Still life from the Plastic Age, Holden Gallery, 2002
Still Life and the Plastic Age
Past – present – future
MA in Art as Environment, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2002
"Above all, then, the key link between science and the humanities is the production of new knowledge. Scholars who link science to culture are motivated mainly, I think, not by a desire to discredit science, but to understand it in a new way. We want to know science in a way that some scientists may not want to hear about, as a concrete social practice carried on by real people in a world of values, interests, influences, and drives." Mitchell (1998:283)
In The last Dinosaur Book W.J.T. Mitchell argues that there is a great divide between science and the humanities. This two culture split should really be called a "two science" division, between two distinct traditions of knowledge production. One is mainly centered on cause-and-effect explanations of natural phenomena, whereas the other is mainly based in reading and interpretation, the analysis of social formations, and archival of the past (Mitchell 1998:283).
In this essay I attempt to explain and explore the ideas behind my works made in 2002, called Fossils from the Plastic Age (Fig. 1) and Still Life from the Plastic Age. The focus here is on the concept of time: the past, the present and the future. A central point in the discussion is the "Plastic Age", and a justification of the choice of this label for the present period is put forth. I raise the question of the long-term environmental effects that plastic may have on nature, in particular as waste. Considering the enormous consumption of prepackaged food in our times, the plastic food wrappings can be seen both as images of modern still life and as future fossils. What will our descendants dig up as remains of our presence on earth? I have also explored the work of other artists that have been interested in similar subjects: Robert Smithson, Allan McCollum and Mark Dion. I have looked at the debate concerning postmodernism, manifesting itself in the discussion of knowledge production on the one hand and interpretation of knowledge on the other. The conclusion is that artists can be involved in both kinds of activity, both the production and the interpretation of knowledge.
Time in the perspective of still life
The most important factor in our lives is time. Living is existing in time. Time is what rules our lives, even though we may not normally think much about it. Time is what joins everything together, past - present - future, it is impossible to separate one from the other. Time can be short or long, but with respect to our own lives, most people are not ready when their time is up.
Consider the following quote from Wendt (1965): "In 1650 Bishop Usher calculated the age of the earth from the evidence of the Old Testament, and concluded that it was created at precisely 9 a.m. on October 26, 4004 BC. Nowadays the "uranium clock" estimates that the earth has been in existence between 3,5 and 5 billion years. This unimaginable increase in our time-scale raises the attendant problems of when life began to exist on our planet, how it developed, and when man first appeared" (Wendt 1965).
Life is short but art is long, as the ancient Greek saying goes. People living in caves 12,000 years ago drew pictures of animals on their walls, and were even collecting fossils. This much we know about our ancestors from the cave age. The British Museum's permanent Prehistory display, called Objects of Power, includes chopping tools from Tanzania, that are almost two million years old, and a hand axe found in Sussex in 1797, thought to have been made 400,000 years ago. "Very early in the development of technology, something astonishing happens. Axe heads take on features that cannot be purely practical. Beautiful, glittering rock crystal is selected, then chipped into a symmetrical, visually satisfying shape" (Jones 2002). The Prehistory display mostly avoids the word "art", thus emphasizing the difficulty in telling where use ends and aesthetic power begins in the earliest human cultures. We have much more evidence from Greek and Roman times, and it is still the art and artifacts that stand out, statues, ceramics and tools. It seems that the need to be creative has been with us for a very long time, and is one of the qualities that distinguish us from other living creatures. Bearing in mind the need to be creative, it is no wonder that people would start painting pictures of their artifacts early on in history. As far as we can tell, the Greeks were the first people in the West to paint pictures which can properly be described as still lifes (Sterling 1959:9, cf. Bryson 1990). But the Egyptians had already long before that painted pictures of food and artifacts in graves for the dead to use in the afterlife (Skira 1989:8). As Mikhail Bakhtin observes in his monumental work, Rabelais and His World (Bakhtin 1968:281): "In the oldest system of images food was related to work... Work triumphed in food. Human labour's encounter with the world and the struggle against it ended in food, in the swallowing of that which had been wrested from the world" (cf. Bryson 1990:21). Assuming Bakhtin is right, we can understand why food is depicted in still lifes, but what about the artifacts shown in such works? They have been called "prime objects", that is to say, the prototypes of the series of artifacts such as plates, bowls, jars and so on (Kubler 1962:71). As Bryson (1990:138-139) says, complicated tools and technologies are subject to rapid change, but simple utensils obey a "slow, almost geological rhythm." Archaeology continues to unearth the same kind of objects: storage jars, oil-lamps, beakers and vases. These objects belong to the aevum, time which has a beginning but no end. Through countless centuries and cultures, time has given these objects "a priceless product: familiarity." So as human beings we need very basic artefacts that have been with us for thousands of years. The shapes of these things have been decided by a consensus over centuries, and feel "right" for the job. The images shown in still lifes reflect the culture of artifacts, which has its own, independent history.
When viewing still life in the perspective of history, one comes across different styles of paintings and artwork. Rowell (1997) claims that still life paintings and sculptures offer a unique index not only of their makers' interests and formal concerns, but of their times as well (Rowell 1997:9). One comes across different kinds of foods and artefacts in different times. From that point of view it is quite exciting to picture the typical food in the year 2002. Endless amounts of plastic containers, for all the dairy products, meats, even for some of the vegetables and fruits, and of course all the microwave meals. It is easy to imagine a very modern still life; a picture of food from the supermarket on the kitchen table, all wrapped up in plastic. Plastics seem to be one of the most important factors of modern life, although people do not pay much attention to it.
The Plastic Age
All major periods in history derive their name from the most used material: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. I think that possibly our period will be mostly remembered by the material that we use and abuse all the time, for all sorts of things. The history of plastics goes back to the middle of 19th century, when people tried to find substitutes for diminishing sources of materials like horn, tortoiseshells, ivory and ebony. First the product was natural plastics, organic substances which when heated can be softened and then formed in moulds. Soon this was followed by semi-synthetic materials like casein, bakelite, celluloid, but it was not until after the First World War that the modern synthetic plastics took off (Sparke 1990:17-23). In the introduction to the book The Plastics Age, the editor, Penny Sparke, discusses the cultural meanings that plastics have acquired over the course of time: "Created, in the first place, as substitutes for luxury materials which were in increasing demand and diminishing supply in the second half of the nineteenth century, first celluloid and later the synthetic plastics were developed as cheaper, more available alternatives" (Sparke 1990:7). She argues that they also served as an essential adjunct to a number of the new technological innovations of the era, in photography and the electrical industry in particular. As such they earned respect and admiration. After the Second World War plastic products became associated with the concepts of "inauthenticity", "cheapness," "low quality" and "bad taste". In contrast to the traditional "craft" materials - clay, stone etc. - they were downgraded and seen as essentially "inferior" - a reputation which they have been trying, with the help of designers, to throw off ever since (Sparke 1990:8). In another contribution in The Plastics Age, Sylvia Katz (1990:151) argues that the main problem with plastics is not knowing the long-term environmental effects high-tech polymers have on nature. As she points out, this uncertainty has already influenced the market in some countries, for example Italy, Germany and Scandinavia. In my native country, Iceland, one has to pay the equivalent of 10p for every plastic carrier bag, a tax that goes towards environmental issues, and a deposit is demanded on one-trip plastics bottles that you get back when you return them for recycling. Katz concludes: "Wood grows in its own natural way. Ceramics and metals periodically make technological leaps. The intriguing fact about plastics is that they are in a constant state of evolution, replacing, and improving on, their own species. Did someone say that we had entered the "Plastics Age"? Why, we've only just started the journey" (Katz 1990:151).
It is interesting to see what kind of marks we are going to leave on the earth for our descendants to dig up. In a recent article in the Guardian Emma Brokes notes: "It is part of the mythology of waste that what we discard says as much, if not more, about us than what we hang on to" (Brokes 2002). The author furthermore tells us some basic facts about waste: In Britain, 435m tons of rubbish are disposed of every year (106m tons of it domestic - some 400kg per person). This is half the amount generated by an American but 25% more than a resident of France. Britain is one of the most wasteful societies in Europe and its trash output is rising by roughly 4% annually. According to Brokes, well-off households produce more waste than the poorer ones, people in cities throw away more than the ones in the country, and people that live alone waste more than those who co-habit. Packaging seems to be the single growing problem accounting for 35% of the weight and 50% of the volume of household waste comparing the household waste from 1892 when it was 80% dust and cinders. Professor Bill Rathje, a "garbage archaeologist" from the University of Arizona, calls this the "fast lane syndrome," the habit formed by busy professionals of buying fresh produce in the delusional hope they will have time to cook it and, as a back-up, also buying microwave meals. The microwave meals inevitably get eaten and the fresh stuff winds up in the bin (Brokes 2002).
Most of this packaging stuff is made out of cardboard, metal or plastic. We know that paper and cardboard degrade rather quickly, that metal degrades rather slowly, but the question is if plastic degrades at all. If it does not degrade, is it going to exist forever? Is it perhaps what the paleontologists of the future are going to find, as the sole remnants of our existence on earth? Will plastic objects thus become the true fossils of the future? If so, how will they be seen when time has stripped them of any ornament and the only thing left is their "pure form"? These are the kinds of questions that I am focusing on in the context of my current practice.
Even though paleontology as a modern science is very young, only two hundred years old, fossils have been puzzling people for a very long time. Carefully arranged fossil sea-urchins from the Chalk were found in certain graves from the Bronze Age, showing that about ten thousand years ago some men must have regarded these fossils as unusual and as worth collecting, possibly for charms (Kirkaldy 1967:9). Ever since the earliest times, people have felt the need to explain the presence of fossils, and through them the history of the Earth. Even though paleontology is not an ancient science, the traces of the Earth's ancient history were observed and records of discoveries have been handed down to us either in legends and poems, or in scientific and philosophical treatises (Pinna 1984:10).
It is very exceptional for fossils to be more than the hard parts of organisms that lived in the past – that is the shells of bivalves, sea-urchins etc., the teeth and bones of vertebrates, the trunks, branches and leaves of trees. The soft parts have disappeared, owing to the rapidly acting processes of bacteriological decay. The hard parts are to become the fossil, or if they do dissolve before fossilization, they sometimes leave only the mould, the "ghost" of the fossil. Another type of fossil is traces of life of the past, that are the footprints, trails, coprolites (fossil excreta) and gastroliths (stomach stones of reptiles). Footprints are formed when birds and animals such as dinosaurs walked across soft, probably wet, mud or sand, which hardened sufficiently to retain the impressions before the next layer was deposited (Kirkaldy 1967:10-12).
From my point of view that is exactly what can happen again, now and in the future, to some of the remains of our existence, and not necessary the most significant ones. What is most likely to become traces of our existence, I assume, could be the things we use most, for example something to do with food or artifacts. So I imagine that this could be the traces from the plastics that are being used all the time in the kitchen, some sort of future still lifes.
Looking at other artists that have been thinking in terms of time and eternity, the names Robert Smithson, Allan McCollum and Mark Dion come up. They have all, though differently, worked with the past as well as the future.
Robert Smithson (1938-1973) is acknowledged as a major figure of the American and global avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, both because of his work of art and his writings (Shapiro 1995:1). He is a precursor of what Mitchell calls "paleoart" - which is an art that engages the present and future of advanced industrial societies and reframes them in the temporal perspective of paleontology and geology (Mitchell 1998:272). It articulates the past–present contrast central to modernity in its most extreme form, fusing remote scenes of "deep time" with the immediate present. It is different from "prehistoric" art that attempts to revive primitive and traditional man-made art forms: Stone Age sculpture, mound building, ritual art, and to evoke a mystical pre–modern era when "art and life were one."
Furthermore, Mitchell (1998:72-73) claims that "paleoart" is engaged with technology, environmental devastation, and questions of entropy, catastrophe, and extinction. It is far from evoking nostalgia for a primitive past. Rather, it is characterized by a corrosive irony about pretensions to human greatness.
Smithson is very much engaged with time, which you can see both in his work and in his writings. "Nothing is new, neither is anything old", he said in his Writings, when he tried to put the ultramodern in contact with a range of monumental art: Egyptian, Mayan, Inca, Aztec, Druid, Indian, etc. (quoted from Shapiro 1995:29). Smithson is also concerned with the future, and states: "Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future. Instead of being made of natural materials, such as marble, granite, and other kinds of rock, the new monuments are made of artificial materials, plastic, chrome, and electric light. They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages" (Shapiro 1995:29).
One of his most important work is The Spiral Jetty that he made in the Great Salt lake, Utah, in 1970, which is a spiral made from rock and mud into the lake, 1500´ long and 15´ wide. Mitchell (1998:273) reports that Smithson made a film about the making of The Spiral Jetty, scanning the dinosaurs in the Hall of Late Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. He shoots them through a blood-red filter, "adding a soundtrack that evokes the endless mechanical pulsations of metronome time, with a voice-over meditation on "deep time" that seems to come from the dinosaurs as much as from Smithson himself." As Mitchell (1998:273) further states, Smithson saw more clearly than any of his contemporaries that this sort of perception could not be conveyed simply by representing the dinosaur in some familiar modernist medium, however abstract, surreal, or "mixed". The challenge was really to change the whole location, situation, and meaning of artistic practices and the objects of art themselves.
Smithson saw The Spiral Jetty as a spiraling tower that has gradually been flattened to the ground and inserted with water. As Shapiro remarks (1995:226), The Spiral Jetty is like "a deconstructed Tower of Babel that both exhibits and erases the signature of its maker." According to Kubler's Prime Objects Theory, there are the prime objects and then the replicas, and for Smithson The Spiral Jetty was a replica of the Tower of Babel. "It would be a continuation of the entropic slide that began when the first prime object of architecture and sculpture fell into ruin" (Shapiro 1995:226).
In this connection, Mitchell (1998:265-66) argues that whereas "modernism insists that the artist "make it new", creating an object that is forever fresh and self-renewing, the dinosaur is unimaginably old, a symbol of failure, obsolescence, and petrified stasis." On the other hand, Mitchell claims, postmodernism makes it possible for dinosaurs to "cross the park" from the Museum of Natural History to the Museum of Fine Art – "from the space of mass culture to world of elite, cutting-edge art-making."
A variation on the post-modern strategy of "paleoart" is offered by Allan McCollum in his Surrogate Paintings (1980). They are cast objects that look like blank pictures in sleek modern frames hung in clusters like an array of paintings in a Victorian study gallery. McCollum is not really asking us to look at the individual objects, especially the black blank spaces inside the frames, but to look at the entire space of environment as a representation of the way we display pictures in our culture (Mitchell 1998:266). McCollum could be imagining a future world in which all the pictures had gone blank and no longer could be seen or deciphered, but all remained in their positions on the wall. They hint at a world in which pictures would be fossils, traces of vanished, obsolete species. McCollum's surrogates reframe the entire convention of pictorial display, invite us to see a gallery the way an archaeologist might see an excavated treasure room, which looks like a strange space filled with shapes and signs that may have lost their meaning, or may never have had any meaning in the first place. "The effort is a curious combination of irony and melancholy, what Fredric Jameson has aptly termed the "nostalgia for the present" endemic to postmodernism" (Mitchell 1998:267). McCollum's work has since moved into the realm of paleontology and natural history, by works like Dogs and Bones, which are cast from the famous Dog from Pompeii, killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and Lost Objects (Fig. 2), painted concrete casts from dinosaur thigh bones, both from 1991. In my view, his work is important, both because he thinks in terms of bygone and future, and also because he uses objects that already exist, and casts them in masses. I think that I have a lot in common with him.
Mark Dion is the third artist that I would like to dwell on. He is a curious combination of an artist and a scientist. He is representing nature as science without being a scientist, but as an artist he speaks a language that people understand, and due to that, can have a greater a influence on peoples minds than many a scientist. In an interview with Miwon Kwon he argues: "For me producing something with a natural history museum, a zoo or a historical society are all viable options. Of course, there is a flip side to this in that it may lead to a kind of dilettantism. And that may be a fair criticism. But for me, the dilettante is a much more interesting character historically than the expert. Some of the greatest contributions in art and science have come from dilettantes rather than professionals" (Kwon 1997:29). Dion shares this view with W.J.T. Mitchell, who talks about the two science division (see above, page 1).
Dion made the installation When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (Toys R U.S.) in 1994. This work looks like a child's bedroom, displaying the dinosaur collectibles available to middle-class children today. As Mitchell notes: "From a perspective in the distant future, we might think of this as an archaeological site revealing the late twentieth century as the period when dinosaurs ruled the earth" (Mitchell 1998:5). In his work, time, past, present and future play a central role, and recycling is important in his environmental politics and his art. He is very conscious about nature and biology, endangered species and mass culture.
It is the artist's job to make people look at the overlooked, to see the world differently, as it is the job of the scientist to analyze the facts. In a recent book entitled Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (1994), Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt argue that a loose coalition of "postmodern" thinkers (feminists, ecologists, neo-Marxists, etc.) has launched a kind of "know-nothing" crusade against science as such (cf. Mitchell 1994:243). Their indictment ranges from relatively mild disputes about the work of historians of science, to accusations of incompetence and dishonesty and proposals that American universities could do just fine without "traditional humanities departments," and that scientists (who are "on the whole... deeply cultured people") could take over the job of humanities education but they note that most scientists are too busy in their professions to spend too much time looking at history of what they do, and much less its cultural context. Their provocative answer is: "culture, history, the arts are best left to amateurs" (Mitchell 1998:279-280). While I have to agree with Mitchell about the two science division of nature and culture, it nevertheless seems to me that they need to be able to work together, because science and humanities are so closely linked that they cannot thrive without each other.
"Was ich hier betreibe, ist Paläontologie. Urzeitforschung. Schon was gestern geschehen ist, entzieht sich ins Geschichtliche, Vorgestern ist blasse Vorgeschichte. Vorvorgestern ist Mythenland [What I am doing here is paleontology. Proto-Age history. What already happened yesterday has become historical, the day before yesterday is faint pre-history. Three days ago is the world of myth]." Gregor von Rezzori
In his autobiography, Mir auf der Spur [In Search of Me] (1997), Austro-Romanian writer Gregor von Ressori talks about his life in terms of paleontology. If every life lead is history and every life to be lived is future history, the question arises whether this is also true of objects. Are all things that have been made history, and all things that will be made future history? Is there anything new, and if so, how long does it stay new?
Reading about what Mitchell has to say about McCollum's work Lost Objects (Fig. 2), which is made of 750 replicas of dinosaur bones, made me think of my own Fossils from the Plastic Age. This work consists of over 200 casts of different dairy containers: pots for yoghurt, whipping cream, cottage cheese and so on. The casts are in white plaster and completely blank. They are meant to portray the present in relation to the future as being the possible remains of our lives, given that the non-degradable plastic has left those "footprints" on the earth.
Mitchell tells us how McCollum makes "mass-produced" objects in a kind of art factory, similar to an automobile manufacturer. Yet he finds the objects to have a kind of melancholy aura, one that is increased rather than diminished by their mass gathering in the space of display. He continues: "It is as if they were occasions for a double mourning, first for the death of the remote creatures whose traces are retraced here, and second for the loss of auratic uniqueness itself..." (Mitchell 1998:269).
Paraphrasing Mitchell with reference to my own works it would perhaps be a more apt description to say that they are occasions for a double mourning of both the past and the future. They mourn the past because it is all gone and never comes back, and the future because we do not know what it holds for us. I like to use replicas of "the prime objects" for my work, a plate, a bowl or a jar, because they have been with the humans for so long that they represent the continuity of our existence. Whether the history is two million years, or a much shorter period than that, it does not really matter. These objects obey a "slow, almost geological rhythm," as Bryson marks, and that is what I think is important, because they link together, in the ever so changeable world, the past, the present and the future, the poor and the rich, and people from all over the world.
I look at my work as still life in that I use food-containers as moulds for the casts, putting them in a "system of objects," as Margit Rowell (1997) defines still lifes: "a set or arrangement of things so related or connected as to form a unity of organic whole" (Rowell 1997:13). I also like to look at my work as "still life", from the perspective of time, given that both the past and the future stand still, and nothing moves except the present.
I would like to consider my Fossils from the Plastic Age as things of "beauty", given that one can use this word of objects so mundane and stripped of any ornament that it is as though the wrappings have been removed from them and only the pure form is left. I think that it is important to try to see the aesthetics of waste, given that future paleontologists are going to find it in fossilized from, asking themselves what kind of creatures lived here in earlier times. Needless to say, I am not trying to be a "scientist", but it is exciting to think about fossils, not in terms of bygone, but in terms of future, wondering whether the fossils of the future will be just the same as the present ones dating back millions of years, or whether they will be of an entirely different kind.
I would like to finish with a quote from Robert Smithson where he equates waste and luxury and chance: "It seems that when one is talking about preserving the environment or conserving energy or recycling, one inevitably gets to the question of waste and I would postulate actually that waste and enjoyment are coupled" (Hobbs 1981:37). This statement captures the fundamental duplicity and inconsistency which is inherent in our modern life with respect to environmental issues, in that it is impossible to separate the two intertwined aspects of production from each other: consumption in any form and the waste resulting from it. When faced with the prospect of reducing the use of your car because it pollutes, your central heating because it wastes gas, your electricity because of the effects a nuclear power plant lik Sellafield may have on the environment, or plastics because we do not know if they will ever degrade, the answer is: No, I can't possibly let go of any of these commodities.
We may think about plastic as the source of an environmentally dangerous waste but we certainly cannot blame the material as such. Plastic is only the answer to the needs of modern life, our busy lifestyles when we need to be able to grab our food very quickly and spend as little time as possible on enjoying it. As stated at the beginning, in view of the enormous consumption of prepackaged food in our times, the plastic food wrappings can be seen both as images of modern still life and as future fossils. We must hope that our descendants will find a more desirable material as substitute for plastic so the whole earth will not fill up with non-degradables, and that we are about to finish the journey through the Plastic Age.
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Figure 1. Rósa Gísladóttir, Fossils from the Plastic Age (2002).
Figure 2. Allan McCollum, Lost Objects (1991).