Plastic. It is essentially useless.
Presenting itself as an ever-growing existential threat to our planet, this material waste becomes an exhibition of something wonderfully heartbreaking. The mounting accumulation of plastic turned into enchanting works of art that displays the multilayered impact on humans, animals and aquatic life.
Opened on Sept. 13, Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials coincides with consistent advocacy of the environment. While special collection represents the beauty plastic products can provide, it also highlights the suffering of sea creatures and the changing landscape of the earth we walk on.
“We hope the exhibition offers viewers a new perspective — more than one, actually — on a material so common that we don't think about where it comes from, how we use it, how it is impacting the environment, local and global ecologies, and even our own health,” said Penn State gender and women’s studies and English professor, as well as one of the curators, Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor.
Entanglement is at the center of this complex exhibit to present the literal ways plastic has become woven into our very existence. Our reliance on this material — both invisible, yet everywhere — has proven to be detrimental to human life.
Plastic Entanglements is broken down into three different sections to reflect the evolution of plastic — past, present and future.
The past, otherwise known as “The Archive,” explores how various materials of plastic have become a part of life, keeping a record of people’s imprint on the planet.
“The Entangled Present” showcases how intertwined ecosystems are with plastic through plants, animals and humans. Plastic binds everything together, allowing exploration of the complex effects it can have on geographical locations and networks.
The final section of the exhibit — “Speculative Futures” — focuses on the unknown. What will the future hold based on the impact of plastic on our ecosystem? That is the question left pondering in your head when you stroll through this part. The omnipresence of plastic takes hold and the evolution of new biological and geographic forms.
“The exhibition explores different sides of our lives with plastic, balancing the ecological concerns many artists bring to their work, with their simultaneous appreciation of the versatile material properties of plastic,” Wagner-Lawlor said.
While walking through the exhibition, it feels familiar — plastic is nothing we haven’t seen before. But, Chris Jordan’s pictures of plastic left behind from the remains of albatross chicks on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean are a shocking image of the destruction of the living.
Zanele Muholi creates a portrait within their “Crime Scene” photographs (2012), showing the horrid, harmful realities inflicted on LGBTQ+ individuals and communities around South Africa. The collection of photos shows the fragments of nameless victims covered in plastic sheets. Through this powerful work, Muholi represents the perception of LGBTQ+ individuals as social “trash.”
The artwork titled, “Wavelengths,” caught the eye when wandering through the exhibit with its assemblage of plastic objects that were formatted by its use of color and shape. Its gorgeous composition was meant to reflect the world’s five major oceans, and the flow of color resembles the infiltration of marine debris charting through the oceanic water.
Utilization of the aquatic ecosystem reflects the unknown as well as the consequences of plastic and human impact. Matthe Northride’s “Horizon” brings everything to a basic level where hundreds of acrylic domed disks serve as miniature magnifying glasses that amplify tiny seascapes. The way that nature is viewed through a plastic lens shows the distortion that human waste has had on our ecosystem.
“Plastic Entanglements reminds viewers that a material we often use fleetingly — plastic — has a lifetime much longer than our own, and that it also has nearly endless possibilities for creativity and innovation,” said Amy Gilman — director of the Chazen Museum of Art.
The ramifications of plastic weighs heavily on your mind when you navigate through the “Speculative Futures.” It leaves you motivated to do something — to not leave this unseen future even worse than the present.
The closing section of Plastic Entanglements offers an interactive section to write about the next steps you will take in regard to our environment. Whiteboards are filled with different messages from people seeking action, as well as social justice causes they are fighting for.
Put together by the Palmer Museum of Art, the collection includes 30 contemporary artists from around the world. Alongside Davis, Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials is curated by Joyce Robinson, a curator from the Palmer Museum of Art, along with independent scholar Heather Davis.
“Part of the excitement around Plastic Entanglements will emerge from the fact that plastic is ubiquitous,” Robinson said. “Those who might be intimidated by a ‘contemporary art’ exhibition will find themselves immediately drawn in by the familiarity of plastic, which actually makes the world we live in possible.”
The exhibit will remain open until Jan. 5.
Lauren Souza is an Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.
Robyn Cawley is the Editor-in-Chief for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.