Toronto-born, Maui-raised, and New York–based artist Aurora Robson has built her career on transforming negativity into positivity. Her bright and colorful works on view in Plastic Fantastic? stand out as beacons of hope and optimism among an exhibition of works that are equally powerful, if a bit gloomy.
Last month the multimedia artist was in town to repair her sculpture Midas, and we barged into her workshop mid-repair to talk with her about her work, her influences, and the message she hopes to convey.
So…what brings you to Hawai‘i?
Well it’s a mystery. It started with a mysterious breakage. In 12 years I’ve done this sort of work I’ve never had anything like this happen. A piece of [Midas] broke off, which is strange, because this is a material that you can cut into strips, and just two of them is enough to pull a car. You’d really have to apply a lot of pressure to rip a piece of this sculpture off, but somehow a piece of the sculpture was torn off, and on top of that the tail was missing.
So I came to replace the tail, but not knowing the exact diameter of the bottle where the break happened, I made a few extra tails just in case. Once I finished repairing it I thought, “What should I do with these?” So I started playing around, and normally I would never do this—[Midas] has been photographed, archived, and so on—but when I started playing around with these extra components I thought, “Plastic is a growing problem, so why should the work remain static?”
From a technical standpoint, how does that affect the work’s label? Do we use the same title? Does the year it was completed change from 2011 to 2016?
I hadn’t thought about that, and I’m glad you asked me that. I love the name for it. I think it’s still appropriate.
In your mind, now that it’s different, does original still even exist? Or has it evolved into something different?
I think it’s grown, like a person grows. If you’re still living, thinking and learning then you’re still growing and changing. Change is the one constant in the universe. I have the same name I was born with, and so do you, yet you are not the same as when you were born, so I think it’s OK [that the name remain the same]. The idea is to give the work a life of it’s own, to give it a breath and a heartbeat. It told me that it wanted to change, I didn’t come here planning on changing it. I feel like the whole thing happened so that the piece could grow. Maybe this is what I’ve been wanting to do but didn’t realize it. It’s all about the creative impulse, if there’s an impulse, that caused all this—the earth, and all of it. We’re pretty freaking lucky considering we’re here. I think it’s wise to honor these impulses.
Many of the works by your contemporaries who also have work in Plastic Fantastic? accentuate the ugly side of plastic waste. You transform it into something beautiful, bright, and colorful. What is the reasoning behind that approach?
It’s very intentional. The reason is, if you’re talking about something very depressing, nobody wants to listen. It’s such a dark, depressing, and almost incomprehensibly large problem. Scientists have discovered gyres in all the oceans now, and as the human population continues to rise the population of the rest of the animals gets smaller and smaller. Planktons are ingesting plastic, that’s how we get 50 percent of our oxygen. We’re essentially poisoning the well by our mishandling of this material. What’s so great about it is the level of “plasticity” that it has—it’s a really wonderful material for sculpture that’s been virtually unexplored. I try to make work that’s usually suspended, or at least has formal qualities that are typically found in life forms, or light—things that are inarguably positive. I try to reference those formal qualities, and imbue the work with them so that it creates a positive platform for discourse that hopefully people will reflect in a way that they’re inspired to make positive changes, as opposed to being angry and depressed.
How would you hope your work affects people’s behavior in a few specific ways?
I don’t think I can control that. But a lot of times, especially with work on this scale—this is really small compared to what I usually do—people can get confused with my intention and think that it’s purely decorative. That’s fine, because abstract art is like a great book: Sometimes you’ll read the same book later and get a totally different read. But if people would just, for example, stop buying bottled water, or get a reusable bag, any of those things alone would make a huge difference. When people adopt pieces like this and put them in their home, it serves as a gentle, sweet reminder; a whisper in someone’s ear that says, “Hey, maybe I should remember my bags.”
Not to put you on trial, but to what extent would you say you live a plastic-free life?
I do my best, but even stars flicker. Part of this is being kind and gentle, and how much it could benefit all of us if we were kinder to ourselves first. We don’t realize how unkind it is to ourselves to mishandle this particular material. I’m pretty good, I bring my own bags with me everywhere, but sometimes I’m caught short, and I won’t have my own utensil, and I’ll kick myself, but we’re human. I try to treat it like archery, where you aim a little higher than your target and you anticipate, gravity takes you to where it’s going to take you. I also try to keep in mind the bigger picture. It’s not so much about scrutinizing every move that I or anyone else makes, it’s about taking steps in a better direction to the best of our ability.
Do you think growing up on Maui, and having a connection to the ocean drove your inspiration for creating art with this kind of message?
I’m sure Hawai‘i is a big part of it. Spending my formative years here gave me a profound respect for nature, but when I started I didn’t set out to be an artist who made work that had anything to do with the environment. The issues are almost immaterial to me, and I think that’s part of the messaging I’m working through right now, that it really doesn’t matter what the matter is. It’s interchangeable. Say the whole plastic pollution issue went away, and we no longer had five gyres of debris in the oceans, micro-beads in the Great Lakes, or plankton eating plastic which then enters the food chain, it’s depressing and intense, but if all that went away, I’d find some other problem I could address through my work. For me it’s more about taking something negative and transforming it into something positive, and exploring that potential.
What influences your work’s aesthetic?
I had recurring nightmares as a kid, and for the longest time I thought it was just me, until I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to give talks to five or six classes of kids who were the same age I was when I was having the nightmares. It turns out it’s a really common response to stress when you’re a kid. I had a really complicated childhood on Maui—my father was a criminal, I haven’t had a conversation with him in almost 20 years—so I was living in Hawai‘i as an illegal alien, and I was afraid of the law growing up. So I had these terrible nightmares that I just thought were me. The nightmares had all the formal qualities that I’m currently working with in terms of a dense collection of curved linear nets, knots, webs, vascular systems, and negative spaces. Take for example this sculpture, then imagine it being all black, brown, grey, and dark red, and you were an inch tall and stuck in the sculpture—that’s what the nightmares looked like.
When I started my practice as a visual artist, I decided that I wanted to start mapping those out as a really quiet, meditative personal practice in two dimensions. I started doing works on paper that were essentially mapping out those nightmares. I describe these nightmares sometime in my talks when I show my paintings to people, and many of the kids related to the experience, some responding, “I had that nightmare last night!” For me it was about taking the experiences I had as a child, and transforming it into an inviting space.
How do you usually source your material?
It’s so not hard—it’s everywhere. It’s the easiest part of the whole process. Sometimes I’ll work with specific communities. For example: One of the first large-scale sculptures I made used recycled plastics and bottles that were taken from recycling bins at a bank. The piece was for the bank’s lobby, so all of the employees that worked there would have a more personal relationship with the piece, and hopefully they’re reminded that it only took two weeks to get 9,000 bottles from one bank. The idea is that to make the source of the material as local and relevant as possible is always ideal. Sometimes I’ll work with homeless people who are already walking around cities collecting bottles to take to the recycling place, and I’ll pay them twice what they would get otherwise to just bring it to my studio. They don’t have to go as far, the streets get cleaned up, they make more money, and I get my art supplies. I’ve also done a lot of work with cleanup organizations.
How do you hope people will experience your work?
I hope they will experience it as a gentle and loving reminder to be gentle and loving. That’s the goal, but I want love to impart the idea that service is the only rent that we need to pay to inhabit planet earth. I would love to be able to do a large-scale piece at Honolulu International Airport, because when I show students images of Kamilo Point, and I ask them to guess where they think it is, they guess anywhere but Hawai‘i. People around the world think of Hawai‘i as paradise, and the fact that paradise is getting so trashed is horrifying; it should not be permissible. The idea of creating a large-scale piece at Honolulu International Airport to raise awareness with tourists and people coming to visit the islands is a life goal of mine. I want to raise awareness to the point where they actually factor in their plastic footprint at least when they come visit here, and maybe even change the recycling system here.