Plastic Art in the Anthropocene

28 November 2016  ¦ Kate Lewis Hood.


Earth Rise (1968). Image credit: NASA

The Anthropocene is the name for a proposed geological epoch that marks the extent of human impact on the Earth’s systems and processes. This impact includes the sharp increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, but also other changes that are less widely discussed, such as the transformation of the nitrogen cycle, or the mass extinction of species. Although the Anthropocene Working Group only recommended that the term be adopted officially in August of this year, the Anthropocene has already been taken up as a cultural concept, with implications and possibilities for the arts as well as the sciences.

One major challenge of the Anthropocene is attempting to conceptualise the multiple temporal scales it involves. The Anthropocene sets the rapid rate of potentially irreversible change to the environment over the last few decades against unimaginable geologic pasts and futures during which, respectively, fossil fuels were formed and nuclear waste will remain. As a concept, it demands a combination of perception with speculation — a combination that seems particularly suited to the arts. In their introduction to the collection Art in the Anthropocene, Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin write that “this speculative dimension helps call attention to – and possibly overturn – certain bad habits of thinking that allow humans to conceive of objects, whether micro- or hyper-, aesthetic or mundane, as distinct from the processes of their emergence and decay” (5). While art –- most notably land art from the 1960s and 70s, but stretching back much further –- has often invited this kind of attention, the Anthropocene makes the task more ambitious, and more urgent.

* * *

Karla Black’s Other Civil Words (2016) is a suspended, cloud-like sculpture, made from sheets of polythene tied together to make a soft, billowing shape. It is dusted with powder paint and plaster powder – very pale pinks and blues that are only perceptible from certain angles and in certain lights – and strung up with thread. In an interview with Heike Munder, Black describes her work as “caught between thoughtless gesture and a seriously obsessive attempt at beauty” (176), and the loose knots and subtle colouring of Other Civil Words confirm such a description. They also seem to bear the memory of the actions that made them, giving the piece a slightly abandoned quality. This quality extends to Black’s work more widely; her sculptures are at once highly finished and seemingly unfinished, combining temporal stasis with an ongoing potential for change. In Recognises (2016), for example, pools of pastel-coloured paint, dripped from layers of cellophane, appear still to be wet. Black writes that she is interested in preserving materials “in a very particular state, for example paint that will never dry because it is mixed with petroleum jelly, or plaster that will remain as powder and never be transformed into hard form” (176).

One thing that emerges again and again in Black’s statements about her art is that its material properties are more important than any symbolic or linguistic meanings attached to them. This makes her work particularly interesting for thinking about the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene presents a very real –- although speculative –- context in which an artwork’s material properties are the only things to remain. One potential Anthropocene reading of Black’s Other Civil Words might emphasise its cloud-like appearance; alone in the room, it seems fleeting, ephemeral, fragile. Such a reading relies heavily on the symbolic. But another, more material, reading is also possible. The polythene the sculpture is made of adds to the five billion tonnes of plastic accumulated on Earth by 2015 –- enough plastic, as Anthropocene scientist Jan Zalasiewicz and his colleagues note, to wrap the planet in a layer of clingfilm (5). They argue that plastics are “already present in sufficient numbers to be considered as one of the most important types of ‘technofossil’ that will form a permanent record of human presence on Earth” (15). In certain settings, plastic might remain preserved over geological timescales, far outlasting the people who made and used it.


Plastic on Freedom Island. Image Credit: Stiv Wilson,

What might this mean for art in the Anthropocene? Clearly, not every painting or sculpture can or should be read solely in terms of its materials. But, as objects in the Anthropocene, they provide a speculative link to what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”: things that are “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (1). For Davis and Turpin, “attuning ourselves, through poetry, art, and description, to pay attention to other times . . . developing techniques to begin to think through the limits of our temporal frameworks, and then thinking beyond them – these are crucial practices” (12-13). In the Anthropocene, the so-called “plastic arts” take on a new geological dimension.

About Kate

Kate is an MSc by Research student exploring the intersection of feminist and environmental/ecological poetics in contemporary poetry by women. Her ‘research methods’ often include weather-watching and walking up hills. Outside of study, Kate is a poetry editor at The Missing Slate, an online magazine focusing on international arts and literature.

Article edited by Anna McKay, Niki Holzapfel, and Maria Elena Torres Quevedo.

Works Cited

 Black, Karla, et al. It’s Proof That Counts. JRP Ringier, 2010.

 Davis, Heather, and Etienne Turpin. “Art & Death: Lives Between the Fifth Assessment &  The Sixth Extinction.” Art in the Anthropocene, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, Open Humanities Press, 2015, pp. 3-31.

 Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the Word. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

 Zalasiewicz, Jan, et. al. “The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene.” Anthropocene, vol. 13, 2016, pp. 4-17.

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