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Plastic: Remaking Our World Plastic: Remaking Our World features prototypes, new technologies, and cutting-edge materials as designers grapple with a material that has changed our world. The exhibition features product design, graphics, architecture and fashion from the collections of the V&A and Vitra Design Museum, as well as collections all over the world. The exhibition takes visitors on a three-part journey, beginning with an immersive video installation, exploring the relationship between plastic and nature. The second part of the exhibition traces the history of plastic from its natural origins through to synthetic material experimentation in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century. It continues with the rise of the petrochemical industry and its impact on the scale of plastic production as well as the concern for the planet that grew towards the end of the twentieth century. Finally, the third section examines multiple contemporary approaches to rethink the future of plastic and to ask, what role can design play in tackling the plastic crisis? Plastic Lab at V&A Dundee houses Precious Plastic recycling machines and is hosting a dynamic programme of events showing visitors the different ways plastic can be reimagined for future use.
Plastic – not so fantastic

Plastic – not so fantastic

Plastic: Remaking Our World Plastic: Remaking Our World features prototypes, new technologies, and cutting-edge materials as designers grapple with a material that has changed our world. The exhibition features product design, graphics, architecture and fashion from the collections of the V&A and Vitra Design Museum, as well as collections all over the world. The exhibition takes visitors on a three-part journey, beginning with an immersive video installation, exploring the relationship between plastic and nature. The second part of the exhibition traces the history of plastic from its natural origins through to synthetic material experimentation in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century. It continues with the rise of the petrochemical industry and its impact on the scale of plastic production as well as the concern for the planet that grew towards the end of the twentieth century. Finally, the third section examines multiple contemporary approaches to rethink the future of plastic and to ask, what role can design play in tackling the plastic crisis? Plastic Lab at V&A Dundee houses Precious Plastic recycling machines and is hosting a dynamic programme of events showing visitors the different ways plastic can be reimagined for future use.

Erica Wagner heads to the V&A Dundee for Plastic: Remaking Our World, a brand new exhibition on the material that’s transformed the planet – and is now choking it

I’m on my way from London to Dundee to see Plastic: Remaking our World at the V&A. I zip my fleece before I leave the house; take a sip of coffee from my KeepCup. Tap my card on the card reader and slip into the Tube. I’m hungry once I get to the airport; I unwrap the clingfilm around my sandwich; buy a little treat from Pret, too, and pluck my brownie from its cellophane. A coffee on the plane: three milks, please, those tiny little tubs full of stuff that hardly resembles milk anyway. The keycard to my hotel room. From my window I can see the Tay estuary still sparkling in the gathering dark; seeking a breath of sweet Scottish air I try to open the window, but the plastic handle won’t turn. I’m sealed in for the night.

Plastic, everywhere you turn, so visible we can’t even see it. One of the strengths of this new exhibition – a version of which first appeared at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, and which will eventually travel to maat, Lisbon, curators from each of these museums having developed the show together – is the reminder it offers of how novel, how transformative, the material seemed when it first appeared towards the end of the 19th Century. Yet these museums’ aim to celebrate design and innovation never overshadows a recognition of just how destructive, how overwhelming plastic and plastic waste have become in the 21st Century. 

MycoTEX seamless jacket

The visitor is greeted by the strains of the Blue Danube; Strauss’s waltz has long gained an eerie affect from its association with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music accompanies an immersive, six-screen video installation by Asif Khan, an innovative research and development-led architecture studio based in East London. The piece is called “Kalpa” – a term from Hinduism which denotes a complete cosmic cycle from the origination of the cosmos to its obliteration. The fossil fuels from which all modern plastics are made were formed billions of years ago beneath the planet’s surface; in just a century and a half, plastics have transformed the only place we can call home. 

Asif Khan’s “Kalpa

On these huge screens the blue marble of the Earth faces a beach littered with plastic debris as the tide ebbs and flows, or a truck delivers more waste to landfill that stretches as far as the eye can see. The choice of music could seem like a gimmick, a bid to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, but it’s not: the waltz was first played in its orchestral version at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair; at the very same Fair, Parkesine – the earliest plastic, developed by the Birmingham-based chemist Alexander Parkes – took a silver medal, the beginning of the material’s encroachment on the modern world.

Tracing the history of plasticity means acknowledging that even before the advent of synthetic materials, humankind was exploiting nature, powerful nations extracting what they wanted from the less powerful to bend material culture to its will. The earliest plastics – the word simply means something pliable or easily shaped – were natural materials like ivory and horn. In the 1840s, as telegraph cables began to be stretched across the globe, Werner von Siemens – the 19th-century electrical engineer whose company thrives to this day – discovered that gutta-percha, a natural plastic, could be used to insulate cable; as a result, millions of trees in Southeast Asia were felled, driving the species to the brink of extinction. 

The earliest plastics – Parkesine, Bakelite, celluloid – might have seemed, at first, to offer an exit route from this kind of dependency, but led instead to new dependencies, new depredations. “Waste colonialism” was the term coined in 1989 at the United Nations Environmental Programme Basel Convention for the way in which Western European countries disposed of toxic materials in African nations; it’s not a practice that’s gone anywhere since then. Up until the beginning of 2018, half of the world’s plastic waste was shipped off to China for “recycling” – though much of it was simply dumped. Recycling programmes around the world have simply not kept pace. Most of the UK’s waste plastic exports now go to Turkey; but a study by Greenpeace found that Turkey has a recycling rate of just 12 per cent: according to the report the country lacks the infrastructure to cope with imported waste.

Recyclers scouring the Richmond sanitary landfill site in Zimbabwe, 2018

A walk through this exhibition elicits a combination of delight and despair. It’s hard not to desire the beautiful bullseye of the ECKO A22 radio, made of compression-moulded Bakelite and designed by Wells Coates – best known as the architect of the Modernist Isokon building in Belsize Park, London. There is an example of the ball chair designed by Danish designer Eero Aarnio in 1963; an orb of white lined in cosy red, it begs to be curled up into, perfect Sixties-cool hygge. Yet this desire for plastic was manufactured by the petrochemical industries that produce the stuff. A 1930s pamphlet for Bakelite advertises “The Material of a Thousand Uses”, directed at the modern man. “At breakfast, your wife pours you a cup of coffee; the handle she takes hold of on the percolator is made of it. Also the button she presses for service, and the twin light plug from which are carried the wires to the toaster.” So are burgeoning consumerism and sexism consummately blended. 

Eero Aarnio’s Pallo, Ball-Chair, 1963

That scene of domestic bliss/oppression raises a wry smile now, but points to the way in which petrochemical industries worked hard – as they still do – to promote this indestructible product. Plastic production boomed during the Second World War. Here is a bubble canopy from a Hawker Sea Fury, first deployed in 1945. This was one of the first fighter planes fitted with canopies made from vacuum-formed light-weight acrylic sheets: this, the very first British “safety glass”, was developed by two British chemists, Rowland Hill and John Crawford, and would later be marketed as Perspex. Unlike glass the material didn’t cloud when bent to shape; it kept the temperature inside the cockpit more stable; it didn’t shatter like glass, either. What to do with all that production capacity after the war had ended? Advocate for domestic use. Here are familiar examples of Tupperware containers, made from polyethylene – a plastic first developed and produced in Britain in 1939 and used for cable insulation (no more gutta-percha) and radar sets. 

The last room of the show focuses on re-use, recycling and the ways in which we might be able to abandon plastics altogether. Takeaway containers made from mushrooms, anyone? Over the course of the show’s run, a “Plastic Lab” will host pop-up events, including three weeks in November with Edinburgh-based DOBA studio, a company that exists to reduce plastic waste by boosting recycling and repurposing of used plastic. There’s a fine Scottish slant to the exhibition overall, most notably in a display of a sandy expanse imitating a beach – and littered with plastic collected by schoolchildren across Scotland. I was startled to see a bottle that had once held Fairy Liquid – the bottle itself the very same design as the one I encountered when I first came to Britain in the 1970s. Nearly half a century later, and the plastic bottle hadn’t degraded at all.

Worker at the Perivale Philco radio factory, 1936

This is what we’re up against. Two million tons of plastic were produced across the globe in 1950. Three hundred and sixty seven million tons in 2020. And in 2050 – care to guess? Think it will be less? Think again. A thousand million tons of plastic production is forecast. “Homo plasticus”, the scholar and activist Nanjala Nyabola dubs humankind in a catalogue essay that looks at the problem of plastic pollution in her native Kenya. It’s as good a moniker as any, alas. 

A worker assembling toys at the Mendiss toy factory in Shantou, China, 2020

The V&A Dundee opened in 2018; the dramatic building was designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Its slabbed concrete walls resemble, from a distance, the timbers of ship, as does its prowlike profile, jutting out towards the Tay. Next to it is an actual ship: the RRS Discovery, built in Dundee to explore the world – which she did, most famously, carrying Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton towards the southernmost point of Earth from 1901 to 1904. She is one of the world’s most storied vessels: visiting in the aftermath of the V&A’s latest exhibition I found myself observing how cutting-science and exploration was once plastic-free. Wooden skis and sledges, metal tins and containers, wax seals, waxed cloth. Leather and bone. Yet those heroic early 20th-century expeditions cannot be greenwashed, not really: they were part of the thirst for “progress” that’s got us into the fix we find ourselves in today.

V&A Museum Dundee

Homo plasticus we are and homo plasticus we will remain without drastic change to our lifestyles; if we’re not careful that change may come from catastrophe rather than choice.

Erica Wagner is an author and critic. After a 17-year stint as literary editor at the Times, she is now the lead editorial innovator at Creatd, Inc, a contributing writer for the New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper’s Bazaar UK. Her latest book, Mary and Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story, written with Mary Trevelyan, is available here. Matthew d’Ancona is away.

Plastic: Remaking Our World is on at the V&A Dundee until 5 February 2023 – tickets can be booked here. The accompanying book is available here.


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Here are this week’s recommendations, brought to you by James Wilson.

Watch

The English – BBC iPlayer

Directed by Hugo Blick, master of the BBC miniseries (see The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising), this six-parter set in 1890s America boils down to a classic revenge story. Emily Blunt, who also produced the series, plays Cornelia Locke, an English noblewoman who’s made the voyage to America seeking retribution for the death of her son, and quickly teams up with Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Native American and US army veteran on a mission to reclaim a plot of land. 

While the shootouts, dastardly villains and the rugged beauty of the American wilderness combine to make the show, at least partly, a love letter to the westerns of old, it doesn’t repeat their mistake of romanticising that old world, refusing to shy away from the brutality of the colonisers while they argue about their credentials as true Americans. Perfect to binge on a rainy November evening.

Matt d’Ancona, usually at the helm of this newsletter, is off this week. But on his way out of the Tortoise newsroom he left a parting gift – a review of The Draughtsman’s Contract (selected cinemas, 11 November)

Forty years after its release – and to coincide with a Peter Greenaway season at the BFI – the auteur-director’s second feature film returns to perplex, beguile and transfix audiences. The year is 1694, and Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman) is trying to hire the much-sought-after artist Neville (Anthony Higgins) to produce twelve drawings of her husband’s rural estate. Neville plays hard to get and agrees to the commission only if, in addition to his fee, he is granted “the unrestricted freedom of her most intimate hospitality” while her husband (Dave Hill) is away.

Sumptuously restored in 4K by the BFI National Archive, The Draughtsman’s Contract remains a movie of great fascination, beauty and menace. Neville is insufferably arrogant. But, as he begins his work, he is quickly unsettled by what appears to be a series of visual clues to – what? He is also drawn into a second sexual arrangement with the Herberts’ daughter, Mrs Taiman (Anne-Louise Lambert). Shifting colour codes add to the sense that Neville is now deep in a web of conspiracy and manipulation (as Greenaway wrote in 2003: “This film is not a thousand miles away from being an Agatha Christie story about a country-house murder”). In his second collaboration with the director, Michael Nyman contributes a soundtrack of sinuous majesty that compounds the atmosphere of courtly beauty laced with deep foreboding. The lighting, costumes and often grotesque make-up also conspire to create a brooding aesthetic that is part-Caravaggio, part-Gothic mystery.

The Draughtsman’s Contract was the breakthrough feature of a director who went on to make many terrific movies: among them A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), The Belly of an Architect (1987), Drowning By Numbers (1988), and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). Four decades on, it has lost none of its power, ingenuity or capacity to shock.


Read

The Madness: A memoir of war, fear and PTSD – Fergall Keane (William Collins)

“You have nothing to complain about. You have your legs and arms. You are alive…” This is what Fergal Keane tells himself when he remembers his fellow war reporters killed or maimed by the conflicts they covered. Yet Keane bears his own scars inside his head. In The Madness, the BBC special correspondent details his experience of living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his attempts to figure out the cause of it.

Keane displayed the facial twitching that’s symptomatic of PTSD from childhood. Investigating the root of his condition, Keane recounts the bullying from his peers, the beatings from his teachers and his father’s alcoholism. He travels even further back, referencing the collective trauma suffered by his ancestors during the Irish famine passed down the generations; how his grandmother Hannah Purtill took up arms in the fight for Irish independence. The trauma is self-perpetuating: despite the near-constant anguish caused by his experiences on the battlefield – he’s worked in war zones including Rwanda, Sudan and Ukraine – he can’t keep away from it. An immensely brave book.

Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine – Owen Matthews (Mudlark)

Russia’s war in Ukraine has rumbled on menacingly for almost nine months, and one question has lingered over the conflict: why did Vladimir Putin – for years seen as the ultimate strategist, two steps ahead of everyone else – make such a huge error in launching an invasion that, rather than bring his country renewed glory, turned the world against it? That’s the essential question journalist Owen Matthews attempts to answer in Overreach. 

After 25 years spent reporting from Moscow, Matthews has built up a list of contacts that goes deep into Moscow’s power structures. In this new, uncertain post-24-February Russia, many are too scared to go on the record – but they do feel despair at the international pariah their country has become, thanks to the doomed “special military operation” that Putin hoped would restore its greatness. From accounts of how the Russian president’s hawkish, conspiracy-minded inner circle operates to comprehensive overviews of the war’s key battles, it’s an impressive first draft of history – and essential reading for anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of the conflict.

Thanks to Tortoise member services executive, Sara Weissel, for this review of Come to this Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends by Linda Kinstler

How can the world find closure in the wake of war crimes? That’s the question journalist and academic Linda Kinstler asks in her debut, Come to this Court and Cry. It begins with Kinstler’s “nauseating” realisation that her paternal grandfather Boris was a member of the Arājs Kommando, a Latvian paramilitary group responsible for the murder of most Latvian Jews. On her mother’s side, she is half Jewish. She attempts to reconcile these two aspects of her ancestry – and shows it can’t be done.

In her journey, she tells the story of Herbet Kurkus, the brutal deputy commander of the Arājs Kommando who was killed by Israeli government agents without a formal trial, as well as the history of those who prosecute war crimes. But without “proper” trials, war criminals will have their history open to hateful revisionism. That’s what happened to Kurkus and Boris – their past fell into the hands of Latvian nationalists who absolved their crimes. Now their victims have no way of moving on. But – and this is a big but – addressing war crimes through a traditional trial doesn’t seem to provide closure either. Legal systems are rigid, squashing the moral magnitude that defines such violations. The legacy of violators becomes that they were found guilty. Guilty of what, exactly? That is often forgotten. For Kinstler, that creates a distinctive, dissatisfactory feeling of inaptitude. It takes a damn fine writer to create a masterpiece out of dissatisfaction. Kinstler has pulled it off. 


Listen

Alpha Zulu – Phoenix

An upbeat melancholy runs through Alpha Zulu, the seventh album from the French indie outfit. Inspired by Philippe Zdar, the late producer of several of Phoenix’s LPs who died in 2019, guitarist Christian Mazzalai told Pitchfork magazine earlier this year that they “had many moments where we could feel his ideas. Jeté, that’s a word he would say, when you’re throwing something very fast.” Alpha Zulu isn’t exactly fast, at least for the most part, but that’s just fine. An album displaying some of the band’s best characteristics without feeling old hat.

Palomino – First Aid Kit

The fifth album from folk-rock band First Aid Kit is a joy. While the band’s two core members, sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, hail from Stockholm, there’s an Americana feel to many of the songs on Palomino, as well as an air of Fleetwood Mac, and even early Amy MacDonald. Perfect listening while on a walk through the hazy autumn sun.

Remembering Mimi Parker 

Last Saturday Mimi Parker, the singer, drummer and founding member of the band Low, died aged 55 after an ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2020. Her husband and Low frontman Alan Sparhawk tweeted from the band’s account: “Friends, it’s hard to put the universe into language and into a short message, but… She passed away last night, surrounded by family and love, including yours. Keep her name close and sacred. Share this moment with someone who needs you. Love is indeed the most important thing.”

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t familiar with Low’s work before this week, when Tortoise executive editor Jasper Corbett nudged me in their direction following Parker’s death. Hailing from America’s frozen ceiling – Duluth, Minnesota – the band’s first two albums – I Could Live in Hope (1994) and Long Division (1995) serve as a good introduction to their moody, minimalist style. This is a good primer on their back catalogue. 

That’s all for now. Matthew d’Ancona should be back next week. Have a lovely weekend and don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

Best wishes,

James Wilson
Assistant Editor
@james_h_wilson_

Photographs courtesy V&A Museum Dundee, Getty Images, BBC, BFI, Low/Facebook