Biodegradable plastic made from tapioca starch, water, glycerin and vinegar, Dimensions variable with 5,6,7 sculptures
Exhibition Essay by Shannon Garden-Smith
In some ways, my writing about Gwenyth Chao’s exhibition Plasticity is an act of imagining into the future—a kind of modest time-travel. As I write this, the hundreds of component sculptures that form this semi-translucent, glistening installation, aren’t yet assembled here. In filling this space with gorgeous and ghostly casts of everyday containers, the artist spent a lot of time with plastics, a material emblematic of how time works today.
While I can’t know the installation in its totality from here, the recent past, I’ve gotten to know it sculpture by sculpture. Each object, a slightly gelatinous membrane, holds the memory of the plastic bottle, jug, bin or other household vessel from which it was patterned. Beginning with a wet mixture cooked from food ingredients, tapioca starch, vinegar, and glycerin, the artist gradually built up surfaces around each of her plastic forms before husking this soft new shell from its mother object. Within the exhibition, you might identify the familiar form of a water bottle, for example—a reference that accrues significance within Gallery Stratford, a building originally constructed as the city’s first ‘Water Works.’ It’s from this site that Stratford’s earliest network of water mains was built, vitally supplying the city with water.
Through this hollowed out memory-surface of a water bottle, we might collectively engage in imaginative time travel to the gallery’s past, when a mammoth pumping apparatus filled this space. It’s fitting that Plasticity connects us to the flows of water, or more broadly to infrastructures that are critical to our everyday lives but that often remain hidden because they might be buried underground or take place across disparate sites. Plastic is a key lubricant in global flows of extraction, production, consumption, and waste today, and we’ve only recently begun to understand how its longevity, as a non-biodegradable material, is so at odds with the speed of our consumption. Often deployed as a quick, disposable material, plastic contradictorily compresses incredible swathes of time. Formed over millions of years of intense heat and pressure exerted on decomposed plant and animal bodies, plastic persists in this relationship to deep time.
During one of our meetings over the past year to discuss this project, I shared with Chao that I would be making a trip to the Stratford dump, speculating correctly that local waste facilities (another kind of infrastructure, and up the road from the gallery) would be relevant to this work. Comprised of 567 distinct forms—a number the artist writes as 5,6,7 to emphasize ongoing accumulation—the installation recalls the heterogeneity of material at a landfill or recycling plant. And, quietly, the show envelops us in the tender hue of decay, with a pinky-peach blush that is sometimes more perceptible across each of the membranous forms, sometimes less, also extending onto the walls. This patina and the sculptures’ puckering intensifies over time, indicating they are breaking down, decomposing. The sculptures will change over the course of the exhibition, and eventually they will be composted. In this brevity, they pivot, but with a difference, on how plastics move in and out of our lives.
Unlike their original moulds, each of Chao’s semi-soft carapaces is a unique object, and to create them, she spent time with plastics that aren’t often lingered on. Made from tapioca starch, a food you might also enjoy eating as jelly pearls in bubble tea or as yucca root, Chao casts what is conventionally held by a vessel—a food product—into the vessel itself, inverting the boundaries of container and contained. The exhibition everywhere points to the intimate proximity of plastics to food, as wraps and casings, and through this accumulation of inversions, we approach the total pervasion of interiority by plastic surface. There’s an internet meme that haunts my thinking on the subject: a person buys a fish from fishmonger and requests a plastic bag; the fishmonger replies that the bag is already inside the fish.
Speculatively suggesting that they’ve spent months or years eroding in a river, Chao’s sculptures appear a little like plastic ruins—an implied decay that returns us to the plastic bag already inside the fish. We now have the sense that plastic refuses to be waste, refuses to break down, and while this is true, it’s somewhat imprecise. Plastic cannot biodegrade, but it does change and disintegrate, wending its way into insides not as an unaltered whole, but by off-gassing or corroding into tiny particles that get gobbled up the world over. Chao places us within this inside, and offers us a powerfully inverted refusal that isn’t really a refusal at all. As fleeting shells that help us hear past waters, her emptied-out plastic absences practice time and futurity differently from within an implicated present.
2021 Gallery Stratford