In Venice, Americans Explore Peace With Plastic
Two years ago, the United States Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale presented a backward glance, examining the softwood framing technique that transformed building construction in the 19th century.
For this year’s show, the 18th edition of the Architecture Biennale, the pavilion’s exhibition looks at the material of the future (in more ways than one) that was suggested to Dustin Hoffman’s character in a poolside chat in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.”
That’s right: plastic.
Commissioned by Spaces, a Cleveland nonprofit arts organization, “Everlasting Plastics” is on view through Nov. 26. It channels the anxiety felt by many about the environmental impact of a material that was originally presented as a miracle but that, like the 56-year-old cinematic reference, remains embedded in our culture without any sign of going away.
The practical ingeniousness of the five artists and designers represented in the exhibition offers some hope, or at least some coping mechanisms, for coexisting with plastics.
“There’s an urgency around this material,” said Tizziana Baldenebro, the executive director of Spaces, who organized the show with Lauren Leving, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
“This is the duality we’re looking at,” Ms. Baldenebro said. “Love to hate it, hate to love it. It’s lifesaving and also slowly killing us.”
She added, “‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ has gotten us nowhere.”
That the curators are Midwestern is no accident.
“Waste streams pertain to Cleveland,” Ms. Leving said. “We’re in the Rust Belt. And plastic and petrochemical polymers were perfected in the Midwest. It’s a major source of job creation in Ohio.”
Among the works placed in the pavilion’s courtyard and in a sculpture garden that surrounds the building, visitors will first encounter pieces by Lauren Yeager, a Cleveland artist whose medium is salvaged materials.
Ms. Yeager combined items like beverage coolers and children’s toys into large geometric forms, some of which refer to the pavilion’s classical architecture, to give new context to everyday plastics. “It’s a very American waste-scape,” Ms. Baldenebro said. (The pavilion, in the Castello Gardens section of the Biennale grounds and fronted by Doric columns, was designed in 1930 by the famed Beaux-Arts firm Delano & Aldrich.)
Inside, Xavi Laida Aguirre, an architect and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, will create an immersive environment made from plastic-derived products, but one whose modular system suggests how it can be dismantled and repurposed for another use — a riff on the “metaphor of plastic thinking,” Ms. Baldenebro said. (There is also a room with a combination of video, soundscape and augmented reality.)
Simon Anton, a multidisciplinary artist and designer in Detroit, gets a chance to flex his credentials in the show.
Mr. Anton is a founder of Thing Thing, a design collective that transforms hand-recycled polyethylene plastic sourced from surrounding communities in Michigan and from manufacturing.
His sculptures in “Everlasting Plastics” — made of plastic grafted onto metal — refer to objects from banks and other financial institutions, like clocks and crowd-control barriers, to comment on capitalism’s role in plastic’s ubiquity.
Norman Teague, an industrial designer and an educator at the University of Illinois at Chicago, created colorful baskets made from recycled plastic for the pavilion’s rotunda.
“They’re explorations of manipulated plastic turned into visions of traditional craft from the continent of Africa,” Mr. Teague said of the 40 objects in his presentation.
“What we call waste, we’re turning into something more functional,” he added.
The bright hues are not accidental.
“You can relate these colors to something that may be in your life — a Clorox bottle or a Tide bottle,” Mr. Teague said.
The echo of the round baskets within the curving walls of the pavilion’s rotunda also raises architectural questions about how we live and what we live with. According to Mr. Teague, “A house is a vessel, too.”
Demonstrating the handy second uses of post-consumer plastic is the more practical point. “How do we make this thing cool — plastic and waste?” Mr. Teague said. “And we want to brand it so that people are like, ‘Give me that landfill.’”
Since the process of transforming plastic entails employment opportunities, it fits the curators’ larger societal vision.
“Norman’s practice is about sustainability in terms of jobs,” Ms. Baldenebro said.
Ang Li, an architect and assistant professor at Northeastern University in Boston, has built a site-specific wall of expanded polystyrene foam, also known as EPS, as her primary pavilion work.
“It’s the white stuff in your walls, not the pink stuff in your attic,” she said.
The material’s quiet presence in our lives is what caught the attention of Ms. Li, who studies waste streams. (The other part of her presentation is a series of photographs of recycling centers.)
“It’s a material we don’t hear too much about — people don’t think about plastics in the building industry,” she said of the foam. “It’s everywhere, and we never see it.”
“It’s 98 percent air, and fills up space,” Ms. Li added. “But that same quality makes it hard to break down and recycle. It’s so light, it doesn’t sell for any money on the recycling market.”
Her 33-foot-long installation uses a denser type of the foam that has been compressed. “They look like rocks, and they weigh the same,” she said of the components. “It looks like an old stone wall.”
Her decision to work on the perimeter of the gallery and not fill the center of the room was a choice that gets back to the Biennale’s architectural focus, looking not only at materials but also at how space is used.
“Instead of placing a piece of sculpture, we lined the wall with it,” Ms. Li said. “We can make people look at the white gallery wall in a different way.”
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