American artist Christian Holstad has been dealing with themes relating to plastic and the sea for 15 years now, long before the Blue Planet effect saw plastic straws fall out of favor across the West.
Now, as part of Slow Fish 2021, he brings his installation Consider yourself a guest (Cornucopia) to Piazza De Ferrari, the most iconic square of Genoa’s Old Town. It confronts us with a powerful question: what are the consequences for the sea, and for us all, if marine life is replaced by plastic?
We spoke to Christian ahead of the opening of the event about his work. “There’s so much plastic everywhere now,” he says, “that’s it hard not to notice it. The first time I tried to grapple with the issue was back in 2006, at Art Basel Miami Beach. They would put shipping containers on the beach and turn each one into a gallery space. While making a site visit I noticed all these bleached plastic bottles on the beach, chemical products that were used to clean beach towels. I found that strange, thinking about the quantity of chemicals and plastic being used, and so I used these plastic containers in installation called Containers on the Beach to bring attention to it.”
“Then, around nine years ago, I was in Italy, on the island of Stromboli, collecting plastic waste from the beach day after day, and using it to make small sculptures. It was a similar concept, this idea of the intended and unintended uses of these everyday objects, and what becomes of them. Then I was approached by FTD Industrial and Milovan Farronato; he knew my work from Stromboli, and asked me to make a work expanding the ideas to show during the Venice Biennial. That’s how Consider yourself a guest (Cornucopia) was born.”
Consider yourself a guest
The name, Christian tells us, is inspired by a sign a neighbor had on their door in his Brooklyn apartment complex. “I would see this sign every day, walking past it on my way in or out of the building, and so I meditated on this phrase a lot. What does it mean to be a guest? Being a guest doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want; when you arrive in someone’s home you don’t start trashing the place. But that’s what we’re doing to our own home. We’re being terrible guests on our own planet.”
And what of the Cornucopia? “In the past the Cornucopia represented the bounty of all the things one might harvest from the water or the land, but now the beautiful cornucopia of nature is being replaced by a cornucopia of garbage.”
Plastic, plastic, everywhere…
The perception of plastic as a harmful pollutant is a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn’t long ago that plastic was seen as a material of the future, molded into all manner of design objects. But that vision of plastic is rapidly shifting, and, as Christian underlines, must change.
“Young people everywhere realize something fundamental, something that the older generations still want to debate, to discuss: that this cannot continue. All this plastic we’re producing as a society, it isn’t going anywhere, it ends up in the oceans creating artificial islands that grow larger by the day. All of these are linked: the pollution, the heat, the ecosystems. So I don’t care anymore about discussing what’s better or worse, good or bad, right or wrong: the only analysis I care about is what’s sustainable or not. And the way we’re living is not sustainable, so it can’t continue.”
The change must come from below
As we’re all well aware, there are numerous and powerful obstacles that stand in the way of a more sustainable humanity. But change is not impossible if people demand it. “It’s difficult, because there are a lot of corporations who’ve made a lot of money from plastic, and they don’t want to stop. We have to be a bit more aggressive, because the people in charge are not moving fast enough. Young people understand this immediately. They see a bunch of powerful people flying around the world to all these summits and conferences to discuss the problem, but it’s mostly hot air. We need to attack this directly, now. And it has to come from below because the companies won’t ever make it a real priority.”
“Following the Slow Food philosophy leads to the production of better food grown from ideas that are more closely-aligned with what’s sustainable. And that’s really what this is about: are actions sustainable or not? Once you simplify it down to this level, there’s no room for argument anymore. Young people don’t want to discuss it; they didn’t ask for the cornucopia of plastic that their world is drowning in, but that is what they’ve been given. Banning single-use plastic items is a good start, but I look forward to even more significant actions being taken. If we demand it loudly enough and insistently enough, there’ll be no other choice.”
by Jack Coulton, firstname.lastname@example.org