Free Public Library Has A Plastic Passion

Marsha BordenIt’s an ocean of undulating plastic, crinkly blue waves rising and falling. From a distance it looks soft, almost like yarn. When you get closer you can tell it isn’t. And then you notice, up in the corner, our lonely planet, on the verge of drowning.

Lost at Sea is one of several works in “Remixed: A Kaleidoscope of Plastic,” on view at the gallery in the Ives branch of the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street now until Sept. 7. In the exhibit, artist Marsha Borden examines, with equal parts playfulness and pensiveness, the strange dynamic in the way we casually acquire and dispose of single-use plastic bags in our day-to-day lives, and the way they are accumulating at an alarming rate across the globe.

An opening reception will be held on Wednesday from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

As Borden herself points out in the exhibit, “we use our plastic bags for an average of 12 minutes, but they take 500-plus years to decompose in a landfill.” What do we do about that? Or maybe better put — as Lost at Sea depicts a world drowning in plastic — what do we do about it before it’s too late?

It’s worth taking a step back at this point to note that the prevailing view of plastic has changed since it entered the public consciousness. The first generation of plastics were designed as a response to limited resources. There were initiatives to replace ivory and blackboards in the 19th and early 20th century. Then it was a way to mass produce things without needing wood or metal.

Marsha BordenBut by 1967, As it became ubiquitous it also became cheesy — enough to be a punchline in The Graduate. The word plastic has carried the connotation of phony for a very long time. And that was before its status as slow-moving environmental catastrophe came to the fore.

Marsha BordenBorden has a lot of fun with plastic’s vibe of general crumminess, as in Trashy Tea Party. But she quickly dives into that idea, suggesting that it’s possible that we don’t think of plastic as a big environmental problem in part because it’s so commonplace and disposable that we don’t take it seriously as a substance. Every time there’s a major oil spill it’s a time of high-profile reckoning for the energy industry. Meanwhile, environmental activists struggle to make people aware, let alone care, about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a plastic-strewn stretch of ocean twice the size of Texas. What does it matter, as long as we have something to carry home our leftovers in?

But Borden is also after more than just scolding us. Every piece in the exhibit, made from disposable plastic bags, is an argument for reusing those bags as much as possible, and in as many ways as possible. Borden joins artisans the world over who are weaving things from plastic bags — everything from placemats and rugs to large (and reusable) tote bags. In making art from them, she is encouraging us to think about what we can do with the plastic bags already in our lives.

Marsha BordenPossibly, as Windmill Mandala suggests, there is even a way to find some sort of balance, to move away from mass-producing cheap disposable goods and move toward making things that are built to last. As Borden points out in her exhibit, “every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists.” We could use that malleable plastic again. Or we can just wait for an outbreak of plastic-eating bacteria to transform our manmade world, and restore balance for us, whether we’re ready or not.

“Remixed: A Kaleidoscope of Plastic” runs at the Ives branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, 133 Elm St., through Sept. 7. An opening reception will be held July 18 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Admission is free.

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