Explore the impacts of plastics through art at Arts Festival

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Plastic bottles. Kitchen bags. Toys. Medical devices. Each year, mankind produces more than 320 million tons of plastic — roughly the same weight as all of humanity itself put together.

“Think about that,” said Denice Wardrop, professor of ecology and geography at Penn State. “Every year we recreate humanity in plastic.”

Wardrop, as a follow up to the Palmer Museum of Art’s record-breaking "Plastic Entanglements" exhibition, will join Penn State’s Art of Discovery booth at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 14, to examine humanity's relationship with plastics, its usage in art, and both its benefits and its consequences.

“Plastic is a fairly recent innovation, and when we accept a new material into our lives, that’s a lifelong relationship. Divorce is rarely an option,” Wardrop said. “This exhibition allows me to go from the impact of plastics back to the beginning, to help people rethink our way through this relationship.”

Consider the infamous Pacific garbage patch, the island of trash that floats in the ocean between Hawaii and California. Some might think the issue is as simple as removing the pieces of trash from the water — but what about how the garbage patch came to form in the first place? What about microplastics, which can be so small to be nearly imperceptible, yet still pose a danger to marine life and aquatic ecosystems?

“The solution ultimately isn’t removing the patch — it’s not a littering problem — but is more like mitigating smog: it’s a source-reduction problem,” Wardrop said. “We can, and should, work to solve this problem, but we’re not going to end this relationship: We have this material that’s incredibly useful, but how do we make it sustainable?”

The artworks featured in "Plastic Entanglements" help drive this point home: an unnerving video piece about plastic items found in the stomach of a camel, whimsical sculptures made from what could rightly be called trash, and a massive chandelier made from plastic bottles.

Because she’s seen firsthand the power of art in jump-starting this conversation, Wardrop is excited to connect with festival-goers and art lovers at Arts Fest.

“Art is an amazing entrance ramp to starting this conversation, to presenting these ideas in thought-provoking and tangible ways,” Wardrop said. “People are very open when they come to experience art, giving us this opportunity to explore this complex relationship through art.”

Joyce Robinson, curator at the Palmer Museum of Art, said this collaboration with Penn State’s Art of Discovery booth also reflects the museum’s and the exhibition’s goal of “entanglement” — that is, fostering new relationships and becoming more “entangled” with the University, with researchers from across disciplines, with the local community, and with Arts Fest.

“Human creativity and self-expression are astounding. That’s where innovation comes from, where solutions come from, where great art comes from,” Wardrop said. “When people come to Arts Fest, they’re celebrating that creativity, which opens you up to new ideas and conversations that don’t really happen in other arenas.”

Last Updated July 11, 2018