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Author: Csilla Toldy

Eco-art, Sustainable Art, art as activism

Updated Tuesday, 1 February 2022

From synthetic polymers to recycling and up-cycling.

The first synthetic polymer was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 as a substitute for ivory, to avoid the mass killings of elephants. He treated cellulose, derived from cotton fibre, with camphor and discovered a plastic that was pliable to shape and imitate natural substances. For the first time in history, human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature. At the time of this discovery, nobody worried about the fact that synthetic polymers are unperishable. A century had to pass for us to realise that the need to preserve is a double-edged sword.

In 1907 Baekeland invented Bakelite, which was the first fully synthetic plastic. During WWII the United States’ polymer production grew by 300%. Nylon, synthetic silks were used for parachutes, ropes, body armour and windows in aircrafts. By the 1960s, plastics started to invade every area of our lives and the world became aware of environmental problems, when plastic debris in the oceans was first observed. 

Hand in hand with activism, artists such as Joseph Beuys (1962), Hans Haacke (1965), Nicolas Uriburu (1968), artists started to raise awareness for water pollution. In 1969-1970 Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison collaborated in mapping endangered species around the world. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and the word recycling gained its general use by humans. Yet, the warning that we could become endangered species ourselves seemed to be dystopian.

Many sub-genres of eco-art emerged through the decades, Sustainable Art being the latest. Waste in its many forms is used in up-cycling when eco-artists transform it into art objects and installations.

In 2019 I took part with two video poems in The New Voices of Ireland Series 7 exhibition in Dublin, organised by the Centre for Creative Practices, where I met fellow artist Leia Mocan, who works exclusively with upcycled materials found in illegal waste in the streets of the city. Given the fact that 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are thrown away each year, she has a plethora of free materials at her disposal.

“Plastic Pillar” is a real-life scale sculpture of a woman created using only upcycled plastic bottles, plastic bags and plastic containers, based on the biblical figure of Lot’s wife in Genesis 19, as a contemporary interpretation in the environmental context. The human figure who refuses to look back at the carpet of waste left behind, is forced to face the direct consequences of his/her behaviour when she is turned into a pillar of plastic.

The second part of this body of work entitled “Instruction” represents an audio-video installation she directed in collaboration with the audio artist Robert David.

Here she depicts the consequences of “not looking back”, the direct repercussions of our destructive behaviour in relation to the natural environment, questioning humanity’s survival chances and the legacy we leave behind. 

Photo of the sculpture from 'Plastic Pillar' installation and video.

I asked the artist: How do you see your role as an activist artist? 

When all my everyday decisions were evaluated through an environmentally conscious lens, I realised that the traditional ways of making art do not align with my views anymore. Therefore, my next challenge was to try to find creative ways of expressing them using both the material itself and the object concept. My work is not intended to look beautiful, to be defined as a decorative object. In my case the aesthetics perform a different function, it acts as a form of mass communication, a channel through which an effect is transmitted. My practice represents a platform to address the environmental agenda in a conceptual context, promoted throughout all the production cycles: concept, development, project execution & presentation. Through my work, I hold up a mirror and invite the viewers to analyse themselves thus creating environmental awareness, in the hope of impacting the consumer behaviour.

Close up of the sculpture's hand

On a positive note, one of the most important and lasting applications of the first polymer, celluloid, is in photography. Microfilm is still the best and most durable material to store historic evidence of writings, and the world’s museums make good use of it. In my own practice as a poet and artist, I combine the interdisciplinary methods of moving images and text in the form of video poems, on tape (DV) and digital devices.

Conscious of the rising sea levels as a result of climate change and the pollution of sea waters on my local Irish shore, for Earth Day 2021 I made a video poem, called Axis Mundi, a love song to the planet and the many indigenous nations and their languages in danger of becoming extinct. In the footage there are plastic flotsam, including masks. This is a decisive feature of our times and the latest addendum to the masses of plastic waste features as a warning; sadly, this is the modern way of killing whales.

To find out more about Csilla Toldly, head over to their website


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