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Visions of Eternity: Plastic and the Ontology of Oil


Plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation … it is ubiquity made visible … it is less a thing than the trace of a movement.

—Roland Barthes

Plastic weaves itself into every facet of our contemporary reality. It does not simply surround us, it is an epistemology and the reflection of a galling political impasse. It appears elemental; we rely on it for our built environments and for all the objects we fill them with—our toys and tools, all our gifts and trash. It orients our thoughts, mediates our senses, and shapes social and economic exchange. Indeed, plastic is less a substance than its antithesis, a paradigm in which substance is transformed into a way of being unmoored from the coordinates that stabilize presence and meaning.

Consider the recent preoccupation in contemporary art with installations that amass and redistribute plastic objects. We might think of Gayle Chong Kwan’s Wastescape (2012) at the Hayward Gallery in London, made from thousands of plastic bottles taken from a wastewater facility in Medellín, Colombia; or Vivan Sundaram’s Flotage at the 48 Degrees Celsius exhibition in Delhi in 2008. Seoul-based artist Choi Jeong Hwa experiments with the affective qualities of plastic in his stunning constructions such as Happy Happy (2010), In the Mood for Love (2010), and Kabbala (2013). Or we might think of those artists who consider the cultural signification of commodities through their accumulation and classification, such as New York–based Portia Munson in her Pink Project and Green Pieces.

These works relocate the properties of effervescence and postmodern hyperreality alongside an awareness of environmental costs and planetary limitations. More than reveling in the afterlife of worthless commodities, they disclose a less obvious dimension of the global economy—namely, its integration of the oil industry and its consequent patterning in accordance with the logic and possibility of that substance. Thus, the emergence of a plastic aesthetic is deeply suggestive of both the apprehension and excitability that surrounds global oil.

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