This essay will attempt to address the question, how can good earth practices be learned and embodied through artmaking? I will attempt to do this through breaking down the project ‘Present and Future Archaeology’, and the iteration of this project which took place in the Cube at New York University Abu Dhabi in the run up to Cop28 in the Fall of 2023.
The project ‘Present and Future Archaeology’ began in 2019 with a question: Am I an Environmentalist? As a middle-aged white woman, from the Global North, I sit in a 3-bed house (where I live with my husband and 2 cats) that requires constant air conditioning to enable comfortable living conditions. I drive a gas guzzling car and I ‘produce’ as an artist, in a world where we over produce. I have a lot of ‘stuff’. (I am surrounded by excess), and I live in a country that is not my own so flying is a relatively frequent necessity. And yet I consider myself an Environmentalist. Am I?
Where do I begin with this self-analysis? I am often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the climate crisis, so need to begin locally, with the self, and with habits that may be damaging to not only myself, but to my environment. I choose to begin with plastic. (They say every small action counts.) It is also something that I’m sure every human being on this planet can relate to, whether through a plastic drinking bottle or a plastic carrier bag.
Prior to living in Abu Dhabi, I was living in London where we were required to wash, separate, and recycle plastic, paper, glass, and tin products into allocated boxes in preparation for our weekly council garbage collection. Non-complicity with these rules and regulations of waste separation and recycling would attract fines from your local council. So, in moving to Abu Dhabi I continued with this ingrained habit.
So, for the last ten years I have been relentlessly separating papers and cardboards, general waste, and plastics (and of course washing them). In the street outside my home, we have a black bin for ‘general waste’ and a green bin for ‘recycling’ that is collected on a regular basis. In 2019, I was returning home and was stopped outside my gate by a garbage truck. It was collecting the waste from the bins outside my home, and to my shock and horror, both the black general waste bin and the green recycling bins were emptied into the same truck – with no internal separation. At this time, I had lived in this house for seven years, and fastidiously washed and separated items in the belief that I was contributing to the collective effort to recycle. Clearly, I was wrong.
This experience was the genesis of this project. If my plastics were not being recycled (and at the time, there were no other options) then what else could I do?
I decided to document my (and my husbands) usage of single use plastic to try to understand where changes, if any, could be made.
Initially I was going to document our waste for one month, but after one month I realised this period wasn’t long enough to really understand the patterns of our (mainly food) choices. I extended the project, and in the end it lasted an entire year. For this year I collected, washed, and photographed almost every piece of plastic passing through my home. If items were repeating regularly then I photographed it a few times and then stopped, concentrating on the multitude and variety of items rather than on the repetition of one (but not without noting the frequency). Over this period, I took over 200 photographs - not photographing daily, but capturing the items as and when they appeared, sometimes a single item, sometimes many. By capturing these images, I could start to analyse my habits. Where there was much repetition (lettuce, blueberries, mushrooms, and bread), and when there were many items appearing in one day, such as after a takeaway meal.
Noting these habits, I could begin to assess where, and if I could make changes. Lettuce was easy, switching from packs of a single or mixed leaf to a head of romaine or iceberg. Simple. Blueberries not so. With mushrooms, it was often a choice between organic produce in plastic packaging, or non-organic produce in biodegradable packaging; the answer to this conundrum of which being the lesser of the two evils I still do not know.
The exhibition in the Cube was made up of three components, the digital photographs, plaster casts of the plastics, and a wall of words - an area set to invite visitors to contribute comments, and commitments to reimaging the world and our place in it, entitled ‘The Writing on the Wall’. I will address each area individually starting with the digital photographs.
The digital prints were photographs of the plastics taken with an iPhone in my studio under daylight conditions. Images were then inverted to produce a white image on black ground. As I state above, I saw these works as an archive of consumer habits that needed analysis, but I was also imagining them as a form of archaeology. These plastics are already degrading in my studio. With the temperatures of the Middle East, plastics degrade rapidly and the air in my studio is already filled with the scent of the harmful toxins produced by off-gassing. These are harmful to humans, as a hormone disruptor, and in turn harmful to our environment.
The photographs were produced in black and white. I needed to reduce the image to its simplest form, to create a starkness in the image, and to take us away from the ordinary everyday still life that colour might evoke. I wanted viewers to contemplate the image beyond the object, to contemplate the wider implications. When the images are inverted, which is something that I often do in my work, it is in a search for understanding the image anew. Inverting the image changes our perspective, and with it our understanding of the truth. The inversion allows us to see what we did not see before. It makes visible what was hidden whilst at the same time, in this instance, amplifying the shadows in the image.
For Jung, shadows reflect the unconscious aspect of our personalities that we do not consciously identify with. We tend to keep our shadows hidden and repress them and, here, I wanted to amplify these shadows and ask us to acknowledge them and accept that they exist. As Jung expresses, “trouble arises when we fail to see them”. The shadows reflect not only our personal shadow, but the collective shadow (Jung). For me, these shadows are the shadows we create by our non-action, by our assumption that the work is for someone else to carry out, and also a metaphor for the pollutants that will emit from the plastics as they slowly degrade for centuries to come - the (possible) darkness that we cannot yet foretell.
As I said, photographs were captured using daylight. However, they were taken at varying times throughout the day and year, and this allowed the shadows to vary from image to image. This for me was in recognition that some objects create greater toxic shadows, akin to humans, and is a reflection of the fact that some of us need to acknowledge that we have been more complicit in this climate crisis and need to acknowledge this fact and take action to rectify this. The varying shadows also allow us to reflect on the passage of time and the deterioration of this plastic for centuries to come. This might be difficult for us humans to understand, a time beyond our own lifespan.
Daylight was also an important factor in the taking of the images, as was the freedom to take photographs at random times during the days. I was certain I did not want a studio set up for these images, to contaminate the act more by using artifice, and I wanted to bring in nature, perhaps as an antithesis to the toxic nature of the subject. Daylight is life giving, it denotes purity. As a symbol of purity, I perhaps am attempting to purify myself, my habits and moving outwards, towards the Earth. For me it is an attempt at counterbalancing the negative in the image.
The images are also likened to x-rays, an x-ray being created by casting a shadow on an object and then capturing it digitally. They provide us with the ability to see inside an object.
The second section of the exhibition consisted of plaster casts of the plastic packaging. I wanted to give structure to these intangible plastic objects, that are often invisible due to their transparency. Giving the plastics form, we could now see the space they occupy. They spread across the walls, flowing, both inside and outside of the exhibition space and leaching as they do in the land, air, and sea. The whiteness of these objects making them barely visible, ghostly apparitions that are there to haunt us. Steve Pile in his book ‘Real Cities’, talks of phantasmagoria, that we humans walk unconsciously through the city, as if asleep.
This, I feel, is the response that most of humanity has to this issue. Most are reluctant to change and often in denial of the very real issues that we confront if left unchallenged. The ghosts we create here could be the plastics themselves, the contamination from chemicals leaching over the next few hundred years, the outcome of which we cannot yet imagine, or of our own ghostly, invisible, response to the crisis.
The third section to this exhibition, the ‘Writing on the Walls’ is posited as an opportunity for community engagement in the run up to COP28, which took place in Dubai later in the same year, and for the visitors to engage in not only the plastic issue, but in the wider climate crisis. Visitors are invited to add their commitments to the writing on the wall.
I reflect that most messages are statements, rather than commitments and wonder how we can encourage the public to move these statements towards commitments that might be necessary for any transformation to occur.
This work is being exhibited as tensions in the Middle East rise between Israel and Gaza, and many messages of support are for the Palestinians caught up in this conflict. The origin of the phrase ‘the writing on the wall’ was an event in Babylon, 2500 years ago, where during a banquet, a ghostly hand appears and begins writing on the wall, bearing a harbinger of doom to the then King Belshazzar. Interestingly, Babylon was a melting pot of Jews, Arabs, and Persians. The violence moves from the slow quiet violence of plastics to the very real, very violent, very present violence happening in the Middle East right now.
I recreate this prophecy of doom by exhibiting these photographs not as a certain end for humanity, but with hope that we can turn it around.
If, by sharing this work I can make one viewer question their actions, then this for me is worth doing in the hope that they might then impact the next human in line and set off a chain of positive actions.