Discarded plastic cups and bottles are so prevalent, they’re almost invisible. Whether it’s an iced coffee cup from Starbucks or a red Solo cup at a party, or a water bottle bought from a gas station, they are made to be used and thrown away minutes later.
Two artists are trying to raise awareness of the harmful impact of these plastic objects. Using post-consumer recycled plastic, they created two large inflatable sculptures, each about the size of a school bus. One is shaped like a simple plastic bottle. They other is a plastic cup with a lid and a green straw.
On a recent weekend, the artists — Jana Cruder and Matthew LaPenta — set up their sculptures in Pershing Square, a park surrounded by glittering skyscrapers in downtown Los Angeles. Passersby snapped selfies in front of the bulbous shapes, and approached the artists to ask questions about their intention.
Cruder and LaPenta call this work “Natural Plasticity,” a phrase that both draws attention to just how unnatural plastic actually is, and is also a reference to “neural plasticity,” the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. Their goal is to change how people think about plastic, and influence consumer behavior.
Created from the byproduct of oil and natural gas production, the neurotoxins and chemicals found in plastic have been linked to a host of public health concerns, including diabetes, obesity, various forms of cancer and reproductive problems.
The artists plan to bring their sculptures to other locations around Los Angeles. LaPenta said the goal is to head west along the L.A. River, mimicking the journey of plastic trash toward the ocean.
“Because that’s a huge problem, that everything’s being flushed out to the ocean. And we’re not really being responsible,” LaPenta said.
The artists cite Claes Oldenburg, the sculptor who turns ink stamps, shuttlecocks and ice cream cones into public art, as a major influence on their work. They also credit Chinese dissident artist and activist Ai Weiwei as a political influence.
Cruder said her awareness of disposable plastic began after the couple watched a documentary called Plastic Planet, a 14-country tour of plastic manufacturing and health dangers associated with products made of synthetic polymers. Later, during hikes through national parks, the couple would see plastic trash thrown everywhere.
But it was her personal health that really moved Cruder to act.
“My mother had breast cancer most of my life and when she passed away, I did a ton of research to make sure that I don’t get breast cancer,” Cruder said. “And one of the things that I learned was about plastic and how it affects women specifically, our endocrine systems. And from that awareness, this choice in eradication of plastic out of my life happened.”
Policy activists say the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans has created a public health crisis. Visual artist Dianna Cohen runs Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of NGOs and businesses. She came out to the park to see the artwork herself.
“Some people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Well, we’ve got multiple garbage patches in all five major oceans in the world,” Cohen said. “We’re not saying that they’re islands of plastic, we’re saying the entire ocean has become a plastic soup.”
Cohen said public art like this can actually change people’s behavior.
“To me, what this does is, it’s in your face,” Cohen said. “And the thing about it is, we become immune to seeing this stuff. If you drive home tonight, you’ll see it along the side of the road. You know, you’ll see it everywhere. And people don’t even pick it up anymore because there’s so much of it.”
The artwork also resonated with Eric Gharakhanian, who happened upon it while walking through downtown. He thinks projects like “Natural Plasticity” may lead people to rethink their use of disposable plastic.
“I think it’ll make people more conscious of it, because it seems all too common to just see like a bottle on the ground. And to sort of have that like in such a magnified and large form, I think it might make people consider that,” Gharakhanian said.
Gharakhanian said he didn’t realize at first that the objects are meant to draw attention to how much of this plastic ends up in the oceans. That’s why the artists say they need to be present with the art, to help make that connection and suggest ways to reduce the use of disposable plastic.
“I’m sorry guys, recycling doesn’t work, because we’re producing way more than we can ever recycle, and we’re exporting our recyclables,” Cruder said. “Other countries don’t really know what to do with it. So, it’s refusing, it’s getting to the point of saying no, I’m not going to use disposable plastic in my life and if we as consumers shift that, then I think those who make things that we buy will shift as well. So, it’s about shifting perspective.”
The use of inflatable plastic sculptures comes with its own headaches. Strong winds require the use of sandbags to hold the bottle and cup in place. Visitors tend to poke and prod the sculptures, requiring the artists to politely ask them to back away. And on a sunny afternoon, the heat demands the artists reinflate the works using a rather loud air pump.
The appearance of “Natural Plasticity” in Pershing Square was made possible through funding from Do Art Foundation, RVCC, Shark Allies and support by the City of LA Department of Recreation and Parks. After the sculptures reach the Pacific Ocean, the artists want to keep it moving. Their next stops could include Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon and other national parks fighting the onslaught of plastic.
You can see “Natural Plasticity” on display in Los Angeles at Griffith Park on Saturday, April 30, and Elysian Park on Sunday, May 1st.