Plastic: Remaking Our World opens at V&A Dundee

Plastic has shaped our daily lives like no other material: from packaging to footwear, from household goods to furniture, from cars to architecture. Today the dramatic consequences of the plastic boom have become obvious, and plastic has lost its utopian appeal. Never has it been more important to understand the 150-year history of this contested material, known to be essential yet superfluous, life-saving and life-threatening, seductive yet dangerous.

Plastic: Remaking Our World, open from Saturday 29 October, examines the history and the future of this controversial material. From its early origins when it was intended as a sustainable alternative to natural resources, to its meteoric rise in the twentieth century.

This is the first exhibition V&A Dundee has co-curated with partners, Vitra Design Museum, Germany, maat Lisbon and V&A South Kensington.

The striking title treatment for Plastic: Remaking Our World, designed by Daniel Streat of Visual Fields, provides the first opportunity to stop and think about the nature of the plastic we consume, where it comes from, and where it ends up. All the plastic in this colourful installation has been locally sourced and prepared by V&A Dundee and ScrapAntics.

On entering the exhibition, visitors are introduced to the relationship between plastic and nature when stepping into KALPA, an immersive large-scale video installation by Asif Khan Studio. The reality is that while fossil fuels took some two billion years to form, plastic has caused irreversible damage in a fraction of the time.

The Synthetica section of the exhibition looks at the emergence of natural plastics, derived from plants and animals. Industrialisation and rising incomes in the late nineteenth century increased demand for natural plastics and kindled interest in new materials leading to an abundance of material experimentation and innovation. The first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. Its insulating and nonconductive properties made it ideal for light switches, wall sockets or radio sets and played a central role in the electrification of everyday life.

In Petromodernity, the exhibition shows how the rise of the petrochemical industry from the 1920s onward increased plastic production exponentially. During the Second World War natural materials such as wool, silk and metals were increasingly scarce. The production of plastics became an integral element of the war effort, including nylon for parachutes and tyres and acrylic for cockpit canopies.

The Plasticene section looks at how the post-war plastics industry searched for new applications for wartime innovations with plastics finding their way into homes in the form of time-saving devices, easy-to-clean gadgets, and safe, colourful children’s toys. Plastic also played an integral role in the space race with 20 of the Apollo spacesuit fabrics made by DuPont. The material represented new frontiers and inspired designers with its limitless possibilities, reflected in futuristic shapes and new interior design concepts. Examples on display include Eero Aarnio’s Ball Chair (1963), Gino Sarfatti’s Moon Lamp (1969), and the Toot-a-Loop (1971), a plastic bracelet with a built-in radio.

Mass production techniques ensured high demand was met at low cost, and even the oil crisis in 1973 had little long-term effect on the plastic boom. Around this time the environmental movement emerged with the founding of Greenpeace in 1971 and a growing counterculture seeking self- sufficient lifestyles. Jane Atfield’s Made from Waste series of furniture is one of the earliest examples of recycling from the 1990’s and is included in the exhibition.

Here visitors are presented with examples of “the plastic paradox”, looking at how plastic is integral to contemporary life from global trade, digital infrastructures, and international travel to humanitarian aid and healthcare. Contributions from NHS Tayside’s Ninewells Hospital, including a life-saving incubator, show plastic’s integral role in healthcare as well as the excess of single-use plastics in this sector.

Primary schools across Scotland contributed to the research required to develop The Beach installation. Schools were asked to send objects of varying sizes to include in the exhibition to illustrate the different types of marine litter found across Scotland’s coastline. The most common objects received were plastic bottles and lids. Food packaging was a recurring object as was rope, with many schools noticing the impact of the fishing industry. One object included is a Fairy Liquid bottle from the 1960s, which was found by Ladyloan Primary School in Arbroath as part of the Great Angus Beach Clean Up - a stark illustration of how long discarded plastics remain in our seas.

Featured alongside The Beach is a film featuring Claypotts Castle Primary School in Dundee, in which the children share their experiences of what was found on their local beach.

The third and final part of the exhibition, Re- explores contemporary approaches to rethinking the future of plastic and asks what role design can play in reducing, reusing, recycling and remaking. Projects including The Ocean Clean Up, Everwave, and The Great Bubble Barrier show ways to filter plastic waste from rivers and oceans, but it also makes clear that effective reduction of plastic waste must start an earlier point. The circular approach to design takes account of an object’s life cycle. An example is the Rex Chair (2011/2021) designed by Ineke Hans which can be returned to the manufacturer for repairs or recycling.

Free to visit for all, Plastic Lab invites visitors to explore the promise and problem of plastic and houses two Precious Plastic recycling machines, showing how plastic waste can be turned into a valuable resource. The space is set up to host a programme of events throughout the exhibition run, including demonstrations from Glasgow studio Still Life for the opening weekend (Saturday 29 to Sunday 30 October) followed by Edinburgh’s DOBA Studios from November 9 to 28 showing visitors the diverse ways plastic can be reimagined for future use.

From 21–26 November during European Week for Waste Reduction, Plastic Lab will have Zero Waste Scotland in residence, joined by Transition Dundee - the community-led social enterprise who run climate-focused projects for the benefit of people in the city. Together they will be able to answer questions on sustainability, plastic and advice on reuse and recycling.

There is also a new artwork on display. Open Source (crocodile) 2021, suspended above the lower floor of the museum by Glasgow-based artist Sarah Rose explores the limitless properties of plastic. Made from re-melting recycled HDPE plastic bottle lids into thin sheets and joining the scales together the modular but adaptable structure takes on the form of an abstract crocodile.
Leonie Bell, Director of V&A Dundee, says: Plastic can be seen as one of the most successful designs of all time, shaping and saving our lives like no other material over its 150-year history. Yet, we are acutely aware of the environmental destruction and waste caused by the mass production and consumerism of plastic.

“As Scotland’s design museum we want to look at the complex design and social histories of challenges like this, to look to the future with hope in our collective creativity and innovation. We are delighted to have developed Plastic: Remaking our World in international partnership with Vitra Design Museum, Germany, maat Lisbon, and the V&A in London.

“I’m particularly looking forward to seeing children and young people in Plastic: Remaking Our World. With visitors 18 years and under having free access, and the Plastic Lab offering free activities for all, the exhibition will hopefully engage many young people who through their own leadership, activism and care are already protecting the future of the planet that so generously hosts us.”Charlotte Hale, Curator at V&A Dundee, says: "Looking at plastic through the lens of design allows visitors to understand more about its history and why, in a relatively short space of time, it transformed from wonder material to a problem affecting our entire planet. The exhibition shows the evolution of plastic and the changing attitudes to the material from the 1850s through to the present day, ending with a look to the future to explore the different approaches across multiple sectors, to tackling the plastic crisis.”

Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland, says: “Zero Waste Scotland is thrilled to embark on this exciting collaboration with V&A Dundee. “This fascinating exploration into the divisive world of plastics will be a great opportunity for all visitors to challenge their own relationship with plastics - while also learning about its history and place in a circular future.”

Plastic: Remaking Our World at V&A Dundee is free for 18s and under and is supported by Zero Waste Scotland.

Tickets are on sale now at @VADundee #VADPlastic