From Waste to Art

23 03 2010

For artist Dianna Cohen, a leftover plastic bag is a piece of her art. And now, it’s not only her canvas but her vehicle to alert the public about the dangers of the ubiquitous material in our lives–synthetic organic amporphos solids–better known as plastic.

Over twenty years ago, the Los Angeles-based artist started using plastic bags in collage pieces in her art.  “Initially I was trying to make beautiful things out of a material I thought was totally archival,” Cohen says, who studied biology and art in college. “But it actually breaks down into toxic fragments.”

And you can see the breakdown in her work. Her seminal 1994 collage of plastic bags she collected from around the world is now slowly breaking at the seams, leaving tiny pieces of plastic around the frames.

Her art has become a springboard for meditation and action.  She and her new group, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, are adding another “R” – Refuse.

Along with environmental lawyer Lisa Boyle, environmental strategist Manuel Masqueda, and Daniella Russo, founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition this year to alert the public about the dangers of toxic plastic polluting our oceans and eventually our bloodstreams – but also to help others rethink the culture of single-use plastic in our lives.

From the first baby bottle and pacifier to our breakfast cereal, cell phones, and shampoo, everything we use seems to be covered in plastic these days.

Elementary school and Captain Planet have taught us that, for the most part, that’s alright.  Plastic bottles are recyclable, and now, some plastic bags are supposedly compostable.

With the widespread campaigns for bringing your own bags, it may seem like the new push for recyclable plastic or biodegradable plastic bags and sporks are yet another solution to our problem.

Not so, Cohen warns us.

“Recyling plastic is a bandaid,” she says. While recyclable plastic bags or bottles may seem like a panacea, it’s not stopping the production of the material.  Compared to glass recycling, the process for recycling plastics requires far more energy and processing.

“A plastic bottle can never be a plastic bottle again.”

On the other hand, compostable plastic bags, according to the American Chemistry Council are “contaminants” and cannot be recycled.

With all these mixed messages, what are we to do?  If you’re Cohen, make art. Piece by piece, sewing plastic bags from around the world into a quilt, her work is a meditation on the lifespan of plastic.

A rainbow quilt of plastic shopping bags, adorned with words from around the globe, images of roses and gardens, the legacy of brand names like Marlboro.  It’s now slowly falling apart from the years of sunlight exposure.

Beautiful?  Yes.  Toxic?  Yes.

Her work has taken her to exhibitions in fine art galleries, but also to classrooms and hospitals.  Collaborating with Los Angeles inner city school children and patients from a mental hospital, she has not only created art from what we call trash, but also launched conversations, questions, and action.

Friends have canceled their orders of bottled water.  Her other friend, a caterer, has stopped using plastic to deliver his meals.

For the rest of us, Cohen urges refusal.

Refusing plastics – whether in the form of baby bottles, yogurt containers, baby pacifiers, or plastic food wrap – will eliminate the need to decide whether to recycle it at all.  Cohen herself has refused to drink anything out of plastics for the past year, and she can taste the difference.

Even for an activist like Cohen, it’s not always easy.  After getting rid of her plastic-encased tea bags, she missed fruit juice.

Orange juice is only sold in plastic bottles.  Even at health food stores.  Even Naked Juice.

“But you know what’s funny,” she said at her Los Angeles studio – surrounded by Pinkberry cups, Odwalla bottle caps, and 40 hour free AOL trial CDs, “orange peels are natural wrappers.”

Follow the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s website and Twitter.

Read this original article here.

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