What We Read.. is a feature where each member of Irradicant shares one essay, article, chapter, or catalog they read in the featured month. With this feature, we aim to promote and encourage conversations about our specific interests with a broader community. Prioritizing learning outside of the space of the institution, these reviews will all contain links to the materials they reference. 

Two for the Price of One!

Comparing and contrasting writing on plastic from the 20th and 21st centuries 

- Madi Shenk

Recently, while researching plastic sculptures by Russian-born artist Naum Gabo, I decided to reexamine some articles on plastic that I encountered during an undergraduate materiality course. Two articles, in particular, stood out to me in this investigation, as I attempted to understand how viewers’ connotations with the material may have evolved between when Gabo was initially creating his plastic works (the 1920s and 30s) and the present moment when many of his works are still on display in museums. 

For a somewhat contemporaneous perspective, I looked to Roland Barthes’ famous essay “Plastic,” originally published in 1957, in which he describes the shift in plastic’s use from a material primarily used to imitate other substances such as ivory and diamonds, to one regarded in and of itself for its specific properties. Barthes attempts to describe the aesthetic and material qualities that result from the synthetic nature of plastic, noting that “what best reveals it for what it is is the sound it gives, at once hollow and flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colors, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones. Of yellow, red, and green, it keeps only the aggressive quality, and uses them as mere names, being able to display only concepts of colors.”

Of course, with our increased use of plastic resulting from the steady growth in consumer culture over the last 100 years, the way we see and encounter it has evolved since Gabo was first creating his kinetic sculptural works. For this segment of my research, I turned to Amanda Boetzkes and Andrew Pendakis’ 2013 article, “Visions of Eternity: Plastic and the Ontology of Oil.” In this article, the authors draw connections between the plastic aesthetic and increased excitement (and concern) around the global oil industry.

They describe how in recent decades, our increased use of oil (more than 25% of which goes into plastic production), has been accompanied by its scarcity, which has been a direct factor in major world events such as various oil crises as well as the Gulf and Iraq wars. As Boetzkes and Pendakis state, “oil has become excessively visible, publicly present, and politically charged.” We have come to see oil as directly linked with monetary value, giving it what they call “an almost alchemical power over the fabric of the capitalist life-world.”

Barthes himself noted how plastic, with its vast capacity for transformation, is “in essence the stuff of alchemy,” but from his description, this inherent power of plastic seems like a wondrous source of creation. Plastic, which was once a mysterious material regarded by 20th-century artists like Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner for its lightness, malleability, and transparency, has become a facet in our everyday lives.  As Boetzkes and Pendakis describe it, plastic, and subsequently oil, has become the inconspicuous center of many of the issues plaguing our globe today.