Two weeks ago, Kim and Jack Johnson visited Spalding House for an interview on the upcoming exhibition Plastic Fantastic?, which was developed in partnership with their Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation and Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, and to see the progress being made on the show. Artwork had recently arrived and Aaron Padilla, director and curator of Spalding House, gave the couple their first glimpse of one of Aurora Robson’s fantastic creations—like a giant dreamtime sea anemone—made from used plastic.
They marveled at how Robson makes discarded water bottles and tubing look like delicate flora exploding with tendrils. The couple are hands-on with Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation’s Plastic Free Hawai‘i program, visiting schools, and giving out reusable water bottles and bamboo utensils like Johnny Appleseed handed out, well, seeds. They’re well versed on the issue of plastic pollution—the science and the ethics—and are passionate about raising awareness about the issue and also walk the talk at home. (Kim shared tips on how to avoid plastic bags when buying produce—put it all in your reusable bag and get to know your grocery store cashiers.)
And while it is an effective strategy for introducing elementary students to environmental issues, after being involved with the museum for the last two years on smaller art education projects, Kim said she was ready to do something bigger and expand the conversation.
She approached the museum more than a year ago about an exhibition about plastic, and the idea resonated with Aaron. “All along we are redefining how we use our collection. At Spalding House we have developed an innovative approach to organizing exhibitions—they are less about the art itself than about the ideas behind the art. Our last exhibition, TXT/MSG, looked at literature and semiotics by looking at art. Why not do it with plastic? Art reflects life—artists react to the world around them. Why not have a show about this material? It’s important, and, like Kim says, we can throw it all out there, and people can make sense of it.”
Kim, who has a degree in studio art, a masters in education, and takes photos and does the art direction for her husband’s albums, already knew of a slew of artists working with plastic. “Artists are activists by nature,” she said, “and I think the environmental and art worlds have a lot of intersection—so many of these people were friends and colleagues that we had worked with for a long time.” One of her suggested artists, Dianna Cohen, is in the show, her large-scale collages made of the humble plastic bag taking on monumental scope. (Look out for an interview with Dianna Cohen, coming soon.)
Looking at Robson’s sculpture, Jack said that what he likes about the artist’s work, as well as the work of other artists in the exhibition, is that it shows the value of plastic, rather than demonizing it. “It’s an amazingly strong light material that you can do almost anything with—make wind turbines, lighter aircraft. If we’re trying to demonize anything, it’s our throwaway culture and how we end up using plastic. I like that the exhibition goes deeper and says, ‘Look at all these valuable materials we use made of plastic,’ which hopefully will make people ask why we keep throwing these things away.”
Aaron showed Kim and Jack plastic in another form. He carefully unwrapped a little ball of swaddling, like Charlie Bucket tenderly peeling back the wrapping of a Wonka Bar, to reveal a jumble of plastic bottle caps and even a lighter. “This is a bolus,” he explained. “This is straight off the beach of Kure Atoll, collected by Kahi Pacaro of our partner Sustainable Coastlines Hawai‘i.” Indigestible parts of prey, normally things like squid beaks, form a bolus in seabirds such as albatrosses. These days there’s a lot of plastic waste in boluses. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, albatross nestlings on Midway are being accidentally fed an estimated five tons of plastic annually. This tragedy is captured in the photographs of Chris Jordan in the exhibition.
Robson describes her work as interrupting the waste stream, and that’s the Johnsons’ end goal—beach cleanups are a last resort. What we need to focus on is preventing the plastic winding up on the beach—or floating invisibly as micro particles in the water.
Plastic Free Hawaii has connected beach cleanups with art activities before, but for Jack, “The art that’s made with the beach cleanup plastic is cute for a kid. It is great for starting the conversation at that level—getting kids who are still figuring out how they’re approaching the world to think about using a reusable bag. But you don’t want to just keep beating an adult over the head with ‘Water bottle! Reusable bag!’ What’s been so great about working with the museum is hearing how deep they’ve gone to think about this issue on an adult level—visitors can have a conversation about the Anthropocene, the idea of earth entering a new phase, and thinking about how plastic could become part of earth’s geological makeup if we use it irresponsibly. What we do will change the landscape. These bigger conversations—whether they change people’s daily practices or not—raises awareness, and makes people look at plastics differently.”
Working on the exhibition has definitely changed Aaron. A fisherman when he’s not immersed in the art world, he has become hyper aware of how plastic-filled his life is. He sees it every time he goes fishing. The simple act of buying a takeout lunch adds one more plastic container to the island’s landfill.
Kim illustrates it by noting how we “used to collect shells and sea glass on the beach, and now we collect plastic. You look at the world around you and learn about the science, and become conscious. We’ve been doing a lot of work in schools around plastic. We want to use it as a medium to educate the whole community.”
Plastic Fantastic? opens Feb. 3 and is on view through July 10.