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Looking Ahead to Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through

Shirt made from purple silicon with objects pressed into it
Black and white photo of Eva Hesse in her studio holding up a plastic sheet
Shirt made from purple silicon with objects pressed into it
various pieces of plastic objects against white surface

Looking Ahead to Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through

This is part of the Art Museum’s ongoing series of Virtual Spotlights centred on the upcoming exhibition Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through. The exhibition is organized by the Synthetic Collective and opens on September 8, 2021.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels those August blues; that residual childhood mourning for the end of summer and the anticipation of a new school year. Yet it goes without saying that this August felt particularly tenuous, as Toronto eased into Phase 3 of Ontario’s COVID Strategy and many public spaces, organizations, and educational institutions across the city are working to figure out what a safe re-opening might look like.

Throughout the lockdown, I’ve been providing research support for the exhibition Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through at the Art Museum, and working alongside the engaged, critical work of the Synthetic Collective has impacted my experience of the pandemic in a number of ways. Their work has prompted me to think more carefully about the significant upsurge in single-use plastics usage brought on by contagion concerns under COVID, concerns that plastics manufacturing industries have succeeded in capitalizing upon. Engaging with the production of this exhibition has also been an apt reminder that any environmentalist or public heath effort cannot truly succeed without integrated anti-racist and decolonial frameworks—at its core, this work is deeply connected; it always has been.

Having sat with many of the works to be exhibited in Plastic Heart across the last few months, some have begun to accumulate new associations. For instance, an iconic image of Eva Hesse holding up a sheet of transparent plastic (taken in 1967 in the artist’s studio) resonates differently today, as we build plexiglass barriers for public-facing workers and front-of-house staff. Amy Brener’s visceral Flexi-Shield (Eostra) (2019) also stands as a potential plastic barrier for a living body, one where items both natural and manufactured—larkspur and chrysanthemum alongside Q-tips, safety pins, hardware brackets, and knife blades—are encased in silicone as if intended to nourish, preserve, and protect its wearer against some threat looming in the future. It’s still difficult to fathom how inextricably our bodies are enmeshed with plastic material—from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the very air we breathe—and the pandemic’s surge in single-use plastic manufacturing stands as a reminder that despite best efforts, we’re still beholden to the fantasy that the material is somehow more stable, sterile, safer than the alternative. It’s a classic deferral tactic—we have bigger things to deal with right now—that avoids the central question: how can we come to understand these twinned global crises as fundamentally interconnected?

Of course, I hesitate to realign these artists’ practices into another COVID narrative (these days, we certainly have enough of those). Instead, it is interesting to consider how artists have been engaging with the contradictions of the material for quite some time: plastic as protection, as innovation, as contaminant, as hygienic, as disposable, as long-lasting—plastic as a truly “wicked problem,” to borrow the exhibition’s phrasing. As a term common in the sciences, a wicked problem is one found within a dense web of interdependencies—be they ecological, chemical, social, political, infrastructural—a problem with no clear start or finish, no obvious way to untangle the threads.A wicked problem of this magnitude needs both artists and scientists to visualize it, challenge it, and imagine new alternatives, and as the exhibition and programs of Plastic Heart come together, I’m excited to see what shapes these collaborations can take.

—Daniella Sanader

What I’m reading this week

A few weeks ago, the Synthetic Collective shared a reading list on the subject of plastics that captures a snapshot of their interdisciplinary work: writing on plastics through the lens of contemporary art, art conservation, scientific research, intersectional environmentalism, and others. In the text above, I shared several hyperlinks to articles from their reading list, but if you’re in need of some late-summer reading, here’s what I’ve been spending time with this week:

    • XiaoZhi Lim, “These Cultural Treasures Are Made of Plastic. Now They’re Falling Apart.”The New York Times, August 28 2018.
      Beginning from the challenge to conserve Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit at the National Air and Space Museum, Lim’s article follows several key American museum conservators as they grapple with the unpredictability of plastic artifacts: from identifying the correct material, to determining the scope of damage, and working to slow the degradation process. Lim reflects on the strange paradox in working to conserve plastic items: things we would rather have disposed of in other contexts, here being preserved as historically significant.
    • Max Liboiron, “How Plastic is a Function of Colonialism,”Teen Vogue, December 21 2018.
      An excellent primer on the inextricability of plastic production and colonialist geographies, explaining how any fantasy of plastic’s “disposability” requires a network of “away” places: colonized lands where resources are extracted and where plastic waste can be disposed of. Liboiron also discusses how environmentalist efforts originating in the west typically rely on lines of colonialist thinking that blame “local and Indigenous peoples for ‘mismanaging’ imported waste, and then gaining access to [their] land to solve their uncivilized approach to waste management.”
    • Michelle Murphy, “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations,”Cultural Anthropology,32(4), 494-503.
      UofT’s own Michelle Murphy here discusses the atmospheric flow of industrially produced pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as they circulate in our water systems and our bodies. She discusses the limits to our understandings of the “infernal entanglements of settler-colonial capitalism as expressed through chemical relations.” Offering the notion of alterlifeas an alternative, she explores Indigenous epistemologies and activisms that work to envision these otherwise-illegible entanglements, offering that “life forged in ongoing chemical violence is also life open to becoming something else, which is not a nostalgic return, but instead the defending of sovereignty starting here, with oneself and each other, here in the damage now.”
    • Synthetic Collective, “A comprehensive investigation of industrial plastic pellets on beaches across the Laurentian Great Lakes and the factors governing their distribution,”Science of the Total Environment, 747 (2020).

I would be remiss if I didn’t point to this recent paper authored by the Synthetic Collective themselves, not included on their reading list as it was published only a few weeks ago. It culminates a massive field research effort on their part: collecting plastic pellet samples from 66 beaches across the Great Lakes, analyzing and cataloguing them. Some 12,595 pellets were collected across the beaches (for an overall average of 19.1 pellets per square metre) and it’s certainly worth spending some time with this article to get a better understanding of the sheer breadth of their effort, the implications of their findings, and what the next steps for this work could be.