Art in the Plastocene Era: Everlasting Plastics at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale
A swirling, circular tangle of twisting black lines, Simon Anton’s Orologio (Plastic Time) (Fig. 1) looms above the heads of visitors to the U.S. Pavilion in the Giardini of the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale. Comprised of bits of black and white salvaged plastic waste fused to a metal armature, Anton’s sculpture is on view as part of the exhibition Everlasting Plastics, co-curated by Tizziana Baldenebro, Executive Director of SPACES, and Lauren Leving, Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. In their curatorial statement, Baldenebro and Leving assert that Everlasting Plastics explores “our fraught, yet enmeshed, kinship with plastics…considering the ways these materials both shape and erode contemporary ecologies, economies, and the built environment.” A Detroit-based artist, designer, and educator, Anton is deeply committed to sourcing discarded plastics from his own community for his work, including pre-consumer waste recovered from the local automotive and toy manufacturing industries, as well as post-consumer refuse. Adopting theItalian word for clock, Orologio (Plastic Time) evokes the incomprehensible temporal logic of petrochemical plastics. Derived from by-products of the fossil fuel industry, petrochemical polymers emerge from the terrestrial traces of primordial organic matter. By their very nature, then, objects created from petrochemical plastics compress countless millennia into infinitely malleable and durable materials that are most often designed for disposability and planned obsolescence. However beneficial, convenient, or even lifesaving they may be in their manufactured form, discarded petrochemical plastics do not simply disappear after their use value has expired. Instead, this unyielding material substance breaks down, but never fully decomposes, permeating the soil, water, and air across the globe with microplastic particles and “forever chemicals.” The documented presence of petrochemical microplastics in human blood and breastmilk attests to our intimate corporeal bond with these omnipresent toxins that will endure for generations to come.
In her recent book, Plastic Matter, scholar Heather Davis theorized this intergenerational toxic inheritance as “petro-time,” examining the ways in which “the petrochemical past haunts the future.” A distorted clock face that defies legibility, the spiraling form of Anton’s Orologio (Plastic Time) gives shape to this disorientation of linear chronology. The whirling vortex of white plastic pellets topped by shredded black plastic scraps recalls Robert Smithson’s definitive work of twentieth-century American land art, Spiral Jetty (1970). Similarly concerned with the coiling forces of entropy, climate nihilism, and the wreckage of industrial settler colonialism, Smithson pointedly situated his monumental sculpture within close proximity to abandoned and rusting oil rigs on the shores of Great Salt Lake, Utah. Smithson’s concept of the dialectic between site and non-site runs throughout Everlasting Plastics, breaking down the barriers of the pristine gallery space to conjure the wide-reaching scope and complexity of plastic materiality around the globe. Orologio (Plastic Time) is one part of Anton’s larger installation, This Will
Kill__That, which resembles a gathering of archaeological fragments unearthed from the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Atlantis. Given the current proliferation of plastic waste, particularly in the oceans, these metal structures coated in thick agglomerations of brightly colored plastic fragments may very well resemble what we will leave behind for future civilizations to uncover. With each work, Anton combines form with materiality and mindful artistic practice to prompt a reflection on the larger socio-economic and political structures implicated in the complex web of plastic production, consumption, and waste. Like the inevitable dispersion of the raw plastic particles arranged in a loose pile along the bottom of his sculpture Crowd Control (Fig.2), Anton exposes the fiction that we are in control of our relationship with plastics as each little flake slowly and inevitably scatters across the terrazzo floor.
After a highly competitive national open call for proposals, Cleveland’s longstanding non-profit arts institution SPACES was selected by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as the commissioning institution for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale. The decision to award this prestigious international platform to a smaller, community-oriented organization like SPACES attests to the strength and urgency of Everlasting Plastics as an exhibition. Under the guiding vision of co-curators Baldenebro and Leving, Everlasting Plastics showcases the work of five artists in dialogue: architectural designer Xavi L. Aguirre, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; architect Ang Li, Assistant professor at the Northeastern University School of Architecture; designer Norman Teague, Assistant Professor of Industrial Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Cleveland-based conceptual artist and sculptor Lauren Yeager; and Anton. Initially conceived by Baldenebro before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted exhibition schedules around the world in 2020, Everlasting Plastics was revived and reformulated for the U.S. Pavilion. In particular, the exhibition responds to the theme of the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, “The Laboratory of the Future,” as set by the curator, Ghanaian-Scottish architect Lesley Lokko. Lokko foregrounded decolonization and decarbonization as central concerns for the Biennale, while also spotlighting Africa and the African Diaspora. Lokko encouraged exhibitors to consider what it might mean for architects, artists, designers, and curators to be “agents of change.” In keeping with this prompt, Everlasting Plastics eschews overt didacticism and the simplistic dualities of plastic as inherently good or bad, salvation or scourge. Instead, the overarching ethos of this group exhibition is a spirit of collaboration and a generosity of approach, evident in the lucidity of Everlasting Plastics as a cohesive whole. The artists engage with each other and with the viewer through diverging, but complementary strategies, collectively eliciting a nuanced consideration of not just plastic materiality, but also plasticity as a concept. To this end, the curators also worked in partnership with Isabelle Kirkham-Lewitt and Joanna Joseph, editors at Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, to produce an accompanying compendium of short essays by a diverse group of authors reflecting on the themes of the exhibition. Titled Sketches on Everlasting Plastics, this publication has been distributed for free to visitors at the Biennale and is accessible online.
This expansiveness and desire to enact an open dialogue around Everlasting Plastics facilitated the creation of a community-engaged art history course I offered this past spring at CWRU centered around Everlasting Plastics. Titled “Plastocene Era: Art, Plastics, and the Future of the Planet,” the class included undergraduate and graduate students, supported by the Department of Art History & Art and the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, which sponsors a Graduate Certificate in Public Humanities & Civic Engagement. Through weekly class meetings at SPACES with Baldenebro and Leving, the class was able to gain insight into the curatorial process, while considering the central themes of the exhibition (Fig. 3). The class explored the history and emergence of petrochemical plastics as an industrial product, the rising global environmental crisis of plastic pollution, and how artists have engaged with plastic as a medium for critiquing and raising awareness of its wide-reaching impact. We investigated the local and global networks of plastic consumption, plastic waste, and plastic futures, connecting Lake Erie to the Venice Lagoon, from an interdisciplinary perspective and as a vital component of social and environmental justice. With CWRU as an institutional programming partner for SPACES, the students organized a community town hall forum this past May and are currently contributing to a symposium that will reunite the exhibiting artists in Cleveland on October 6-7, 2023.
The Venice Biennale, which alternates every other year between architecture and art, was first inaugurated in 1895 as part of the larger nineteenth century phenomenon of international world’s fairs that celebrated industrial manufacturing, the rise of nationalism, and the global expansion of extractive colonialism. The origin of plastics as a material is intimately intertwined with this history. Indeed, at the Great London Exposition of 1862, Alexander Parkes debuted “Parkesine,” one of the first plastics derived from plant cellulose as a cheap alternative to ivory. As an inheritor of this legacy, the Venice Biennale is therefore a particularly apt venue to grapple with the consequences of the rising consumer demand that spurred the later introduction of petrochemical plastics. Alongside the U.S. Pavilion, other exhibitors also confronted the global impact of the plastic waste crisis. For example, Ghanian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey installed a monumental curtain of pieced together yellow plastic scraps titled Time and Chance. Strikingly suspended over the water outside of the expansive Arsenale exhibition site, Clottey’s curtain is an example of what he terms Afrogallonism, raising awareness of the climate emergency posed by plastic waste pollution in Africa through the salvaging and repurposing of the ubiquitous yellow gallon jugs often used to transport and store water. Adopting another approach to combatting petrochemical plastic proliferation, the exhibition In Vivo curated by Bento and Venciane Despret for the Belgian Pavilion highlighted the possibilities of mycelium, an organic and sustainable plastic alternative comprised of fungal threads.
Situated as a permanent structure in the purpose-designed grounds of the Giardini of the Venice Biennale, each successive commissioner, curator, and artist who stages an exhibition at the U.S. Pavilion must also contend with the architecture of the building, as well as the larger infrastructure of the exhibition as an institution on a global stage. Designed in 1930 by architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich in a Palladian style, the red brick pavilion features a central domed rotunda, a columned portico topped with a classical pediment, and two wings that flank a central courtyard. Working with exhibition designers Faysal Altunbozar and Chloe Munkenbeck, the curators developed a set of distinctive interventions that transform the pavilion into a factory space. These thoughtfully integrated design elements include the addition of PVC strip curtains that wrap around two of the columns on the exterior entrance, as well as dividing each of the interior rooms (Fig.4). Custom metal benches featuring rollers suggestive of conveyor belts have also been placed in the pavilion courtyard and inside the galleries. Visitors perform a sensory engagement with these materials as part of the experience, physically parting and brushing against the strip curtains to move from one gallery to the next, or absent-mindedly spinning the metal and rubber rollers while resting on a bench. These elements prompt a consideration of not just the use of plastics, but the spaces of fabrication and replication that are less readily apparent.
Arrayed across the courtyard and along the front of the U.S. Pavilion, Yeager’s playful and provocative sculptures further disrupt the aura of nationalistic and self-serious pomp (Fig. 5). Yeager, like Anton, centers her work on the repurposing of discarded plastic objects salvaged from her own community in Cleveland. A microcosmic index of local lifestyles and consumption habits, Yeager gathers castoff items abandoned on the roadside, including porch furniture, kitty litter bins, Christmas tree stands, Halloween cauldrons, and toddler-sized basketball hoops. She then combines and reorients this abandoned plastic detritus into new and expressive sculptural forms, the readymade as recycling. Much like pioneering conceptual artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, this act of collecting is a key aspect of Yeager’s artistic practice and a form of social sculpture. Yeager pointedly chose not to clean the plastic, but rather to expose the false perception of this material as inherently resilient and indestructible, indicating the life and use of these objects through a patina of age, dirt, and climate abrasion. A bold declaration of the rebellious ethos of Everlasting Plastics, Yeager’s work beckons visitors to approach the exhibition as an unexpected twist on a sculpture garden in the style of Isamu Noguchi. Interestingly, Noguchi once performed his own sculptural subversion of expectations in this very courtyard as part of his monographic exhibition at the Venice Biennale of 1986. Occupying the front of the U.S. Pavilion, Noguchi installed Slide Mantra, at once a minimalist marble spiral and a functional slide where children and adults were encouraged to play, challenging the self-seriousness of the art world. A similar spirit of irreverence mixed with nostalgia runs through Yeager’s work, collectively titled Longevity,which gradually shifts from humorous irony to poignant reflection. For me, these abandoned mass-produced plastic objects elicited deeply personal memories, of summer picnics at the beach with my father, or of holding my daughter’s tiny hand as she climbed her Little Tikes plastic slide for the first time, a surprisingly tender reminder of the centrality of plastic objects in our lives. However, while we may outgrow and abandon these objects, once they become cracked and soiled by the weather, or their usefulness has faded as a child grows up, the plastic will endure as a toxic material legacy long into the future. Discarded on a curb in Cleveland and reborn in Venice as art, these previously unwanted plastic objects now stand as a testament to the complex embeddedness of plastic in our lives for generations to follow.
In the central gallery of the U. S. Pavilion, through the porticoed entry and under the rotunda at the core of the exhibition space, visitors encounter a captivating installation of sculptural vessels crafted from extruded recycled plastics by Teague (Fig. 6). A community-engaged artist based in Chicago, Teague is a celebrated educator and designer perhaps best known for his experimental wooden furniture that engages with traditional African and African Diasporic forms merged with Modernist aesthetics. When presented with the opportunity of participating in Everlasting Plastics, Teague expanded his collaborative studio practice into working with recovered waste plastics. Sorted, melted, and extruded, the custom-recycled plastic is formed into coils, which Teague has shaped into an assemblage of brightly colored and expressive vessels. The display suggests both the sacred and the domestic, with vessels in a rainbow of hues and a variety of shapes that Teague has described as “draw[ing] on Bolga and Agaseke basket-weaving techniques.” Although Teague admitted finding frustration and failures during this process of investigating a new medium, he also discovered an appreciation for the possibilities of plastic materiality through this hands-on approach to recycling and design innovation. Titled Re+Prise, Teague’s installation demonstrates an ethos of care and thoughtfulness conveyed through craft and attention to site specificity. A selection of his vibrant vessels are arrayed on a circular, spiraling mirrored platform that echoes both the rotunda above and the starburst patterned marble floor below, guiding visitors to move around the space. On the wall opposite the entry door, facing the courtyard, an arched window with an intricate ironwork screen has been transformed through the addition of a raised platform reminiscent of
an altar, also made from recycled plastics, with vessels arranged above and below (Fig. 7). Vessels even adorn the decorative roundels around the base of the rotunda and hang as pendants from the archways that lead to the neighboring galleries. In keeping with Teague’s artistic practice of employing design to uplift and empower, these vessels reinscribe discarded petrochemical plastics with meaning, tradition, and usefulness. Acknowledging the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution on minority communities, Teague’s installation is not proposed as a solution to the plastic waste crisis or a way to absolve the petrochemical industry. Instead, he offers a new path forward that reckons with both the legacy and future of plastic as an imposed, but nonetheless integral part of the built environment and its potential to be salvaged as a valuable artistic resource.
Divided across two galleries, Aguirre’s immersive multimedia installation PROOFING: Resistant and Ready flanks the central rotunda. Separated from the other rooms by the industrial strip curtains, which brush and slap against visitors as they step through the PVC bands, Aguirre’s work exists in a different register from the brightly lit spaces beyond. One room features modular structures comprised of metal and high density foam, straps and hoses, conjuring industrial fabrication under glowing fluorescent bulbs (Fig. 8). In the corresponding gallery, Aguirre continues the use of modular architecture to create a screening room where a digitally rendered film flies through similarly structured interiors (Fig. 9). With a pulsing soundscape, the film propels forward from one fictive interior to the next, before emerging into a wide vista of a rocky post-industrial wasteland. At once cerebral and tactile, Aguirre’s installation is subversive and exploratory, evocative of the absent bodies that might activate these spaces. Infused with a radical and tactile sensuality drawn from club culture, PROOFING seemingly calls out for touch and interaction. Indeed, several visitors found it impossible to resist reaching out to grab for hanging rings and belts. An architectural designer, Aguirre challenges material boundaries and commercial aesthetics in their larger practice, embracing modularity as a means to reject the culture of disposability central to plastic production and consumption. In many ways, Aguirre’s work serves as the crux of Everlasting Plastics, a guiding polymer that runs throughout the exhibition, amplified by the industrial design of Altunbozar and Munkenbeck. Although plastics are often associated with brightly colored, durable objects, like toys and detergent bottles, Aguirre demonstrates the pervasiveness of petrochemical polymers in our material environment, including products like high density foam and latex. In dialogue with queer ecological theory, they transform the utilitarianism and conformity of the factory into a site of disruption that troubles established binaries between the organic and the synthetic, the hidden and the exposed, self and other. Aguirre thus expands the scope of the exhibition,broadening out from plastics to the very concept of plasticity and the need to overthrow dominant systems, allowing new possibilities to emerge into the light.
In the gallery adjacent to Aguirre’s screening room, Li similarly addresses issues of systemic waste and visibility through her installation Externalities (Fig. 10). An architect and designer, Li embraces her artistic practice as an open-ended and interdisciplinary process rooted in place. With her contribution to Everlasting Plastics, Li exposes the omnipresence and malignance of expanded polystyrene foam, most commonly referred to as EPS. Another petrochemical-derived polymer, EPS is cheap, lightweight, and resistant to degradation, leading to its widespread use as architectural insulation and packaging material. However, EPS is rarely recycled, and the very same qualities that contribute to its market appeal have now produced a looming environmental crisis of colossal proportions. Striving to capture and communicate the scale of this climate catastrophe, Li devoted the majority of the space in the gallery to a massive wall of compressed and stacked EPS foam, contained within a white metal cage that runs nearly the full length of the gallery and towers close to the ceiling. Li also provides contextual elements that evoke the history and industrial adoption of EPS, including promotional photographs from the mid-twentieth century demonstrating its commercial appeal and more recent photographs that document a twenty-first century recycling plant with which she collaborated. Bathed in dazzling natural light that enters the space through the skylights and the wall of windows looking out onto the courtyard, Li’s installation resembles at once a striking minimalist sculpture and an ancient marble frieze. The caged, compressed massing of irregular polystyrene blocks create an immersive experience that demands corporeal engagement. The distinctive chemical smell of EPS pervades the space, a concentrated dose of the repeated exposure to petrochemical polymers that is an invisible constant of our existence. Progressing down the length of the gallery, as the eye adjusts to the brightness, what appeared at first as a mass of pristine white material slowly reveals signs of dirt, impurities, and irregularities. In its uncompressed state, this EPS would fill the entire volume of the gallery. Condensed into this new form, the accumulation of polystyrene serves as what Li has described as an index, a trace of the larger flow of material production. Much like Anton, Li conjures a vision of a future ruin, a preserved fragment of the systemic hubris of our culture, equal parts extraordinary innovation and excessive waste.
When my students and I first began working with Baldenebro and Leving, our classroom discussions quickly veered from the academic to the personal as we each grappled with the sheer enormity of the problem of plastic proliferation and its inescapable presence in our daily lives. The small steps we had each enacted to reduce our plastic waste footprint seemed to only compound the dilemma, reinforcing the concept that a solution can be driven solely by consumer choice, while also signaling our privilege. However, rather than give in to climate nihilism, we concluded that the true challenge for life in the plastocene is to find our own cultural plasticity, to forge new ways of being in the world. Through experimentation, innovation, and provocation, the curators and artists of Everlasting Plastics collectively demonstrate the urgency and viability of transforming our fundamental relationship to this ubiquitous material, as well as the power of art to enact change on a global scale.
Co-curated by Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving, with Assistant Curator Paula Volpato, Everlasting Plastics is on view at the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale from May 20 through November 26, 2023. It has been announced that Everlasting Plastics will be featured as part of FRONT International 2025 in Cleveland. As institutional programming partner, the Department of Art History and Art at CWRU will host a symposium in collaboration with SPACES in Cleveland on October 6-7, 2023, titled “Canal to Cuyahoga: Everlasting Plastics in Context.”
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I would like to thank the Department of Art History & Art at Case Western Reserve University for their support, particularly Dr. Elizabeth Bolman, Dr. Erin Benay, and Wendy Rohm. The generous funding provided by The Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities through a Faculty Research Travel Grant allowed me to travel to Venice and was invaluable in this project. I would like to thank the students who contributed to “Plastocene Era: Art, Plastics, and the Future of the Planet,” including Zoe Appleby, Ruth Bryant, Grace Hanselman, Katelyn Jones, Jess Long, David Patrick Ryan, Portia Silver, and Rebekah Utian. Thank you also to the Baker-Nord Center for supporting student research travel, as well as to the Eva L. Pancoast Memorial Fellowship. Finally, many thanks to Tizziana Baldenebro, Lauren Leving, Paula Volpato, the staff of SPACES, and the entire Everlasting Plastics team for facilitating this unique collaboration.
Andrea Wolk Rager, PhD is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History & Art at Case Western Reserve University.
 Heather Davis, Plastic Matter (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2022).
 Co-founder of the manufacturing studio Thing Thing, Anton and his collaborators also create functional clocks as part of their community-centered bespoke recycling practice. https://thingthing.us/
 La Biennale di Venezia as a cultural institution also showcases theater, dance, music, and cinema. https://www.labiennale.org/en