By Joanne Lee and Rosemary Shirley
Joanne Lee and Rosemary Shirley are the curators of ‘Everywhere: Life in a littered world’, an online exhibition for The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth, launched alongside Micro2020, an international scientific conference on the fate and impacts of microplastics in the environment. In this blog post, they outline their curatorial intentions and explore some of the themes that have emerged.
In recent years, the creation and disposal of waste has become an urgent area of global concern, amplified through an emotive response to its material excess and polluting effects. Our project recognises that whilst there are of course significant problems to be addressed with regard to reducing or eradicating litter, the complex intersectionality of issues through which waste is caused and distributed demand creative and critical responses that engage rather than alienate.
As curators, we have been thinking on and with different scales, both spatially and in terms of duration: litter is, after all, a matter that requires negotiation between the local and the global, between the throwaway moment of the single-use plastic bottle and the long durée of breakdown, and between the seemingly everyday triviality of the subject and the monumental potentiality of waste.
For the exhibition, we have considered the matter of litter that is everywhere out of place: often mobile and hard to contain, it blows, disintegrates and leaks from our efforts to dispose or manage. It is unwanted, contaminating and enduring and thus resolutely in every place; from the streets of our major cities to the remote polar regions, from the epic scale of landfill and off-shoring to the minute particles found in so-called ‘plastic rain’ identified in recent research. Waste is ineradicably present in the lives of contemporary species and will last long into an inconceivable future: we have sought to explore how playfully affective contemporary art can engage viewers and operate imaginatively to help us understand its various scales, meanings and materialisations and consider how we might live with what humankind has produced.
|Image credit: Diana Lelonek ‘PET Environment’ from Center for Living Things|
It is perhaps unsurprising that plastics of various sorts feature in the work of every artist whose practice we have featured. The casual littering of plastic-bagged dog faeces captured by John Darwell, is set alongside the deliberate trans-border shipping of technological so-called ‘e-waste’ in Kai Loffelbein’s documentary photographic series CtrlX. An intimate encounter between a snail and a plastic bag in the work of Peter Nencini sets off a chain of connections between capitalism and the ‘natural’ world, whilst the beaches of an uninhabited Pacific island are revealed as deposited with the products and packaging of multiple global brands in Mandy Barker’s investigative images. Plants colonise plastic discards in illegal Polish dumps in Diana Lelonek’s Center for Living Things, and future animals are imagined by Pinar Yoldas in her Ecosystem of Excess, as having evolved to thrive as plastivores, living amongst and eating the plastic waste that we have caused to proliferate.
|Image credit: D. Taylor ‘different ways of saying the same thing’|
The artists have also considered the new myths necessary for us to live amongst our own leavings: D. Taylor interprets scraps of pavement litter as sigils through which divination might occur and Tejal Shah’s ritualistic performance on a complex landfill site offers a queer and feminist perspective on living in damaged places.
The artists with whom we have worked are brought into a curatorial constellation which we hope resonates to show the scale, interconnectivity and power relations of waste practices. This helps us to sustain an engagement beyond the understandable desire for a quick fix and to reveal the entanglements of human and non-human actors and the overlapping of social, cultural and natural phenomena.
Everywhere: Life in a littered world
22 November 2020–31 January 2021
Artists: Mandy Barker, John Darwell, Diana Lelonek, Kai Loffelbein, Peter Nencini, Tejal Shah, D.Taylor and Pinar Yoldas.
Joanne Lee is an artist and writer based in Sheffield. She is Course Leader for Graphic Design in the Department of Art and Design at Sheffield Hallam University.
Dr. Rosemary Shirley is Associate Professor in the Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.