Haruhiko Kamaguchi, Zatsuran series, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

If you keep half an eye on the news, you must be aware that plastic is everywhere. It’s in our homes, it’s in our seas, and, increasingly, it’s in our bodies. The ubiquity of plastic today makes it easy to forget that this petrochemical-derived material is a relatively recent invention; plastics as we know them have only significantly made their way into the world since the 1950s — and they have changed the very fabric of that world in the process.

The images that come through in the news — the plastic-stuffed guts of dead whales, the seahorse gripping a pink cotton bud — are merely the flotsam and jetsam of the waste we produce, particularly as Western consumers in a world of waste-collection and landfill. We are enmeshed in our own waste; we frequently fail to read it, to analyze it, or engage with it critically. This is perhaps due to the techniques we use to visualize waste — or to avoid visualizing it.

Chris Jordan, Midway: Message from the Gyre (Albatross), 2011

Amanda Boetzkes’s book Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste explores representations of and inclusions of trash (plastics in particular) in art, tracing the course of this phenomenon from its beginnings at the start of the 20th century. Waste, she argues, has become an important part of the discourse of contemporary art. However, as her book eloquently indicates, the effect of these artworks is not merely to bring our wasteful habits into sight and therefore into mind; trash can in fact be utilized as a mode of understanding the key global capitalist forces that drive our world — and which are driving us to the brink of self-destruction.

The book gets off to a slightly uneasy start. Around half way through reading the opening chapter of Plastic Capitalism, I felt as if I had missed a rung on the ladder of meaning. It would perhaps help if Boetzkes were to define the terms of her argument more precisely, particularly when she uses words such as “sustainability” and “energy.”  For example, she appears to conflate (or at least consider on the same terms) the energy produced by human beings (a psychological “outpouring of the self,” for example) and the energy produced through the burning of fossil fuels — but never quite conveys how or why this is possible.

Plastic Capitalism is not the easiest read. Both the text and the argumentation are dense (to the point of obscurity, in some instances). Nevertheless, much of what Boetzkes has to say is well worth the effort it takes to unpack it.

Gabriel Orozco, “Asterisms: Sandstars” (2012). Two-part sculptural and photographic installation; mixed media, 26 photographic grids. Commission for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin

The fundamental ideas expressed in the book’s introduction are quite compelling. She claims that the rhetoric surrounding sustainability often results in greenwashing and undermines the ecological movement by essentially hijacking it back to the capitalist discourse it once sought to escape. By treating life on Earth as an exercise in resource management, tropes of sustainability and the desire to reuse energy frequently create a paradigm in which excess and waste are made desirable as a transgressive symbol of luxury and freedom from moral restrictions.

Boetzkes then goes on to explain that her book poses “the question of how garbage stands as both signifier of an ecological condition and the materialization of that condition.” Waste, she argues, can be seen as a key indicator of many of the most important competing forces in the world, because it is also an embodiment of those forces. If we are enmeshed in our waste, then our waste is also enmeshed in us.

The book really comes into its own in the subsequent chapters, in which Boetzkes follows the trajectory of waste art from its modernist origins to contemporary practice, devoting chapters to interventions in landfills, ecologically charged natural history displays, and the diverse topologies of plastics. She employs insightful close analysis of works by artists such as Mel Chin, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Vik Muniz, to explore the specificities of contemporary waste art and to highlight the diversity of approaches being used to scrutinize global capital.

Boetzkes’s analysis draws on works by relatively well-known artworks, like Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Maintenance Art performative works and Antony Gormley’s “Waste Man” (2006), as well as some more esoteric examples. Chris Jordan’s “Midway: Message from the Gyre (Albatross)” (2011) is an example of an artwork which has become, as Boetzkes puts it, “an iconic image of the Anthropocene”. By comparing this famous image with Jordan’s earlier works which emphasize the awe-inspiring magnitude of the pollution problem — such as his Running the Numbers series (2007) — Boetzkes aptly illustrates the range of scales at which we need to address ecological issues, from the personal to the global.

The book ends with a close reading of plastic as pollution, artistic material, and eco-cultural signifier. Boetzkes argues, “As a petroleum-based material, plastic is the medium by which oil capital becomes visible as a cultural agent. […] Capitalism itself has become plastic.” Capitalism and the ecological crisis, she implies, are inseparable.

Melanie Smith, Commercial Mexicana Mixcoac, 1995.©Melanie Smith

Boetzkes effectively uses the example of Mexico City-based artist Melanie Smith, whose practice “makes global oil capital visible as a material stratigraphy that is woven through the city and its sites of exchange.” Her sculptures and photographic series point to the influx of foreign goods onto Mexican markets; by removing items from their context of market circulation, Smith renders these plastic goods pointless, undermining the systems they both are sustained by and facilitate.

Plastic Capitalism suggests that ecological consciousness has arisen co-emergent with the ecological crisis — and that contemporary art is constitutive of this ecological consciousness, not merely illustrative of it. Boetzkes encourages us to think that art can both create and promote ecological modes of thinking, which potentially have the power to challenge the hegemony of capitalism and pull us back from the brink.

Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste (2019), by Amanda Boetzkes, is published by the MIT Press. It is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other online retailers.

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Anna Souter

Anna Souter is an independent art writer and editor based in London. She is particularly interested in sculpture, women's art, and the environment.