Plastic was once seen as a major advancement for humanity thanks to its low-cost versatility—now, it feels like our undoing. Even as disturbing headlines warn us that plastic is now in our water, our air, and our bodies, we remain locked in an uncomfortable reliance on this potentially toxic, manmade material. We may fantasize about a zero-waste future, but the world’s consumption of single-use plastics is only growing.
When artists first started experimenting with plastic shortly after its invention in the 1950s, however, the mood was one of excitement. The highly flexible, inexpensive material represented a world of new possibilities: it could be bent, cut, poured, or inflated, and came transparent or in any number of brilliant colors. It also carried associations of modernity and mass consumption that made it a quintessential symbol of its time.
A new thematic show at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, titled “Plastic World,” features the work of more than 50 artists—including James Rosenquist, Eva Hesse, and Christo—in a major survey of the many ways in which plastic has been used over the years, as well as how its associations have evolved.
More than 100 works are made from media as diverse as acrylic, silicon, vinyl, styrofoam polyurethane, polyester, PVC, 3D printing and discarded objects, but each was made possible thanks to the cultural ubiquity of plastic. Among the international movements spotlighted are Pop art, Arte Povera, Minimalism, Finish Fetish, Nouveau Réalisme, conceptualism and the urgent eco-critical works of a younger generation.
“What has now turned out to be an enormous burden for the environment denotes a huge enrichment for art as well as for architecture and design,” said the show’s curator Dr. Martina Weinhart. “A look at the extremely rich history of plastic as a material opens up a narrative full of ambivalences: of a future-oriented innovative ability and of seductive-seeming objects; of damaging effects, but also the question of new approaches to dealing with this material, which is here to stay.”
Check out works from the exhibition below.
“Plastic World” is on view at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Römerberg, Frankfurt, through October 1.
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