In his book “Everyday Myths”, the French philosopher Roland Barthe pays homage to plastic as “magical substance”. The year is 1957 and Barthes writes: “So plastic is not just a substance, it is the idea of its infinite transformation (…) omnipresent presence (…) a wonderful substance.” In other words: What amazing things.
From this substance, excuse me, from this “telluric raw material” (Barthes), which, thanks to cheap production conditions, infinite malleability, pop-colored exaltation, and obvious promises of the future, elevates man to the kind creator of the modern world of things, it is only a couple of decades, that the telluric raw material must be degraded from the mythical being of modernity to the evil guy of today. The cozy creator who commands toothbrushes and dolls, party cutlery, computer cases, disposable syringes and skis, but also baking paper, cigarette filters and T-shirts, which are not always made of fairtrade organic cotton, but more often are made of something with “poly” in ( polyacrylic, polyamide, polyurethane, polyester) are drawn into the abyss. The year is 2016 and a picture of two dead whales on the North Sea coast has been posted on Facebook – “stomach full of plastic”.
You can read below the death picture: “Plastic must be the new swear word.” At this point, plastic has long been the new swear word. The largest known plastic landfill in the North Pacific extends three times France or twice Texas. Hardly anyone is in any doubt that plastic in its global virulence has meanwhile become the substance we are already suffocating. Plastic, this just by chance, is a vague term used in everyday life for all plastic, which can be very different and vastly different problems.
Literally by the way: suffocated. Meanwhile, it has been proven that humans also ingest microplastics through inhalation of air and food. The plastic is in our blood, in this very special juice of a faustic nature. We swim after the whales. There are studies that make the link between plastic chemicals and various diseases plausible. So the prospects are bleak, especially if Leicester University’s Jan Zalasiewicz got his math right. According to him, if one puts all the plastic that has ever been produced together into one large blanket of plastic waste, the entire planet earth would be covered by it now.
Criminals at the supermarket checkout
This is another reason why there are stories of people becoming lepers, criminals and foreigners at the supermarket checkout because they keep asking for a plastic bag. Once you stand by such a box in Munich. A man wants a plastic bag because in his world-hating madness he apparently was not aware that there has been a plastic bag ban in Germany since January 1st. It is, but only marginally, exactly the country that is still very happy to export its plastic waste to distant beaches in the south in a postcolonial way. Nevertheless, people have been waiting for this plastic bag ban for what feels like 450 years. This is exactly the period when a PET bottle breaks down. According to the organization Plasticontrol, one million such bottles are sold worldwide. per minute.
Back to the man in the supermarket with the satanic desire for a plastic bag. A woman confronts him boldly and says, “Criminal.” There is spontaneous approval in the supermarket line, which is basically one of the everyday myths, especially in its moral and ideological rigidity. The offender, who is at least able to resocialize, finally buys a jute bag. It is documented on it that he is no longer a criminal – but saves the world. If only it were.
If you want to describe the impressive, ingenious and explosive exhibition “Plastic – Rethinking the World”, which until the beginning of September can be admired in the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, in one sentence, then it is here: who visits the exhibition (which owes a remarkable collaboration between Vitra Design Museum with V&A Dundee and Maat in Lisbon), goes with great pleasure through the extremely complex, insanely serious story of a once honored, later cursed material that does not resemble any other material from more dazzling, is full of longing and at the same time apocalyptic. As Barthes writes: It is about an alchemical undertaking of modernity. It’s not over yet. Because, as the show shows, plastic is not just plastic – nor will there be a world without plastic in the future.
Plastic is not evil in itself, in the field of medicine, just to name one example, it also saves lives. Very nice to read in the exhibition catalog (in the text by Susan Freinkel on “Love in the Age of Plastic”): “The surgeon who implanted the first artificial human heart said it broke, like closing a Tupperware can” https: //www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/. “Anyone who does not unite with the Tupperware box now has no heart. And anyone who has just survived one or the other year of the pandemic better than without face masks knows: They ‘re over plastic.
Last exit: “Plastocene”
After the rise and fall of plastic, which begins as a surrogate for “natural” substances, soon becomes the material cornucopia of democratized mass consumption in the petrochemical age, they take the wrong turn (disposable items) and are finally revealed in “Plastocene” as a billionfold sacrilege, after all this, the third section of the exhibition under the roof finally becomes a redemptive moment. Utopia follows dystopia. Current research on sustainable “art” materials that have learned from their history is gathered here. In interviews that are both enlightening and thought-provoking, it discusses what it takes to get out of a plastic scrap world’s plastic misery and into the existential sphere of environmental compatibility. It will not be easy. To shorten this: Above all, it will not work without another form of economy. The cheap plastic must in itself become a price-consciously valuable material. Instead of going to the depot.
But the astonishing history of plastic, often prone to hubris, which has opened up in the Vitra Design Museum in all the necessary abundance and with all the necessary concentration, also teaches us that people have always been resourceful when economics and sociology join forces. Both spheres can, yes must, finally unite with ecology. It is still possible to find the stones shown in this triad.
The plastic that inspired design and architecture in the 20th century, as once – nature-friendly and anti-colonial – democratized cultural values made from previously stolen ivory or biogenic turtle shells, which were inaccessible to the masses, who served in the war, who nurtured futurism in post-war modernism, has changed many times in the past. The cause of the future, which could be a synthetic “natural” substance, consisting of rapidly renewable, vegetable or recycled raw materials, CO₂-neutral throughout the life cycle, can again become magical substance in infinite transformation. The future is not over yet.
plastic – Rethink the world. Until 4 September at Vitra Design Museum i Weil am Rhein.