Maika‘i Tubbs, whose work is on view in the exhibition Plastic Fantastic?, has been at Spalding House since July 27 working on the show’s grand finale—an installation at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which opens at the Hawai‘i Convention Center Sept. 1, and will feature President Obama as a pre-Congress speaker on Wednesday.
On a recent August afternoon, Tubbs was in Spalding House’s small courtyard adjacent to the parking lot scrubbing plastic trash in a makeshift sink, surrounded by piles of bloated trash bags and color-coordinated plastic scraps, which, once cleaned and sorted, become part of his giant trash mosaic that will be seen by thousands of scientists and conservationists attending the congress.
The marine plastic, harvested and donated by Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, has to be cleaned of salt, sand, and algae before becoming art. As a mixed-media artist with a long history working with plastic, Tubbs has hit pay dirt, but also knows that its abundance is a sad symptom of our hyperconsumerist society.
And that is exactly where Tubbs wants to be—at the thought-provoking nexus of our material problems and their pending solutions. More than five years ago, while he was the museum’s Bank of Hawaii Family Sunday coordinator, Tubbs started melting cassette tape cases and brand new disposable eating utensils with a blowtorch and sculpting them into natural shapes like branches and flowers. It was when he moved to New York to attend the Parsons School of Design (where he earned his MFA last year) that he made the switch to post-consumer waste.
Like fellow Plastic Fantastic? artist Chris Jordan, Tubbs isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty for his art. He only started wearing gloves while collecting trash after realizing that it made people more willing to talk to him, to start a dialogue—his ultimate goal.
Now you can see his latest work at the Hawai‘i Convention Center lobby Sept. 3 to 10. Called Plastic Fantastic?: The One-Ounce Project, like Tubbs’ geode-like works at Spalding House, this installation also has a trompe l’oeil aspect to it—up close it looks like trash, but as you ride up the adjacent escalator, a different image comes into view.
Stepping back from this dirty work, Tubbs put down his sponge and dish scrubber, and took some time explain his path from plastic-rich party supply stores into the “urban detritus landscape.”
How did you arrive at plastic as a medium?
My first plastic piece was actually for a show inspired by Mākua Valley. I melted plastic toy soldiers into a dead tree form to reference the plants that gave up their lives as the once flourishing valley was taken over by the military and transformed into a weapons and tactical training facility. The utensil work I eventually did came from a trip to Flora Dec, the party supply store on Nimitz [Highway], in 2007. I purchased some colored plastic flatware back then but didn’t actually start making any work with it until 2009. I remember that they had an entire aisle dedicated to plastic flowers. When I stumbled on it I found myself sort of collecting it, putting it in my cart. There was every single color, and when I was halfway through the rainbow I realized what I was doing and I was like, “This is terrible.” But I went ahead and I took one of each color, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but knew I’d figure it out later. Before I moved [to New York] I was sort of obsessed with being part of that problem, convincing myself to be part of the problem to be part of the dialogue.
Why the shift to trash?
When I moved to New York I couldn’t do the same work. When I got to the school, they had a fume facility, but in my opinion the ventilation wasn’t good enough, and there is no outdoor space because we’re in Manhattan.
Parsons is located at Union Square, so the school is surrounded by retail space. At five o’clock every day, everyone’s putting out their trash, and it would pile up as tall as me. I’m five foot seven, and that would freak me out, but no one seemed bothered. They would build up these urban detritus landscapes, and if you come back in two hours it’s all gone. It just disappears so you don’t have to think about it anymore. I thought, “Wow, this is really disgusting. There is so much rubbish here; I need to figure out a way to use this stuff.” So I spent two years—my entire time in grad school—just trying to figure out ways to use trash in a way that was still interesting to me, and that wasn’t just held together with a prayer.
Do you see your works in Plastic Fantastic? as more of an extension of your previous work or a departure?
Probably more of an evolution. The work I was doing here before sort of satisfied this really weird shopping compulsion that I have, that I was sort of raised with. Every day I would have to buy something, and it didn’t include lunch, but like after work, I’d go to the mall and buy one thing. In my previous practice, the plastic I was buying also satisfied that really weird need that I had. I don’t have it anymore, which is really odd. It has actually switched.
Now I make do with whatever I have. I like that, and part of my transformation with that was getting into what it means to be a Hawaiian in the 21st century. With my ancestors, everything got used. I really took that to heart. If there’s a way to make all of this stuff into something useful, I am super into it. It might not exist now, but I’ll figure it out. So I have a rule for myself that’s like, 80/20—80 percent of everything that I make has to be found or trash, and 20 percent max can be new material. So even with things like glue, I make a gelatin glue myself and it’s biodegradable.
How do your works in Plastic Fantastic? play into the greater themes of the show?
In the exhibition, what I really like is that it’s not judgmental. It doesn’t tell you that plastic is this terrible material, look what it’s doing. You’ve got five people who are working with it in different ways, but at the beginning it goes from the timeline of what that material did. I think that’s important. I do these beach cleanups, and collect it on my own, but I can’t possibly say that plastic is the worst possible thing that ever happened. We wouldn’t have so many things without it. It’s just weird as it stands now; we’ve collected so much of it. We just produced so much, and no one thought about that, and no one could have foreseen that when it first started. It was this miracle thing. I look at old advertisements for plastic as a thing that sort of teaches the American public to be patriotic by purchasing it. And it’s so funny, they guilt-tripped you to buy it in the first place, and now we’re telling everyone how terrible it is. So I like the way the exhibition is laid out.
How do you feel about your works being placed next to Aurora Robson’s pieces?
I love Aurora Robson’s work; I think it’s amazing. When I saw it in person, I immediately thought of my older work, when I was using brand new utensils. There’s this sheen to it—it’s shiny and attractive. That is the pull of plastic. I get that same feeling by looking at her work. It’s so pristine that you are like, “Oh my god, I need it.” That was also a big interest in plastic itself that I had, since it’s like this medium that grants wishes. It comes in every color and every shape. It’s for everyone who can’t afford the real stuff. All of that makes you want to have it, want to own it, want to touch it. I see that in hers, and mine is now more like, “This is disgusting. “I tricked you from far away to come up close—they look like rocks, like geodes. Then you get up close and see that it’s actually really gross. I like that trigger now. I still like making trash beautiful, because that’s the lure to hook people to come in, to make it look from a distance so awesome and inviting that they really want to come up close. Then you can start talking about it.
What do you hope people take away from your works?
So it’s influenced by plastiglomerates. That’s where it sort of came from—nature’s weird way of transforming all the plastic that’s already here. In my own thinking I asked, what if the garbage trucks stopped coming to collect everything here? What would happen? All the stuff would just be on the ground, and layered and layered. A thousand years from now, if that happened, that would be the next sedimentary layer. So you’d have to dig through all these trash rocks before you got to actual stone. That’s where the impetus came from. The hope is that people see that this is a possibility. The way I am making it is an idealized version of what that would look like. This is what trash could look like as it intermixed with nature. If you look up “plastigomerate,” you see it is nature. As soon as it got its name from geologists it was implied that plastic is part of the natural environment, which makes sense because it’s made from natural things. These rocks will keep happening because there is that much plastic—this is what happens when all of this stuff starts accumulating and the Earth figures out a way to deal with it because it has no alternative. I’m interested in these hybrids. My way of sort of making idealized forms calls attention to that, but this is like the prettiest outcome that could happen. The reality of the situation is terrible, though it’s fascinating to see plastic take on a natural form. But all of that stuff also already exists. For any natural thing you see, it’s probably already being made in plastic somehow. Like at the craft store where there’s an entire section on flowers and branches and all of that made from plastic. They also have fake rocks, fake tree stumps, all done in plastic. It’s so funny—they don’t know it but they are predicting the future.
What inspired the imagery in your mural for the IUCN conference?
The inspiration for this piece came from a quote that Aaron Padilla included in the final room of the Plastic Fantastic? exhibition, that every year the average American throws away 185 pounds of plastic, which equates to one ounce every three hours. This statistic would be the premise for having visitors weigh out 1 ounce of plastic, wire it together and hang it on the wall so we could visually see what an ounce looks like. What struck me was the 185 pounds part. I told him that basically every year we each throw away a person. So we started brainstorming how to make sculptures of people out of the trash. In the end, I decided on a floor installation for a few reasons. Beach plastic comes from everywhere and because it’s been out at sea, drifting along shorelines as it’s exposed to the sun and bitten by sea creatures, each piece is at various levels of decay. Newer pieces are strong, and older ones are quite brittle. The only way to get around that would be to hang everything off of some kind of structure. I’m a bit of a purist, so I don’t really care for that approach. I had also never made a sculpture that people would be passing by and I was worried that if it fell because someone touched it, that it would hurt someone. I started to play with things on the ground back in New York and came up with a floor installation instead. I would gather trash then lay it out to depict some kind of generic postcard image of Hawai‘i. One of the constant images that are portrayed is a beautiful woman swimming in the pristine waters off of our shores. So I decided to model her out of the one-ounce pieces the museum was collecting. Aaron asked me to incorporate some other wildlife to diversify the mural and I decided to add Hawaiian sea turtles. While locals know not to interfere with the endangered creatures daily ocean lives, there are still problems with people seeking them out to take photos and touch them. So I came up with a fantasy image of Hawai‘i as paradise, a type of untouched, pristine land where visitors can interact with nature with abandon. This image remains blurry from the ground level, but once you take the escalator to the second floor you can view it in its totality. This is the real Hawai‘i. This is what we don’t show people. We have problems just like everyone else on the planet and one of them happens to be rubbish. The constant ocean plastic continues to kill wildlife like our endangered sea turtles and washes up on our shorelines as new sand particles.
Funding for the Plastic Fantastic?: One-Ounce Project installation has been provided by the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, founded by Kim and Jack Johnson to support environmental, art, and music education. And Hawaiian Electric, supporting STEM education, the arts and the environment in Hawai‘i.