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Plastic Capitalism by Amanda Boetzkes Examines Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste

The book links the increasing visualization of waste in contemporary art to the rise of the global oil economy and the emergence of ecological thinking.

(Image Courtesy of MIT Press)

Ecological crisis has driven contemporary artists to engage with waste in its most non-biodegradable forms: plastics, e-waste, toxic waste, garbage hermetically sealed in landfills. In Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste, Amanda Boetzkes links the increasing visualization of waste in contemporary art to the rise of the global oil economy and the emergence of ecological thinking. Often, when art is analyzed in relation to the political, scientific, or ecological climate, it is considered merely illustrative. Boetzkes argues that art is constitutive of ecological consciousness, not simply an extension of it. The visual culture of waste is central to the study of the ecological condition.

Boetzkes examines a series of works by an international roster of celebrated artists, including Thomas Hirschhorn, Francis Alÿs, Song Dong, Tara Donovan, Agnès Varda, Gabriel Orozco, and Mel Chin, among others, mapping waste art from its modernist origins to the development of a new waste imaginary generated by contemporary artists. Boetzkes argues that these artists do not offer a predictable or facile critique of consumer culture. Bearing this in mind, she explores the ambivalent relationship between waste (both aestheticized and reviled) and a global economic regime that curbs energy expenditure while promoting profitable forms of resource consumption.

Excerpt from the Introduction to Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste:

“A disconcerting sculpture composed entirely of plastic McDonaldland toys fused together on an armature of metal rods and Styrofoam stood in a remote corner of the “Spy Numbers” exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2009. Heap, by Los Angeles-based artist Jim Shaw, is deeply suggestive of how we imagine our contemporary forms of waste. On first glance, Heap is a grotesque gluey mass that appears to have spontaneously come to life, recalling a 1950s horror film creature like the Blob…Upon closer consideration, the hoard of toys is oddly attractive; it is bright, shiny, and lacquered. Figurines become discernible through a clamor of exaggerated facial expressions, pairs of eyes, protruding limbs, accessories, hairbrushes, and cars. The work…revisits a long modernist tradition of connecting art to historical detritus.”

Plastic Capitalism is published by MIT Press and is available for sale at mitpress.edu/Plastic-Capitalism.