between threats to the oceans and ecological perspectives-

“Life in plastic is amazing”: How Aqua sang in Barbie Girl, a cult song in the late ’90s. On the other hand, no one can say the opposite: thanks to plastic, architects and designers have given life – over the course of a century – to real works of art. At what price? Jochen Eisenbrand and Anna-Mea Hoffmann, curators of the traveling exhibition “Plastic: Remaking Our World”, on the bill from Saturday 26 March to next 4 September at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein examine the use of plastic and its prevalence in it 20th century (in collaboration with V&A Dandee and MAAT in Lisbon).

The OECD study “Global Plastics Outlook”, published three weeks ago (read the article from Planet 2030 here), reveals how the production of plastics globally has doubled over the course of twenty years. If production in 2000 amounted to 234 million tonnes, in 2019 it reached a total of 460 million tonnes. “Only 9% of plastic waste – the report continues – was recycled, while 19% was incinerated and almost 50% went to landfills. The remaining 22% was deposited in uncontrolled landfills, burned in open pits or spread into the environment ». One hundred and forty million tons have been wasted in rivers and seas.

How the exhibition is structured

Art can therefore touch the conscience. The exhibition, which is divided into two sections and a spin-off (focusing on biotechnological research into new polymers), begins with a large video installation illustrating today’s challenges. Images of a virgin land are equated with videos recorded at plastic factories over the last century. “The exhibition intends to explore – explains Jochen Eisenbrand to Pianeta 2030 – the 170 years that man has lived with plastic, the important inventions and the prominent points to better understand how we came to this pollution situation and the strategies to solve it” . The goal is pursued by using both the exhibition of “Plastic Age” memorabilia as well as the exhibition of industrial design masterpieces from the pop era. The selected pieces are of different kinds: from the iconic “Ball Chair” by Finnish Eeero AArnio (1963) to the Panasonic-toot-a-loop radio (1969-1972).

The story of plastic

The exhibition also traces the history of this controversial material from the 1916 work “Smoker’s Cabinet” by the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The work – a cigar container – is made of galalith, a porous plastic (created in 1897), which is obtained by immersing milk proteins (casein) in formaldehyde. We then continue with the story – through the presentation of a commercial poster (1940) – about the first synthetic resin, Bakelite, formulated in 1907 by Leo Baekeland in New York to meet the needs of the shellac market (a resin secreted by cochineal) .. In the 1920s, with the growth of the petrochemical industry, the use of plastic gradually grew to then reach the boom in ’45 and thus become indispensable in everyday life (think of nylon and plexiglass) and in interior design.

The last column of the exhibition

The prediction of the future, however, was the most insidious tip of the iceberg for the curators. The exhibition presents, among other things, installations that will explain the project “The Ocean Cleanup”, the association founded by the young engineer Boyan Slat, who will build giant barges to clean plastic from the Pacific Ocean (here the report from Pianeta 2030). Visitors will be able to admire: the Rex chair (2021), designed by Ineke Hans, which can be returned to the manufacturer for repair; jars in Vivomer®, the plastic created by microorganisms on behalf of the British start-up Shellworks. “Designers – concludes Eisenbrand – can help the industry take new directions by conducting experiments on materials and creating long-lasting objects”.

AA Plastic: Remaking Our World

March 26 – September 4, 2022 Vitra Design Museum Charles-Eames-Straße 2, 79576 Weil am Rhein, Germany

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