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Finding Art in Plastic Debris

By Riess Potterveld


Recently, the Doug Adams Gallery at Pacific School of Religion offered an exhibit of art work by Richard and Judith Selby Lang. As the GTU Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education stated on its web site: “The Langs have been visiting Point Reyes National Seashore for decades, gathering plastic debris as it washes out of the Pacific Ocean. Like archaeologists, the Langs carefully collect and organize these artifacts of our time.”  The debris is then arranged by the artists in meaningful arrays and photographed to produce exquisite prints and assemblages. “In this way, the Langs address our throwaway culture, the ubiquity of plastic, and our shared responsibility for environmental stewardship.”

From the Robert Marsh evening of performance art. Photo: Riess Potterveld

From the Robert Marsh evening of performance art. Photo: Riess Potterveld

On August 25, Robert Marsh offered performance art to accompany an evening panel commenting on the artistic process utilized by the Langs and exploring the parallels between their work and that of an archeologist.  For example, many of the sites examined by archeologists are the remains of waste sites where artifacts were discarded by previous civilizations.  In his performance, Robert Marsh wore black garments with an enormous collection of empty plastic bottles attached. As he moved through the exhibition area, the plastic created swishing sounds and appeared like an exogenous skeleton. The performance raises many questions – have plastic bottles become so common place as to appear a natural part of humanity, a kind of mutant aberration forecast? You will want to watch the video and see how Marsh’s performance affects you.

Both the performance and the work of the Langs makes us reexamine the pervasive presence of plastic in our culture and its potential to simply engulf us.  A stroll by any ocean, lake, or river provides evidence that humans litter and throw away manufactured objects that resist biological deterioration and continue in our environment for a very long time.  Seeing messy trash and waste re-presented to us in art allows the viewer to re-experience the common place as the peculiar and to free the mind for a reconsideration of our destructive practices of thoughtless disposal.