For a material which we commonly call plastic, it may appear to be an intellectual sophism to describe a context different from, and antithetical to, the one in which it commonly serves its purposes. While plastic is firmly anchored to the material of the world, through its objectual transformation it assumes forms which equip it to perform concrete actions in support of human life. The invention of this material has enabled man to produce an infinite diversity of items which accompany, assist and facilitate his operational needs. The heterogeneity and adaptability of plastic has occasioned an uncontrolled, hypertrophic development in all areas of doing and being, fostering unlimited use and a culture of artificial products. Over time, through the endless variety of its mutations and applications, it has been the fate of plastic to undergo an aesthetic reappraisal in which the concept of good (in the sense of cheap and long-lasting) is now paired with the concept of beauty (in the sense of attractive appearance). It is probably due to this transformation that the common perception of plastic as durable and non-perishable is now associated with the fascination of the accessible sublime. Eternal, ethereal beauty within reach of anyone who desires it.
However, there has been little eagerness to look closely at the ethical aspects of a revolution which has literally colonized our world, the earthly one in which we act and the mental one in which we process our actions.
Perhaps we have been so caught up in the thrill of the possible – which plastic has deluded us into expecting – that we have forgotten the visionary power of the imagination. The power of visionary thought pushed beyond the limits of contingent reality might have alerted us to the extreme, shocking scenarios which are now impinging on our atrophied consciousness, awakening us from the sleep of reason which produces monsters. And here we are in the present, our own time, one in which a bitter war that was never foretold is being waged between nature and artifice.
I believe that only Art can mediate between the contestants in this unresolved conflict. If Science can find ways of combating and reducing the plastics which have polluted our universe, Art – by educating us to think sensitively – can bring about an ethical regeneration in the way we customarily behave. Through creative practices, Art can teach us how every material, whether natural or man-made, has a profound relationship to our senses and is nourished by a shared original sense: the incipit of a sensory event, understood as vision, as the source of the idea which, in taking form, finds an achieved and equally expansive state.
The artistic event is an inescapable threshold connecting the territories of nature and artifice because it does not take on the responsibility of achieving functional aims, but operates as the free expansion of an idea. This alchemical process can be triggered by means of the purification of the material in the primary filter of the creative spirit of the begetter, i.e. the artist as reference model, or any individual who appreciates and embraces the moral example.
This gives rise to a sort of phenomenology of the inner being, no longer split between its spiritual dimension and its own experience. An education tending to harmony, balance, respect and coexistence, in which progress, the evolution of technique and technology, the production of new materials and the introduction of new uses can stem our decline into compulsive consumerism.
This, I believe, may have been bequeathed us by the great artists of the past who pondered the destiny of man, who sought codes of profound humanity in their languages, highlighting in the aesthetics of form something more than a philological reading of belonging and heredity, demonstrating how it is possible to accomplish life in inanimate matter, how alongside real life we can imagine an ideal life, how the inert state of artificial matter can bind itself to animate life and generate new life, and how within this third life dwells the hope of radical change.
This becomes evident if we draw near and position ourselves in Alberto Burri’s poetic dimension, moving into the realm of his “Plastiche” where the contrast with fire bends, contracts, and stretches apart the surface which, in the very act of deforming, takes on form, a new identity, a new existence.
Or how, in the early works of sculptor Tony Cragg, the plastic remains of objects washed up on the sea shore are recomposed into common everyday forms, macro objects or macro images made up from a mosaic of other objects with disparate shapes and colours and offering a concrete instance of the Gestalt relation, based on the principle that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. In other words, the totality of what is perceived is determined by the sum of its constituent sensory stimuli, and by something more which enables us to understand the form in its entirety, recalling the principle of social, economic and ecological coexistence.
And again, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s “Terzo Paradiso” (Third Paradise) where the graphic symbol for infinity, modified by the addition of a third ring, becomes an axiom of the harmony possible between artificial culture and nature, evolving in multiple iconic and performative representations. I would also like to mention his important “Italia riciclata” (Recycled Italy) in which the morphology of our peninsula is realized with plastics, scrap and waste which the artist reappropriates and whose sense he tranforms.
Claes Oldemburg employs objects replicated on an enlarged scale and betrayed by the use of synthetic and plastic materials which determine a drooping form, weighed down by gravity, indicating the futility of possession and the fatuousness of human destiny.
Pino Pascali, with his “Bachi da setola” (bristleworms), opens up the artificial universe to irony and disenchantment, no less than to a veiled nostalgia for a lost golden age when mankind lived in harmony with nature.
Christo’s “Wrappings” in synthentic fabrics (nylon and polyester), by bringing about environmental mutations which we can experience, or concealing historical works of architecture, create in the onlooker a sort of metaphysical bewilderment.
Anish Kapoor’s monumental installations in stretch pvc transform space into contemplative space, evoking our inner dimension through the dialectic between solids and voids.
Loris Cecchini interprets the nature-science relation through technology and recourse to synthetic materials which dilate the microcosm into a new habitat where artifice and nature coexist, striking a perfect balance.
Not least, there is Cracking Art which makes playful, multisensory, performative use of plastic , with entertaining forays into the environment.
They are just a few examples…
So, plastic and plastic materials can evolve from their original functions and become activators of sensibility, vehicles for gaining access to that spiritual dimension which Kasimr Malevic calls “non-objective sensibility”, which does not identify with the apparent form or the explicit function, but with man’s empathic capacity to catch a glimmer of his own reflection in animate or inanimate realities, turning the “inappropriate” into that “appropriate” which is necessary for relationship and consciousness.