues and rich pinks, etc. Depending on the colour layering of the wrapped plastic and the uncontrolled process of melting, the circular shapes that result are imperfect, organic egg-like shapes or remain circular with a slight flattening of the circumference. Internally, a restrained fluid marbling of the internal circles of colour occurs. This has the effect of gently steering the association of the jewellery away from mass-cut perfectionism back to the hand-formed and organic.
Jane Pollard's collection jewellery pieces are stylishly assembled from vintage plastic buttons and Czech glass beads. The three matching pieces in this exhibition include: a short necklace featuring a dramatic drop of three large round "tortoise shell" buttons; a wrap with a long length of pink rectangular buttons ends with a bold deco buckle and "tortoise shell" button combination; and lastly, a matching pair of dangling earrings using the same pink and "tortoise shell" buttons combined with the sparkle of Czech cut-glass beads.
Alexander Lotersztain's piece, 'Coral Light', is a modular, sculptural form that can be assembled in any variety of ways and with any number of units. The unit form itself has alternative applications other that lighting; as an example one unit, transformed into a stereo speaker, is suspended down from the ceiling next to the main lighting sculpture. The version assembled for this exhibition curls around the floor and rises to the ceiling. The semi-opaque polyethylene has a skin like texture that, coupled with the warm honeycomb glow, feels reassuring and does indeed take the imagination to the soft polyps of living coral; living in their colonies of mutual benefit, the cities of the sea. Having heard Alex speak previously, I was aware of his environmental design philosophy - he seeks to develop designs that achieve aesthetic and functional needs with the minimum waste. I had this in mind as I viewed his work.
Marc Harrison's pair of white resin 'Ebony' chairs and orange plastic coated chair sprue, 'Ebony Sprue'; though not obviously organic do have a stylised form reminiscent of the body. The top, rounding like shoulder blades, narrows into a cinched waist, completing the hourglass shape the seat swells and stands upon delicately formed legs, two close together descending from the base of the waist while the remaining two descend from the end corners of the front of the seat. For me, even the chair segments of the livid orange sprue resting horizontally in the front window, triggered thoughts of bone fragments, perhaps being carefully revealed in a sectioned off archeological dig destined to tell old tales as new.
Finally, Matt Dwyer's clever evolution of his pillow lights called 'Hard Furnishings', piles seven realistic throw cushions made of white opalescent acrylic, upon a low plinth on the exhibition floor. The vacuum-pulled plastic has the look of shiny glass and only when given a light tap is the illusion revealed. The cushions are tastefully decorated with delicate floral designs, inspired by Victorian wallpaper, fixed on the internal surface. The white light inside the cushion creates a subtle silhouette of flowers - some in soft black and others in powder blue, pink, grey and blonde.
So these signs of recycling and nature mollified my anxiety. But the weavings of Helena sharpened them again. Perhaps it was because, as an artist who works with textiles, I associate weaving with warmth, covering and therefore protection. These weavings seemed in every way to deny this instinct. The fishing line and tubing feel visually cold because the clear plastic reflect light away from it; also its construction is flimsy and transparent, offering no protection from screening either the eye or the body. Yet the work insists on using the traditional language of the woven fabric - of patterning stripes and fringing. However, on further consideration, I realised this discomfort was superficial to a much deeper inner voice of dissent. There was something about the fishing line and tubing itself that was puzzling me. It wasn't any old tubing, it was medical tubing, the kind that delivers blood to a patient or suctions fluid out of the path of the surgeon. Fishing line is used to catch fish, and fish is good food. Healing and food satisfied my instinct for cloth to be protective and nurturing but I wasn't satisfied, why?
Given the context of the work, in an exhibition of plastic art and design, the piece was resonating on a wider frequency than simply that of weaving. Surprisingly, it wasn't the low value of plastic as a material, nor was it that plastic is an inorganic substance that so disturbed my empathy towards the works as a whole. It was the association of plastic with waste and destruction that was at the heart of my disaffection and this work more than any of the others displayed plastic unadorned. No colourful diversions, no witty references or organic overtones and to my limited knowledge no obvious recycling (though that maybe the case) could be discerned. Here was the soul of plastic - cold and beautiful, helpful and hurtful, a child of humanity and a mirror to us all.
Ultimately what I was facing, was responsibility. With the organic we have it fairly easy, what nature produces we know nature will recycle. Wood, clay, paper, fabric are all used happily for better or worse, used for the precious and the vulgar, even our body being created of earth is brought back to it - ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But what about what we have given birth to, the "man made"? We have been ignorant and irresponsible expecting the earth to cope with this child of ours. And standing there before the stark product of our creation, I grew up. Through examining my reactions to this exhibition I saw that it was us who should, with clear resolution, become mature handlers of our children, only then could we truly begin a new age of Plastic Fantastic.
The artists in this exhibition are all concerned about the implications of using plastic. They have expressed this concern implicitly in their work. Innovative ways of recycling plastics are being developed as we speak, whether that be e-wood or using plastics to replace the burning of coal in the production of iron. The way forward is indicated. Perhaps tomorrow we will all awaken as adults.