Plastic Undone: Montalti’s Ephemeral Icons

Plastic exists as a significant node in a network of cultural, economic, environmental and political interests. It takes on many roles: domestic servant, caretaker, medical support, kitchen aid, industrial worker. The material is pervasive, yet the cultural sentiment towards it in Anglo-American culture is ambivalent at best. The hostility towards plastic seems to stem largely from its role in disturbing and displacing the natural environment. If there’s one thing plastic definitely is not, it’s natural – at least according to popular opinion.1 In fact, plastic is nearly synonymous with the term “artificial,” anecdotally apparent in our derogatory use of the term “plastic” to describe someone who is fake or overly invested in materialism. As plastic compounds proliferate and appear in increasingly discomforting quantities and locations, its disruptive presence is causing a strong animosity among those who wish to maintain the current order.2 With a dominant ideology of ecology positioned in defence of the natural, our shared cultural enemy is this new artificial adversary. However, if we approach these categories critically – the natural, the artificial – their obvious distinction becomes uncertain. There are many inconsistencies and assumptions underlying how we sort materials into one or the other of these groups of things.

Contemporary Dutch artist Maurizio Montalti directly plays with these categories, and demonstrates significant challenges to their facile recognition. Specifically, his 2010 work Continuous Bodies: The Ephemeral Icon, completed as part of an MFA research project, presents a rich, materially dense sculptural installation that places plastic at the centre of attention. Employing the strategies of the bio-artist, Montalti combines his research in the laboratory with the display culture of institutional gallery spaces.3 Iconic plastic objects are fed to a special fungus, Phanerochaete chrysosporium, which slowly decomposes them and leaves nothing behind aside from potential fertilizer. This paper will mobilize the critical potential of Montalti’s 2010 installation, focusing on how the use and dissolution of plastic destabilizes the discursive conceptual structures that surround the natural/artificial distinction. By refusing to confirm the given separation of the human-made from the natural, this artwork thereby challenges the vision of humanity’s fundamentally privileged place in the world.

Conceptual Background: Plastic and the Artificial

The concept of the natural is rife with historical significance and is crucially central to the current attitudes and behaviours promoted within the ecologically-conscious global community. However, beyond some basic intuition that there is a nature, and that it can be identified, firmly establishing the actual referent for this concept is difficult. As it is invoked by environmental groups, particularly among those practicing some variety of deep ecology, the easiest identification of nature seems to involve all of that which is not of a human origin.4 Nature defined as the non-human is a common theme, even within the history of science. As philosophy of science scholar Gregor Schiemann argues in his essay, “Contexts of Nature according to Aristotle and Descartes,” two of the most prominent philosophies of nature in Western thought have the specific characteristic of being defined negatively against that which is most closely identified with human activity. For Aristotle, techne (technology, art) – the tools and technologies by which the human exercises mastery over the world – are a separate object of study from physis (nature). Descartes, on the other hand, maintains a more traditionally dualist conception of nature, relegating the totality of the material world to the confines of mechanical “nature,” while the transcendent subject exceeds these bounds through rationality as the seat of knowledge. In each case, nature is “characterized by a contradistinction to the non-natural: Aristotle separates nature and technology; Descartes opposes nature to thinking.”5

This negative relationship of the natural to a more clearly and positively defined non-natural category is typical. Nature is generally articulated in binary relation to an opposing term. Notably, the identification of human activity with thought or rationality leads to the highly contested nature/culture split that is popularly addressed by actor-network theorists. The nature/culture distinction is not altogether different from the natural/unnatural or nature/technology structure; it is also predicated on a dichotomous system of inclusion and exclusion, which sees the “human” on one side of the bracket. Nature is the impenetrable backdrop upon which the image of the human is developed.6 Given the aforementioned parameters, it is no surprise that plastic is thoroughly associated with the non-natural. It is a distinct product of human activity, a primary vehicle for contemporary cultural design and expression, and generally taken to be unassimilable within the currently established ecological networks.

Currently, plastic suffers from a diminished sense of importance and value due to, in part, its secondary status as a derivative material. If we investigate the reasons for this spontaneous attitude towards plastic, it likely begins in the mid-twentieth century. Plastic was widely popularized in the cultural context of the Post-First World War era, when American media emphasized progress and easy domestic living. This encouraged a flippant attitude towards household objects that could be damaged or discarded and cheaply replaced later (likely with a better model). Furthermore, from around this time plastic was also placed in the category of “artificiality.” This label implies that, whereas the natural world maintains an opaque and mystical character, human production is other-to and intrusive-on that natural order. The identification of plastic as “synthetic” marks it as a product of human intervention and as such it seems to open a third space, being neither fully human nor natural. In the tiered system implied by our taxonomic ontological commitments, plastic is neither a privileged human object, nor a part of the sacred natural order. Plastic is the bottom of the barrel, or more likely, plastic actually IS the barrel: practical, disposable and forgettable.

Challenging Paradigms: Montalti’s Ephemeral Icons

Through his research and experimentation, Montalti provides an opportunity to reassess the categorization of plastic as separate from nature, and furthermore to challenge the idea of the non-natural altogether. Complicating a vision of plastic as the eternal menace, imposing itself onto the natural order from beyond, are the sculptural artworks featured in Continuous Bodies: The Ephemeral Icon. This series consists of various mass-produced objects being slowly decomposed by fungi.7 The selected pieces take on forms so ubiquitous that they function as icons for late 20th-century consumer culture: the white plastic spoon, the Monobloc plastic chair. The exhibition shows the items at various stages of decay, including the detritus remaining after the fungi has had its way and the objects have been reduced to morsels. The organic remains are nothing more than decomposed matter, which are nutritionally rich and can be used subsequently as fertilizer to support new life.8 “Immortal” plastic is shown here to lose its form and colour and melt away through interaction with organic entities. The fungus that the artist uses is already present in the environment, and although it is isolated here for its destructive potential and applied in fairly sterile conditions, it actively reveals the ultimate instability of plastic’s polymers.

This work productively engages with concerns about the ontological status of different living and non-living entities, demonstrating an intimate relationship to decay that is shared by the seemingly immutable products of human labour and the substances that make up non-human ecological networks. It presents the viewer with creative solutions to a legitimate ecological issue, by presenting a fungus that can potentially help relieve us of the abundance of plastic in our environment. Equally, it contends with the traditionally hierarchical taxonomy of life, organic matter and the non-living. Through an immediate confrontation with the destruction of our iconic, apparently non-biodegradable creations, Montalti’s sculptures eat away at our immortality. They remind the viewer that, geologically speaking, the idea that human beings and their by-products are more than an interesting layer of sediment is absurd. In the constantly shifting dynamics of a global ecosystem, plastic compounds are just a tough fibre that will eventually be broken down by the right microorganisms.

Although it cannot be claimed that plastic is good for global ecosystems, we can question some of our basic assumptions about how we categorize it. There is room to reconsider plastic, as it currently is understood, favouring a more nuanced and rich narrative. As Montalti’s work shows, human production can be seen as continuous with the environment. Following the insights of the post-human and non-human turns, humanity itself should be understood as caught up in systems of value and meaning that do not always feature us as the main characters.9 The consequence of isolating a specific location or system of material interactions as the site of some kind of ontologically-distinct form of production risks creating a hierarchy of importance that could potentially devalue and overlook certain networks, materials and individuals. Places that look more like our ideal of nature – scenic parks, lush forests – may be preserved, whereas other areas – bogs, plains, deserts – are forgotten.10

By insisting on holding certain materials apart from others on the grounds of their production by humans, an unnecessary ontological gap opens between that which is considered natural and that which is merely other or derivative. This radical distinction obscures the impact of industrial production and ignores the new ecosystems that continuously emerge within and through the “non-natural.” The persistent, strange insistence on viewing human activity, including its material slough, as being endowed with some kind of transcendent metaphysical status apart from the rational structures governing the “earthly” realm does not do justice to the variety of possible assemblages of chemical compounds. Artists such as Montalti, who are challenging these views, can create exciting untold narratives that reframe dominant cultural perceptions in an engaging and possibly more honest way.

 

Pamela Mackenzie is in the second year of her MA degree in Art History at Concordia University. Her research interests include historical and contemporary constructions of the concept of the natural, the relationship between art, diagrams and epistemological systems, and contemporary vital materialist philosophies. Her current thesis project centres on artworks in which the subject matter, plastic, challenges the distinction between the natural and the artificial.

 


  1. Early reception of plastic had not yet determined its status as a non-natural material, however. See Jeffrey L. Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History (Rutgers University Press, 1996): “the editors of Fortune seemed uncertain how to present these new materials, whether to portray plastic as an extension of natural materials or as an intoxicating disruption of the natural order.” p. 64.
  2. “Plastic chemical found in nearly 500 foods sold in US,” RT.com (February 28, 2014). Accessed April 7, 2014, http://rt.com/usa/azodicarbonamide-ada-chemical-foods-263/.
  3. For more on Bio-Art, see: Eduardo Kac, ed, Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond (Cambridge, London: The MIT Press, 2007).
  4. See: Stephen Vogel, “Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature,” Environmental Ethics 24:1 (2002): 23-39. “Nature is that which is identical to what is not us,” p. 24.
  5. Gregor Schiemann, “Contexts of Nature according to Aristotle and Descartes,” Logic and Philosophy of the Sciences 5 (2007): 66.
  6. An interesting exception to this generalization is the association of nature with essence or regularity, which sees nature as inherently harmonious and stable. In this case, the unnatural is that which is aberrant, disruptive or irregular. This presents its own set of problematic issues and associations, and further points to the ambiguity of the term “natural.”
  7. Maurizio Montalti, “Continuous Bodies: The Ephemeral Icon,” Artist Website, accessed September 2014, http://www.corpuscoli.com/projects/the-ephemeral-icon/
  8. Ibid.
  9. Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013): 3; See also an anthology of essays on the nonhuman, released in February 2015: Richard Grusin, ed, The Nonhuman Turn (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
  10. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1:1 (January 1996): 7-28. Accessed June 15, 2014: “if we set too high a stock on wilderness, too many other corners of the earth become less than natural and too many people become less than human.” p. 20.