William Tucker, ‘Anabasis I’ 1964
William Tucker
Anabasis I 1964
© William Tucker

Plastic as a material

We often think of plastic now as a problem. But when the first man-made, malleable and mouldable materials were invented, artists quickly saw the potential. Plastics could be moulded or folded or cut with ease, so they offered exciting new possibilities for sculpture.

Sculptor Naum Gabo felt that artists should use these new materials to bring the ‘constructive thinking of the engineer into art’.

Naum Gabo, ‘Model for ‘Construction in Space ‘Two Cones’’’ 1927
Naum Gabo
Model for ‘Construction in Space ‘Two Cones’’ 1927
The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina & Graham Williams / Tate, London 2020

However, artists soon found that some of these plastics were in fact unstable and quickly deteriorated. The celluloid acetate Gabo used for a 1936 version of this work had begun to warp and crack by the 1960s. Gabo thought this was down to the conditions it had been kept in. It’s now accepted though, that this type of plastic will always lose its flexibility over time, and end up cracked and shattered.

Philip King also used plastics in his large-scale sculpture. He originally made this work in plastic and fibreglass in 1963, but later discovered that fibreglass tends to distort and mark in large surfaces like this. So he remade the sculpture in 1971–2; still of fibreglass, but supported on a steel frame to prevent the distortion of the fibreglass shell.

Phillip King, ‘Genghis Khan’ 1963
Phillip King
Genghis Khan 1963
© Phillip King

Other artists embraced the idea that artworks might destroy themselves.

In 1959, Gustav Metzger produced a manifesto describing his idea of auto-destructive art. Metzger believed society was placing a dangerous level of faith in mechanically-produced objects. He wanted to show that even these man-made objects would break down in the end, and humans would have no control over it. He felt that making works which destroyed themselves would highlight society’s obsession with destruction and the damaging effects of machinery on human life.

In this public action work from 1960, Metzger painted a hydrochloric acid solution onto a large glass pane covered with a Nylon (synthetic fibre) fabric. As the acid came into contact with the fabric it immediately dissolved it. It left a swirling gluey coating on the glass, through which Metzger and his paintbrush slowly became visible.

Gustav Metzger, ‘Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art’ 1960, remade 2004, 2015
Gustav Metzger
Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art 1960, remade 2004, 2015
© Gustav Metzger

Plastic Abstraction

Some artists used the perfectly flat surfaces and colours they could achieve with plastics to make abstract works. Plastic allowed artists to play with shapes, forms and flat colours in three dimensions, not just on flat canvases. In the late twentieth century, some artists became interested in minimalism in art. They thought artworks should have their own reality and not be an imitation of something else. Many of these artists used plastics to create totally non-representational art.

Mary Martin, ‘Perspex Group on Orange (B)’ 1969
Mary Martin
Perspex Group on Orange (B) 1969
© Estate of Mary Martin
Donald Judd, ‘Untitled’ 1980
Donald Judd
Untitled 1980
© Donald Judd Foundation/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2020
Bridget Riley, ‘Untitled [Fragment 5/8]’ 1965
Bridget Riley
Untitled [Fragment 5/8] 1965
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.
William Tucker, ‘Anabasis I’ 1964
William Tucker
Anabasis I 1964
© William Tucker

Plastic Bodies

Other artists use plastics in the opposite way – to make hyper-real art. Ron Mueck’s silicone and fibreglass sculptures look startlingly realistic apart from their scale. They are either much larger or much smaller than real life. This makes you look at something familiar in a new way.

Ron Mueck, ‘Mask III’ 2005
Ron Mueck
Mask III 2005
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Ron Mueck
Ron Mueck, ‘Ghost’ 1998
Ron Mueck
Ghost 1998
© Ron Mueck

Louise Bourgeois also presents uncanny bodies and body parts. In Mamelles the soft squashiness of synthetic rubber suggests living flesh. (It doesn't really look like flesh, but gives you that creepy feeling that it somehow might be).

Louise Bourgeois, ‘Mamelles’ 1991, cast 2001
Louise Bourgeois
Mamelles 1991, cast 2001
© The Easton Foundation

Plastic and everyday life

Unlike natural materials, plastic come in bright, flat synthetic colours. By the mid 20th century, coloured plastic bottles, buckets and tubs were in every shop and every home. These colours changed the way we saw the world around us, especially in urban environments. Once plastics stopped being ‘new technology’ and became part of everyday life artists began to see plastic items in a different light.

Prunella Clough photographed all sorts of garish plastic items outside shops. She noticed beauty in things that others would just walk past – in their colours, shapes and composition.

Prunella Clough, ‘Colour photograph of plastic buckets stacked up underneath a shop window’ [1990s]
Prunella Clough
Colour photograph of plastic buckets stacked up underneath a shop window [1990s]
Tate Archive
© The estate of Ann Robin-Banks
collection owner: Prunella Clough, ‘Colour photographs of plastic merchandise stacked up outside shops’ [1990s]
collection owner: Prunella Clough
Colour photographs of plastic merchandise stacked up outside shops [1990s]
Tate Archive
© The estate of Ann Robin-Banks

Others, like Jane Simpson, found a sense of domestic nostalgia in plastic homewares.

Jane Simpson, ‘Sunset Still Life’ 2000
Jane Simpson
Sunset Still Life 2000
© Jane Simpson

But the domestic is not always a place of cosiness or security. The accumulating plastic rubbish around Tracey Emin’s My Bed points at a time of sadness and depression. Margaret Harrison’s Homeworkers is about the often exploitative labour that takes place in homes. It explores how women in the 70s often did piece work from home but had no workplace rights. Including the rubber gloves pointed out that women often also bear the burden of housework as well as 'home work'.

Tracey Emin, ‘My Bed’ 1998
Tracey Emin
My Bed 1998
Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015
© Tracey Emin
Margaret Harrison, ‘Homeworkers’ 1977
Margaret Harrison
Homeworkers 1977
© Margaret F. Harrison

Plastic is rubbish

Seamus Nicolson, ‘Jason’ 2000
Seamus Nicolson
Jason 2000
© Seamus Nicolson

Plastics have never had such a bad name. Plastic no longer represents exciting scientific breakthroughs or a new modern world. Now the impact of throwaway culture, plastic bags and other single-use plastic on our oceans and landscape is finally becoming clear. But artists have been looking at plastic dumped in the environment for years.

Martin Parr, ‘The Last Resort 29’ 1983–6, printed 2002
Martin Parr
The Last Resort 29 1983–6, printed 2002
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Keith Arnatt, ‘Miss Grace’s Lane’ 1986–7
Keith Arnatt
Miss Grace’s Lane 1986–7
© Keith Arnatt Estate
Keith Arnatt, ‘Pictures from a Rubbish Tip’ 1988–9
Keith Arnatt
Pictures from a Rubbish Tip 1988–9
© Keith Arnatt Estate
Simryn Gill, ‘Channel #4’ 2014
Simryn Gill
Channel #4 2014
© Simryn Gill

Have a go!

Tony Cragg, ‘Britain Seen from the North’ 1981
Tony Cragg
Britain Seen from the North 1981
© DACS 2020

Tony Cragg has often worked with found materials and even rubbish to create his sculptures. He explores his relationship to the natural world and our impact on nature through the materials we discard. While at first glance Britain Seen from the North seems a joyful decorative image, Cragg felt differently. Living in Germany he was unhappy to return to the Britain of 1981. He responded to seeing a worsening economic situation and violence on the streets by creating a portrait of Great Britain from rubbish.

  1. Choose a place or landscape to represent. It could be somewhere experiencing the impact of plastic pollution, or somewhere you have a strong connection to.
  2. Experiment with maps, sketches, photographs and drawings to create simplified outlines and forms to work from.
  3. Collect fragments of plastic or plastic items that are no longer needed. Be careful with the objects you use and where you get them from.
  4. Expand your outline on to a large scale, on paper, fabric or cardboard.
  5. Arrange your plastic items in your outline form, thinking about colour and balance and shape.
  6. Photograph and make sketches from your arrangements.