Plastic-ocean installation in Fishtown draws attention to waste.
It’s a damp, late-September morning in Brooklyn, and artist Aurora Robson and her dozen or so helpers are hard at work amidst nearly 8,000 plastic bottles. Some painstakingly sort them according to size, color and design; others cut and melt them into spiral-cut seaweed, translucent jellyfish. The studio is strewn with bagged-up cocoons of sculpted plastic waiting to be transported to Philly, where they’ll cascade from the skylight of Fishtown’s Skybox gallery in Be Like Water, a massive site-specific installation that, completely assembled, will be 108 feet long and 25 feet tall.
As she talks, Robson continues to work without looking down, handling and cutting out shapes and snapping them together with a rivet gun from her belt. As she describes how images and shapes in her childhood nightmares have influenced the forms in her sculptures, her fingers quickly and almost effortlessly construct a giant jellyfish-type creature, the form growing and changing shape almost on its own.
Be Like Water takes direct inspiration from two other sources, the first being Bruce Lee’s advice on the benefits of being formless. Lee’s talking about martial arts, but it seems appropriate for Robson’s category-defying art:
“Don’t get set into one form,” Lee says. “Adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water ... you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
The second, from which Robson takes her materials and the shapes she molds them into, is the terrible destruction plastic bottles wreak on the environment—especially the oceans.
“Every piece of plastic that’s ever been created still exists,” Robson says. “The plastic bottle is a vessel containing liquid to sustain us. Humans touch each one of these, even putting them to their lips; it’s very intimate. And then they just throw them out. It’s a vicious, unsustainable cycle.”
In the U.S., only between a quarter and a third of plastic bottles make it into recycling facilities; the rest go into landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to break down, or eventually end up in the ocean en masse. After working with repurposed bottles for a decade, Robson formed Project Vortex, an international group of artists who work in salvaged plastic to draw attention to the huge oceanic trash vortexes formed when floating, usually plastic debris meets circular ocean currents; one in the Pacific is the size of Texas.
Looking around her light-filled Brooklyn studio at all the helpers laughing and listening to music as they work, it’s clear that Robson’s passion for the project is contagious. Excited for the weeklong installation in Philly, the crew starts making travel plans at lunch as Robson has a conversation with the show’s Philly-based curator, Eileen Tognini, about a worrisome lack of white bottle caps. Tognini reassures her; she’s enlisted a few Philly schools’ help in collecting the estimated 40,000 caps that will be used.
Be Like Water is Tognini’s third curatorial project at SkyBox, and she clearly has a taste for unconvential materials on a grand scale. She was also behind The Titan and the Fireflies in 2009, for which artist Jason Hackenwerth spent a week twisting and tying thousands of balloons into massive sculptures, and this year’s Sublimation, which saw David Meyer creating enormous half-tone images with thousands of pounds of flour. For this one, she’s not only asked schools for bottle caps, she’s inviting them to come visit what they helped create; some are even working it into their recycling-education curriculum.
“There is a great sense of a growing community,” Tognini says of the project. “Everyone wants to be a part of something like this. It’s about the enthusiasm, the reuse and the reinvention of materials. It’s perfect content for awareness.”
Aurora Robson: Be Like Water
Opening reception, Fri. Oct. 15, 7pm.
Through Nov. 7.
2424 E. York St.