“The most beautiful defects are found in
plastic objects”

Martina Weinhart in conversation with Friederike Waentig, February 2023

Plastic World presents a diverse collection of works by circa 50 international artists who utilize plastic as an artistic medium. This exhibition traces a continuum from the initial enthusiasm of the 1960s for the material, through the futuristic influences of the Space Age, to ecocritical perspectives.

In the following interview excerpt, curator Martina Weinhart discusses the significance of plastics in the visual arts with cultural researcher Friederike Waentig. The conversation delves deeper into the exhibition's themes and sheds light on the challenges of preserving artworks crafted from plastic.


Martina Weinhart: I’d like to take up the keywords “history of plastics.” For our exhibition, we begin in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and accompany plastics in visual art until today. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a true plastic euphoria. The idea that we still mistakenly attach to today—plastic, it’s all beautiful, new, smooth, colorful—arose around the same time. It is the indestructible material of the future. You thus surely deal with it every day. But perhaps I should first ask, quite fundamentally: When we talk about plastic in the singular, it’s actually a misunderstanding. Shouldn’t we instead speak about plastics in the plural or at least about very different kinds of plastic?

Friederike Waentig: What such substances should be called was actually discussed in the discipline of the material sciences directly after World War ΙΙ. The term Kunststoffe was coined by Richard Escales, who published a journal with that title in 1911 that still exists today. In one extremely long sentence, he described all the things that belong to the category of Kunststoffe. The term Kunststoffe was chosen quite deliberately back then—of course it should naturally be regarded within the framework of the time, 1911—since it was predominantly engineers, who also regarded themselves as artists, who were creating new materials. That’s the background for the German term Kunststoffe (artistic, or artificial, materials). It was taken up again after World War ΙΙ, but people at that time also considered how things looked internationally, in English and French. In America, one speaks of “plastic” or “plastics”—in other words, they also decided for the plural—and the word plastique is used in French. Those terms ultimately go back to the Greek word πλάσσειν (plássein), which means to “shape.” The plastic, or sculptural, processing of such materials resonates in the terms—something that didn’t quite work in German. As a result of the division of Germany into two states after the war, the situation in Germany was somewhat special. East Germany was quicker in coming up with a term, deciding for the word Plaste. Although this term was also discussed in West Germany, it was already in use in the East, from which the West wanted to distinguish itself. That’s why the decision was made in the West to speak about Kunststoffe. That’s still how it is today. The term was supposed to be standardized in a DIN, but that didn’t happen. Today, some people in Germany still talk about Plaste, but Kunststoffe is actually more widespread. As you also said, it’s not only about one material. In the case of wood, we know that cellulose, hemicellulose, and accessory components are always involved. In plastics, we have polyethylene, which is something different from polyethylene terephthalate, polytetra fluorethylene, or polymethylmethacrylate—the composition always varies. Each of them has different properties.

MW: I’d really like to come back to that when we talk about the incredible possibilities that opened up for artists. Some artists use objects directly from daily life in their assemblages. For our exhibition, we made a lot of requests for loans of artworks from the most diverse phases of the modern era. We begin with Pop Art. In this connection, people immediately see really colorful pictures in their mind’s eye, the vivid colors and the glossy surfaces. Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and Kiki Kogelnik (pp. 37–41), and many, many others as well. Interestingly, Nouveau Réalisme arose in parallel to Pop Art, but it regarded plastic as trash and presented it that way, too. We went through the painful experience of being able to obtain loans of a wonderful number of works of Pop Art for the exhibition, but since the Nouveaux Réalistes worked very intensively with everyday objects and the production of plastic in that area was not oriented toward durability, that’s not possible in this case. I’ll mention just one example: in 1961, Martial Raysse made a small supermarket in the form of a vendor’s tray, which included all kinds of plastic utensils, and today it can barely be borrowed anymore.

FW: It should also be pointed out that the production of plastics made huge advances in the 1950s to the 1970s and new things were tried out again and again during that time, which is why today it’s possible to develop plastics in such a way that they are more durable. But in that early phase, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, people hadn’t thought through the topic of aging yet—we also notice that repeatedly up until today in our analyses when we consult with plastics engineers on many plastics. In the early plastics, engineers had not yet come so far in the development of so-called inhibitors—additives that slow down lightinduced aging and oxidation or reduce the absorption of moisture to some extent. That means—if we stick to objects of everyday use—that if I purchased, for instance, a coffee cup in 1959 and then another in 1964, their material composition might differ. Both objects were perhaps produced from, let’s say, a polyester, but the additives vary. That’s actually the basic problem for those of us who work in the field of cultural heritage. We always have to consider: Which time does an object come from? When I examine an object from the 1950s or 1960s, I have to assume that I will find problems with the coloring agents, that they are not lightfast, that the surface reacts to oxygen and, for example, can also crumble or tear. That means that when I have an object from the year 2020 in which the artist worked with polyethylene, and an object from the Nouveau Réalisme of the 1960s that’s also made from polyethylene, I have to approach the two materials, the two objects, in different ways.

MW: We have a chapter in the exhibition that’s dedicated to the different groups of materials. On the one hand, there are polyurethane foam experiments like the Expansions by César (pp. 171, 172) and works by Lynda Benglis (pp. 174/75). Then we have a Styrofoam work by Claes Oldenburg (p. 59), plastic foam works by Ferdinand Spindel (pp. 166–69), and works by Joachim Bandau that he assembled, for example, from PVC drainage pipes and parts of display dummies (pp. 184, 185). I came across a very interesting interview with Bandau in which he says that he handled these materials quite naïvely and carelessly and then suffered severe damage to his health. That was, I think, relatively widespread in the handling of early plastics. At the time, it wasn’t immediately clear that they all do something to the people who work with them.

FW: The topic of work safety first arose in the context of art production in the 1980s. You can see that at the art academies such as in Munich and Dresden, where an awareness of it was created in their plastic workshops. In industry and handcraft, work safety has always been quite common. There were many artists who worked, for instance, with casting resin, and thus with unsaturated polyesters in particular. Styrene is a component in them, and it attacks the respiratory tract. A lot of artists didn’t pay attention to that, because they didn’t know about it. They were fascinated by the infinite plasticity, were able to build their molds and cast the shapes desired themselves. That, incidentally, was possible in another way with the polyurethane foam that you already mentioned, which artists could, so to say, make expand. César also wrote that he felt merely like a conductor when using that material—a very nice description. He didn’t touch the material at all, but instead only steered its development or flow. It’s interesting to look at how artists and designers work with the properties of a material. Artists often train themselves in this field, even if they have the chance to do so at their art academy. Designers often receive training in collaboration with industry. BASF, for instance, runs the Creation Center (formerly the Design Fabrik), where designers are given advice about materials and technologies. But there’s no such institution for visual artists. That’s why it’s also important for us to always take a close look when dealing with cultural heritage. Was the material handled correctly or not? The Italian designer Gaetano Pesce, for example, worked with polyurethane casting resins, among other materials, and produced chairs that became rubbery at some point. No one knew why. We found out through a research project on the designer and also from talking with him personally—he was still alive at the time—that he had mixed various batches together. The chemists were then able to examine the chairs once again and they discovered that one molecular structure had changed, which is the reason that this hard casting resin had turned into a soft rubber. Whenever artists say they work based on gut instinct, it can turn out to cause problems for the long-term preservation of objects.

MW: What has changed since the 1950s and 1960s, since the somewhat naïve enthusiasm for synthetic materials, is the approach to plastics that we take today. We naturally still see the infinite possibilities, but also the health impacts as well as the damage to the environment. Industry has apparently improved in this respect. You hear a lot about “green plastics” now: they were developed primarily for everyday use, but we’re also encountering them more and more in the visual arts.

FW: Green plastics is a difficult term because it actually claims that plastics are green materials, and thus biodegradable, similar to natural materials. But green plastics are not defined by any standard. There are so-called bio-based plastics or also biodegradable plastics that trade under the name green plastics, because they can decompose again practically without any residue or be returned to the biological cycle based on the principle of “cradle to cradle.” They are therefore materials that resemble natural substances. But I always find that somewhat confusing, since people then forget that we also have many toxic substances in nature. We have to try to look at this very neutrally: I produce a substance, and for that I need materials, energy, and machines. Moreover, I have to work as sustainably as possible—since that is what “green” means as well. Consequently I emit fewer harmful substances into the atmosphere, also when processing the materials. That’s what people try to sum up with the term green materials. But if we now direct our gaze to plastics again and speak of green plastics or biodegradable or recyclable plastics, the fact is that we have a problem with the production and processing. The technologies for processing biodegradable plastics have to be developed further in order to produce a consistent quality, and from 100 percent recyclate, it’s not possible to produce any new plastics. I’m always only able to make use of a specific percentage of recyclate, which has to be supplemented with a certain percentage of new plastic.

MW: I think there’s a big difference in any case between whether we are now talking about plastics in the environment, in our everyday life, or about plastics in visual art. They’re surely two very different things. But I’d like to go back once again to the aging process and thus to the museum context: in other words, to the exhibition. Aging is a fact—we’ve learned that by now. But how do we deal with it? In principle, there are only two approaches. When an artwork was produced in the 1960s and can no longer be exhibited today, either I have to say that I accept this perishability and regard it as an ephemeral artwork—many artists are already taking this approach, too, and saying: Okay, the artwork had its time, belongs to a particular era, and it’s now over. Or I consider a reconstruction, which is the other possibility.

FW: That’s a really fascinating topic. Either I say that I accept the perishability and try to document the artwork as well as possible—or I examine the artwork, take a close look at the materials, and work out where I can add or replace something in order to preserve the ability to exhibit or read the artwork. There are various approaches. For a long time, I occupied myself intensively with an artwork made from metal and wood, and one single element made from cellulose acetate. At some point, the cellulose acetate fell off the wall at the collector’s home because it had decayed as a result of aging. What do I do with it now that just one disc is missing? In such a case, there are colleagues who take some sort of plastic that’s transparent and can be processed, and attach the new part again. Or instead, I occupy myself with the artist, with their intention, and with how they dealt with the materials, and try to reconstruct the missing part in line with that. I therefore try to use exactly the same material that was originally used. Even if the composition today is no longer the same as it was before, I can approximate it; today, industry offers databases for different plastics. When I still have a sample of the historical object, I can examine it to determine the physical and chemical properties, and with the results, I can look for a very similar substance. Based on the traces of the work, it’s possible to reconstruct the artist’s working method. Prior to the tests, the question that arises is whether such an approach is technically possible. And if it is technically possible, we ask other questions: What is its significance for the artwork? Do I have to add a slash and the year 2023 to the dating of the work? And have I added just one piece, or more than fifty percent? How do I deal with that? What does this approach mean for the object? What do I then have at the end? When I add fifty percent of the plastics, is it then an object from the twenty-first century? Or do I still have the object from the twentieth century? And who is really the author? In museums, there’s still not enough discussion of plastics to make headway on this topic. Particularly in the field of modern and contemporary art, things are frequently supplemented—but there’s too little discussion with curators, as the two of us are doing here. I think that we can discuss the topic of reconstruction or supplementation, and therefore also the question of whether something is technically possible, much better thanks to advancing technologies, which offer us 3D scanners and 3D printers. But in the discussion, we must also talk about what we have at the end. And I honestly have to ask: How am I changing the artwork? Moreover, it has to be clear to us that every intervention that we as conservators make in a work is an intervention in the authorship—a change that has to be made clear.

MW: Many such tasks will continue to occupy us for years to come.

You can find the full interview in our book Plastic World.

Plastic World

Veröffentlicht am: 16.11.2023