The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue
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The Masochism Tango

Aurora Robson, Plant Perception, 2014. Plastic debris suspended sculpture, 65 feet tip to tip. Photo: Adam Kurtz.
Aurora Robson, Plant Perception, 2014. Plastic debris suspended sculpture, 65 feet tip to tip. Photo: Adam Kurtz.

My muse punishes me daily so that I may know the cost of my love. Love is not free after all. The cost only increases as love deepens.
Approximately 10% of all the plastics ever created have actually been recycled.1

If I could just un-know what my art practice has led me to discover. I figured I would just play with the bottles to see what they could do since nobody in the Chelsea galleries in the ’90s appeared to be doing that. My schooling and frequent trips to see contemporary art in the city made me think it was a perfectly valid option. Tom Friedman was playing with toothpicks and toothpaste, so why not experiment with other everyday items? Amazing artists were licking, lathering, looming, and layering. It seemed like fair game. I wanted in, and pretty quickly it seemed maybe I was. I hadn’t wished to become fixated on our growing ecological affliction, but the bottles were mesmerizing. Humans have an intrinsic urge to protect that which is beautiful, but also to deface. Plastic bottles elicited both compulsions in me, which is part of why I was so ferociously attracted to them.

Making art is like communing with the divine: it is open source, it is opening the source, it is the source opened. Art provides the space and time to reflect on what it is to be human right now and how odd, horrifying, and miraculously wonderful that is. Artists share reflections through a series of decisions made visible in a work of art. Focused introspection strengthens the ability to think things all the way through. It holds the answer to the problematic velocity of this masochistic dance we are all participating in, whether you currently recognize it or not.

Let us slow the dance to see the consequences of our steps before taking more.

A few years ago the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a study stating that at our current rate of consumption there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. This statistic deeply impacted me personally and professionally. For over a decade I’ve been exploring the sculptural potential of this insidious material that increasingly surrounds us—infiltrating our bodies; disrupting our endocrine, neurological, and reproductive systems; and literally killing millions, likely billions of defenseless creatures with whom we share this precious time on earth. Plastic is increasingly persistent in our most valuable shared natural resources: water and air. In fact, scientists now report high levels of plastic particles “raining down” in the Pyrenees mountains.2

From an environmental perspective, art education is essential. Carelessly discarding things is precisely the opposite impulse to slowing down and crafting a work of art from raw material. The shift away from hands-on, craft-based arts education and art-making has unforeseen dire consequences. For example, medical students have spent so much time in front of screens with so little time using their hands that they've lost the dexterity for stitching up patients.3 In our rush to keep up with ourselves and each other, we plan obsolescence into our technology while inadvertently planning our own obsolescence through it. Meanwhile, the US Defense Department is using biomimicry to eliminate soldiers’ need for sleep, so it is 24/7 full speed ahead.4 The power to be active agents of change in and through our work and lives is ours. Or we could just self-importantly swipe, tag, comment, like, render, posture, delete, and schmooze whilst contemplating our navels ad infinitum.

Highly crafted art and design objects tend not to find their way into the waste stream because we covet and protect them. Gen Z doesn’t care about archival integrity and I don’t blame them. However, there is a point (of light) to considering the fate of those who invest in contemporary art. Providing a timelessly beautiful, crafted heirloom object to a loved one that can be passed down from generation to generation is admirable, poetic, and antithetical to our toxic waste problem. If art were increasingly made of plastic debris, we could simultaneously protect our children, earth’s creatures, and ultimately ourselves. I implore art and science educators to help battle this lowest hanging fruit of environmental problems. If we teach students to work with what is already here, to make do, to cease unnecessarily consuming natural resources, we can collectively activate art education with the goal of developing a distaste for the new, just like we developed our self-destructive taste for the new. Amend. Every day we are given a chance to awaken, to refuse, and re-fuse.

The ‘plasticity’ built into plastic makes it ideal to work with and simultaneously a challenge. Almost anything is possible with it, which is precisely why it is such a problem. Introductory sculpture classes could exclusively use this material, enlisting art students to develop and explore solutions to plastic pollution. Sustainably minded, highly skilled future creative problem solvers would be the end result of this approach.

At what point do we begin radically shifting this tide as cultural professionals? How about now?

  1. Laura Parker, Planet or Plastic?, National Geographic Magazine, December 20, 2018. In December 2018, Great Britain's Royal Statistical Society named the core fact in this story—that only about nine percent of all plastic ever made has likely been recycled— its statistic of the year. (2018)
  2. Stephen Leahy, Microplastics are raining down from the sky, National Geographic, (2019)
  3. Gareth Davies, Surgery students ‘can’t sew or cut’ because they spend too much time on screens, warns Imperial College professor, The Telegraph, (2018)
  4. Jonathan Crary, 24/7, (2014).


Aurora Robson

Aurora Robson is an environmentally conscious artist who lives and works in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues