Publisher: The MIT Press
Publication date: 2019
Canvas rating: *****
For this well-rounded study of the art world’s visualization of waste, art historian Amanda Boetzkes spends time in Berlin’s Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, applying the concepts of value and waste, sustainability and ethics to the contemporary art context, which operates under a broader neoliberal capitalist order.
In her trenchant critique, she addresses the global trend of waste in visua culture, while surveying the implications on our collective value systems and the universal ecological condition. More often than not, art tackling these motifs takes non-biodegradable forms, with plastic reigning supreme.
In Plastic Capitalism, Boetzkes inspects a series of works by a roster of heavyweights, including Agnès Varda, Francis Alÿs, Tara Donovan, Song Dong, Gabriel Orozco and Mel Chin. As a starting point, she looks at LA-based artist Jim Shaw’s Heap (2009), a hideous mass of jumbled-up McDonaldland plastic toys fused together on an armature of metal rods and Styrofoam toys.
Repulsive but intriguing, it resembles a human silhouette and, perhaps unwittingly, serves as the poster child of the image of waste management in global economies of capitalism. From works of art that stand alone to a visual autopsy of what transpires when plastic and living organisms come into contact,the book posits that the cultural imaginary of waste is fundamental to the understanding of the ecological condition – art is essential to global awareness and not merely a byproduct of it. In Boetzkes’ entirely erudite way, she’s telling us that the medium is the message, and not so much the content it carries.