Why we need to rethink plastic
American artist Dianna Cohen talks about the menace of the ubiquitous pollutant, and what we can do to reduce its use in daily life
As she progressed from flat collage pieces to create two- and three-dimensional art pieces, large-scale sculptures and installations, American artist Dianna Cohen turned her attention to the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag — the single most outstanding representative of contemporary First World culture.
“Plastic bags come in a rainbow of colours, have artful typography and images on them,” says Cohen, who was inspired to use them as source material for her artwork more than 25 years ago.
A student of biology and painting at the University of Southern California, Cohen initially worked with watercolours and oil paint. She then explored collage using brown paper bags from the market, which held her interest for a couple of years. “At some point I added a piece of a plastic bag from a homoeopathic pharmacy in Belgium which had an image of a plant printed on it with its Latin name below. I found a deep irony in the idea of printing plants and images from the natural world on to synthetic plastic bags made from petroleum,” says Cohen. “I realised that plastic is such a loaded material. It represents the future and man’s harnessing of technology. They come in every colour and at heart I am a Fauvist; so I began to explore plastic bags as a medium.”
Thus it was that she sourced materials most people consider trash, such as bottle caps, little pieces of plastic and boxes. But this was not the first time Cohen had become aware of plastic, a material so abundant in our lives that we often pay scant attention to its presence.
As an avid water lover, eternally aspiring longboarder, snorkeller, diver, swimmer and bodysurfer, she had begun to notice more and more plastic in the ocean and sea over the years. “Then I heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and became aware of the plastic pollution situation,” she says. “As I was working with plastic bags and was interested in the geometry and juxtaposition of the found images and text on them, I shifted my intention in the art pieces to convey specific messages and make statements.”